An entire season isn’t defined by one game…but the narrative around the No. 6 Florida Gators will most certainly be shaped by what happens this weekend. Saturday pits those Gators against their most hated rival, the No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs, in a de facto play-in game for the SEC Championship—and on the flip side, essentially an elimination for the loser. One of these two teams lead or are in the top of the SEC in nearly every category.
This is only the eighth time in the series when both teams are coming off a bye week. Georgia is 4-3 against the Gators following both teams having a bye week. This marks the 27th time in the series that the Gators have had an open date before the matchup. Florida is 18-8 against the Bulldogs after an open date. Georgia is 7-6 following a bye week before playing the Gators, including a 26-17 win last year.
Before you head into the fray that is the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party, get ready for the game with these five last things.
One Thing to Remember
The past 13 matchups, 2006-2018, the team that has rushed for the most yards has won the game. This doesn’t bode particularly well for the Gators given that Georgia averages 236.86, 15th best in the FBS and 3rd in the SEC. The Gators average 142.38 per game, 90th in the FBS and 11th in the SEC. Florida has improved on their rushing performance in the last two games, rushing for 146 against LSU and 154 against South Carolina, their best performance against an FBS team. They also averaged 5.13 yards per rush against the Gamecocks, the best performance of the season save the 6.0 averaged against FCS opponent UT Martin.
Georgia’s rushing defense is holding teams to an average of 85.71 yards per game, best in the SEC. That number though is dragged though by a three game stretch in the beginning against FCS Murray State (23 yards) along with Arkansas State (43) and Notre Dame (46). The Bulldogs have given up 142 and 160 rushing yards respectively their last two games.
So what does all this mean? It means for one that the trench battle between the Gators defensive line and Georgia’s offensive line will be key, which we’ll discuss more below. It also means that the Gators likely won’t be able to run the ball up the middle. That’s fine, they haven’t had tons of success doing so yet. The run blocking by the Gators offensive line has improved in recent weeks but head coach Dan Mullen will most likely send runs towards the edge or at the very most, around the tackles. The former is an area that has benefited Lamical Perine and the latter has seen success from Dameon Pierce. But we could see more sweeps and swings to players capable of finding a seam on the edge which brings us too…
One Florida Player to Remember
Kadarius Toney should be back from his shoulder injury suffered in week 2 and ready to play on Saturday. The Gators Swiss army knife has impressed his teammates all week in practice. Josh Hammond said his speed is still second to none while both Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland hinted at a play from Toney in practice that left them shocked.
Said Jefferson, “[Tuesday] he was going crazy out there, it’s like he never left. It’s been great to have him back. I think he is going to be a real big factor in the game on Saturday. I love having him on the other side of me because he is a mismatch for anybody that is guarding him, so I’m glad to have him back… I can’t say all that [he did] but you know he did some things out there today, I mean we see on the regular but just him coming back, we’re like ‘ok KT’s back’ so I can’t wait to see him on Saturday.”
Added Cleveland, “he been gone for six weeks now he comes back in so most teams couldn't game plan him so most teams think he's just a one type player but we've got a lot of tricks up our sleeve.”
We’re also going to throw in Kyle Pitts here. The Gators tight end is a mismatch for any defender that tries to cover him and as such is the Gators leading receiver. He could be a chess piece that Mullen moves around the field to find advantageous matchups.
One UGA Player to Remember
On the other side, the Dawgs have their own Swiss army knife in D’Andre Swift. He’s received high praise from Gator coaches and players all week with linebacker Jon Greenard saying, “Everything revolves around Swift. If he’s going they’re going to keep feeding him if he’s not they’re going to find a way to get him the ball and get some other playmakers involved. Everything goes through him.”
Swift is responsible for the second most of Georgia’s offensive yards save quarterback Jake Fromm. Mullen mentioned more than once that you couldn’t leave him one-on-one which means there will be a concerted defensive effort just to stopping D’Andre Swift. If the Gators can shut him down, then they have a decent shot of shutting down the bulk of the Georgia offense. Given that Swift is a threat in both the rushing game and the pass, we could see a lot of Amari Burney, the Gators sophomore money linebacker who's also capable of sliding up to the nickel STAR spot.
One Big Question
Can the returners make a difference? We already discussed the impact Kadarius Toney could have by rejoining the lineup but he’s not the only one with a potential to be a difference maker in this game. The defensive front will see the return of Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga who have both missed a handful of games in such a way that the two haven’t played a game together since the season opener against Miami. In that game, the Gators held the Hurricanes to 87 rushing yards while tallying 10 sacks. On Saturday in Jacksonville though, the duo—along with Adam Shuler and Kyree Campbell inside—will be taking on the largest, literally the largest, offensive line in college football. The projected starters for the O-line average 328 lb. The Gators defensive front starters average 272 lb. Florida knows they’re not as big; they’ve admitted as such all season. But they’re fast off the edge and adding Greenard and Zuniga back gives speed that has been missing.
Says Greenard, “On paper, they definitely have the biggest O-line I’ve probably seen. But we also have one of the best d-lines they’ll probably see. I like our matchup. I like us against anybody. Their size will be a factor, but we’ve got guys that lift weights just like they lift weights. We’ve got guys that put our pads on the same way they put their pads on. We’re just going to have to strap it up and line it up. We’re ready. They’re going to be ready. Let’s get it.
“We don’t switch our game. Just come out there play physical. We know what they want to do. They want to run the ball, impose their will, use their big, physical O-linemen, which they do very well. But we just gotta break it. I like our chances. I like my boys.”
Florida has 29 sacks this season, 8th in the FBS and best in the SEC. Georgia's offensive line has allowed only four all season, best in the entire country.
One Last Prediction
When I just think about it, I say Florida. When I start to lay it out on paper and look at what the Bulldogs bring to the field, I want to stay Georgia. But I’m going with my gut. Florida has put their entire offseason focus on this game. Typically that can hurt a team and it didn’t pay off for Florida last year. But they’ve lost one game in the past 11 and a large part of that is by letting themselves get amped for certain games. It’s what won the Miami game, it’s what helped at Kentucky and it’s definitely—in my opinion—what won the Auburn game. Dan Mullen has proven he knows how to correctly handle the emotions of a team and use it to their advantage. As ambiguous and illogical as that sounds, it’s been my argument all season for certain games and it’s holding true to this point. So I’m not changing my mind yet.
I do however think this game will be more high scoring than others.