GAME EIGHT: vs. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Coach: Mark Richt, 15th year (136-48)
2014 record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC), def. Louisville in Belk Bowl
Last meeting: Florida 38, Georgia 20 (2014)
All time series: Georgia, 49-41-2
Streak: Florida 1
The skinny: Georgia is, uh, a rival. A big one. Florida has had the Bulldogs’ number the past quarter century, winning 19 of the last 25, but Georgia has won three of the last four. So this is a pretty big swing game in the series. Overall, Georgia is a pretty solid program, boasting two national championships. However, they haven’t won one since 1980. Mark Richt was supposed to guide them back to that stage, but never did. And now Georgia is stuck in a level of mediocrity, as a consistent eight game winner but with a ceiling of an SEC Championship Game appearance- which they haven’t won since 2005, or been to since 2012. Whoops.
Nonetheless, Georgia is thought to be the favorite to win the SEC East this year. The Bulldogs get this hype every year, it seems, and then after a few years of failing to realize their projected potential, Mark Richt’s job is suddenly considered to be in jeopardy. It’s a truly hilarious cycle to behold, even if those rumors aren’t even close to being true. Unless, of course, you’re a Georgia fan.
Rivalry tone: Um, pretty heated. Whereas Florida-LSU is a rivalry built on mostly respect, there’s legitimate hatred currently boiling from both sides of this rivalry. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is one of the most heated rivalries in all of college football with a long tradition of heartbreak and excitement, let’s just say that. The two teams hate each other, and always will after Georgia’s end zone dance of 2007 and Florida’s 49-10 and “I’m gonna use all my timeouts to make you sit there and take it for that much longer” response in 2008. There’s a distinction between dislike and hate, and it’s important to note it here. Florida and Auburn dislike each other. Florida and Miami dislike each other. Florida and Ohio State dislike each other. Florida and Georgia hate each other.
See the hyperlinked article in the previous paragraph for the full blow by blow, but I’ll give you the short version here: this game means more than life itself to some folks. No, really. It’s so bad that people have literally died over this game. Who says two teams from different states can’t hate each other like in state rivals do? This game has seen more naughty behavior than Florida, FSU and Miami have exhibited against each other combined. Shamelessly calling trick plays with a 45-17 fourth quarter lead? Check. An entire team storming the field and parting in the end zone en masse in the middle of the game? Check. A coach calling all his remaining timeouts to rub in the fact that his team was winning 49-10? Check. A defensive coordinator screaming at a kicker that “you’re gonna f*ckin’ choke!” as he was about to attempt a game winning field goal? Check. And then there are the fights, which are as much a guarantee to happen each year as a sunset.
It’s mean. It’s physical. It’s nasty. It’s heated. It’s intense. It’s Florida-Georgia.
Returning starters: 6
The first order of business for new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is to find a quarterback. Brice Ramsey is my bet to start, but Faton Bauta and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert will get their opportunities as well. Ramsey has the best arm of the three, but Lambert has experience working in his favor as a two year starter at UVA. Schottenheimer and Richt have each said that there’s no rush to pick a starter, and that the battle could last deep into fall camp.
But whoever the QB is will have an outstanding running game to lean on. Nick Chubb (1,547 rushing yards last year) was outstanding in a backup role to Todd Gurley last year, and he was even better as the full time starter while Gurley was suspended and later injured. Behind him, there’s highly touted sophomore Sony Michel, plus Keith Marshall, the other piece of the “Gurshall” tandem Georgia created in 2012. Both run with lightning to complement the thunder Chubb brings (although that’s kind of a cop-out, as Chubb runs with a little bit of everything). And to make things harder for Florida, they’re running behind a solid offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago, most notably all-SEC selection Greg Pyke.
The wide receiver corps has talent, but little production has come out of it. Malcom Mitchell has made some big plays throughout his career, but injuries have severely limited his output. Behind him, it’s a bit shaky. It’s going to be up to Kenny Towns, Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie to step up and make some plays in the passing game, because if they don’t, the Bulldogs are in major trouble. But Georgia’s passing game has generally been a plus throughout Richt’s tenure in Athens, so Bulldog fans can at least lean on that.
Offensive Grade: B+. Don’t be fooled by the low number of returning starters. Georgia will have a good offense because of its running game (deep stable of talented backs plus a good offensive line) alone. Whether it’s good or great depends on what kind of QB play they get.
Returning starters: 7
Georgia’s defense is young in some spots and experienced in others, but the net result should reflect much more on the latter than the former. The defensive line is where Georgia could have some problems. The Bulldogs return DT Sterling Bailey, but they’ll be counting on highly touted freshman Trent Thompson right away due to the losses of three key linemen from last year. Georgia had some major problems stopping the run last year (like against Florida) despite making overall improvements under Jeremy Pruitt; that cannot happen again if Georgia is to have any chance to win the SEC East.
The middle level should be fantastic, though. Georgia does lose two top linebackers in Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, but Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Jordan Jenkins give the Bulldogs a more than competent trio of starting linebackers. Georgia could have all three vying for all-SEC honors by season’s end, and Jenkins and Floyd could both be first round picks in this year’s NFL Draft. The Bulldogs also got a nice addition to their depth chart by picking up UAB transfer Jake Ganus after the Blazers shut their football program down.
