Previewing Florida’s 2017 Opponents: Game Eight, Georgia Bulldogs

It’s only fitting that these teams meet for the SEC East title, right?
GEORGIA BULLDOGS (2016: 8-5, 4-4 SEC)
Head Coach Returning starters 2016 offense 2016 defense
Kirby Smart 7 offense, 10 defense 385 YPG/24.5 PPG 328 YPG/24.1 PPG
8-5, 2nd year 69%, 98% of stat production 87th/107th in FBS 16th/40th in FBS

All time series: Georgia 49, Florida 43 (2 ties)

Last meeting: Florida 24, Georgia 10

Synopsis: It’s Georgia’s turn to get the overwhelming offseason hype this year. And on paper, it looks warranted with ten defensive starters, both pieces of a nasty two headed running game and their highly touted quarterback returning. But Kirby Smart has elicited questions regarding his ability to coach in his first season, with his team holding on for dear life to beat FCS foe Nicholls, losing to Vanderbilt at home for the third time since 1961, and getting absolutely steamrolled by a much weakened Mississippi team that finished with a losing record. Talent is not the issue with this team. The issue remains the same as it was under Mark Richt: they just can’t win football games. They’ll look to change that this year against the school that’s beaten them more times than any other since 1990.

Offensive breakdown: One year removed from being the nation’s top quarterback recruit, Jacob Eason is back for a second year at the controls in Athens. Yes, we know he’s got a big arm and impressive accuracy. Nobody is questioning what he’s capable of, but he only showed it on a few occasions last year. Did you know, for example, that against Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia Tech, his average stat line was 12-28 for 112 yards and an interception? And did you know that only two of those four opponents finished with a winning record? It’s no coincidence that Georgia lost three of those four games, and it’s no secret that Eason has to become much more consistent if the Dawgs are going to make a real push for the division.

The Bulldogs possess the pieces to have a terrific running game. Between Nick Chubb, who rushed for over 1,500 yards as a freshman three years ago, fellow senior Sony Michel, and dark horse Brian Herrian, the Dawgs are not only stockpiled with talent, but experience. None of this will matter if they can’t get any blocking help, though, as Georgia lost three of its starting five offensive linemen from a 2016 unit that frequently got pushed around in the trenches (though they do add five star tackle Isaiah Wilson). For lack of a better way to put it, this young line better figure things out quickly; failure to do so, and the entire offense is rendered useless despite all the blue-chip recruits Dawg fans love pointing out their offense is comprised of.

But the biggest question mark on the entire team will be who’s on the receiving end of Eason’s passes. The only really dependable receiver from a year ago, Isaiah McKenzie, is gone, leaving it up to Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin and tight ends Isaac Nauta and Jeb Blazevich. The four of them combined for 1,065 receiving yards last year; for perspective, Antonio Callaway amassed 75% of that by himself last year despite the Gators’ obvious deficiencies at quarterback. A combination of not getting open and dropping on-target passes when they did killed this unit last year, and now without McKenzie, the pressure is on.

Offensive Grade: C+. If we’re going by potential- meaning this offensive unit’s combined college offer lists and high school highlight tapes- it’s an easy A. And that means they can grow into one, too. But for now, the instability on the offensive line and a lack of dependable wide receivers puts more pressure on the running game than even Chubb and Michel can handle.

Defensive breakdown: Kirby Smart inherited a very strong defense when he came over from Alabama, and now he gets almost all of it back in year two. And of course, it starts in the trenches. John Atkins, Jonathan Ledbetter and Trenton Thompson anchor a defensive line that promises to be terrific against the run, and with a little help from the linebackers, could be much improved in rushing the passer. If sophomores Julian Rochester and David Marshall can continue to grow and develop, the Dawgs will have some quality depth here, too.

The middle level of this defense is stacked, too. On the outside, the Bulldogs are led by seniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter (five sacks apiece last year), and on the inside await a pair of sure tacklers in Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith. But as alluded to above, Georgia has to be more productive in attacking the quarterback than it was a year ago. That was pretty much the Dawgs’ only weakness on defense in 2016, other than defending the Hail Mary.

Rounding out this defense is what looks to be a stout secondary. The Bulldogs return safeties Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis, along with cornerbacks Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker, from the 18th ranked pass defense. And on paper, this should again be a top 20 pass defense unit. Like the rest of the team, though, it was a fairly inconsistent unit a year ago. The Bulldogs began 2016 by shutting down North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, the future #2 pick in the ensuing spring’s NFL Draft; by the end of September, they’d been torched by Missouri’s Drew Lock and Mississippi’s Chad Kelly for over 700 yards through the air.

Defensive grade: B+. Because of the truckload of returning talent and experience, it’s basically a given that Georgia will have a very good defense. Whether or not they’ll have a great one hinges on whether or not they can consistently play up to their potential- an issue that’s haunted Georgia well before Smart arrived.

Key matchup: Georgia offensive line vs. Florida defensive line. Far and away the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness appears to be on their offensive line, and although the Gators may take a step back on the defensive side of the trenches, there’s still more than enough in the cupboard needed to make Eason’s life hell. One missed block on Cece Jefferson could change the whole complexion of the game.

Florida wins if… they can convert touchdowns in the red zone. Same key as against Texas A&M, only this time the consequences will be much more dire if they don’t. The Gators likely won’t get too many opportunities inside the Georgia 20, so when they do get them- whether via a big play, long drive, or a big play on defense or special teams- they’ve got to cash in.

Georgia wins if… the Bulldogs win the turnover battle. More often than not, this game resembles the World’s Largest Outdoor Turnover Party, and it usually serves as the underdog’s path to an upset. Florida is the better team, but as we saw most recently in 2012, that alone seldom matters in this game.

Overview: Here we see the ultimate test of just how much the number of returning starters matters. Sure, Georgia returns a lot from a team that did some impressive things in 2016, but that also means that these are the same players who were responsible for embarrassing efforts against Nicholls, Ole Miss and Vandy. Some of the returners are obviously more likely to excel than others, such as Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. And both Jacob Eason and this pass rush should be improved in 2017.

But what if they aren’t improved? Since 2008, the Bulldogs have been an abject failure every year aside from back to back East titles in 2011-2012, and those years were each ultimately remembered for the disappointing ways in which they finished. That was all with Richt, mind you, and though it’s too early to make a definitive judgment on this, all indications thus far are that