The Bulldogs’ secondary will also be a major strength. Other than Damian Swann, Georgia returns its entire defensive backfield. Aaron Davis, Reggie Wilkerson and Devin Bowman all return from last year, and all figure to get some playing time at corner. Bowman has been through the wars of the SEC, while the others are young but are quick, physical players with good instincts, and so Georgia should be good back there. Returning safeties Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger won’t hurt, either.
Defensive Grade: A-. Inconsistent defensive performances have killed Georgia in past seasons. But the Bulldogs improved gradually under Jeremy Pruitt in his first year, and should only be better in his second year. Especially with that linebacker group.
Georgia wins if… The Bulldogs get some big yardage through the air. That’s a tall order for the Bulldogs given the tremendous Gator secondary, but that’s the only way they’ll win. Nick Chubb is going to get his yards. That’s almost a given. But as we saw last year, Chubb alone isn’t enough to win games. He ran for 156 yards against the Gators and yet the Bulldogs lost 38-20, and it was only that close because Georgia scored in the waning seconds. He needs a functioning passing game alongside him. Georgia’s got to get some production out of whoever their QB is, which also means that their talented yet unproven group of receivers needs to do something.
Florida wins if… The Gators can harass Georgia’s QB and force some mistakes. Turnovers have been the Bulldogs’ downfall time and again in this series, and would have been as recently as 2012 if Muschamp’s team knew what to do with them. Florida has a great shot to win the game if the Bulldogs aren’t able to throw the ball much, but forcing turnovers means taking the ball out of Chubb’s hands, too. It’s just not practical to expect another insane rushing performance like the one we saw last year, but creating turnovers decreases the amount Florida will need out of its backs, too. So it’s on you, Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, and co. to force mistakes. And it’s on you, Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Tabor and co. to grab them (and, well, the entire team if we’re talking about a fumble).
Three things to watch for:
1) Florida beat Georgia last year despite Treon Harris completing just three passes. Something tells me that won’t happen again. Georgia’s run defense appears to be the weaker of the Bulldogs’ run/pass defenses because of the questions on the defensive line, but I’m extremely curious to see how much Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier decide to put the ball in the air. If Will Grier is able to have success throwing against Georgia, it will force the Bulldogs to back off the line of scrimmage, which should make it slightly easier for Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett to run behind the offensive line.
2) Go back and scroll through decades of Florida-Georgia game recaps. The loser of this game almost always does something stupid and/or self destructive to lose. Florida turned it over six times in the ugly 2012 game, the last of which was a fatal fumble into the end zone by Jordan Reed as Florida was driving for the tying score. Georgia turned it over four times in its 2008, 2009 and 2010 losses, and five in its 2006 defeat. A facemask penalty on Darious Cummings sealed the Georgia win in 2013. Etc. It’s always something. What’s it going to be this year?
3) Can Georgia’s offensive line stave off the Gators’ front seven? Florida has a great shot to win if they can shut down the passing game, but if they can invade the backfield, period, Georgia’s really in trouble. I’m anxious to see how aggressive Geoff Collins will be. I have a feeling he’s going to try to stack the box and clog the running lanes to make things difficult for Chubb, and take his chances with Hargreaves and Tabor playing tight bump n run coverage. If the Bulldogs can’t handle the Gator rush, Collins will keep applying it until Georgia finds a way to beat it.
Georgia overall grade: B+. Georgia falls into that “good, not great” category I like to throw a lot of teams in in the preseason. They’ll probably be ranked somewhere between 5-15 at the end of the year. But their running game is good enough to give even the best defenses fits.
Overview: And now it’s time for the fun part of my job: predicting the outcome of a game that history tells us is impossible to predict. Georgia appears to be the better team this year on paper; they also appeared to be better last year, yet Florida destroyed them and killed their national championship dreams. For a rivalry game like this, records, facts, and stats get flung out the window. The craziest things tend to happen in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and to have a chance at accurately predicting the outcome of this game, you have to go rogue.
These are the facts: Georgia has a good ground game, one that can utilize up to three different backs to do the dirty work. Georgia does not have much proven production in the passing game beyond Malcom Mitchell. Florida has a tremendous secondary, and a very good front seven to form a defense that’s more than capable of shutting down the best offenses. Florida’s offense is breaking in several new starters, but it figures to gradually improve throughout Jim McElwain’s first year. And Georgia’s defense is a bit shaky on the defensive line, but very stout overall. So what figures to result when the teams play is an ugly, chippy slugfest, maybe one that features a slew of self inflicted wounds like the 2012 game.
But if I’ve got my season projections correct at this point, the Gators will be 4-3. McElwain’s first season will be teetering on the brink of disaster with a loss in this game. Florida will have lost three straight close games in heartbreaking fashion, and with the season unraveling, will be desperately looking for something to salvage the year. Like a win over Georgia. And thanks to a few costly turnovers the Gators’ ferocious front will cause, they’ll get it.
Projection: Florida 26, Georgia 20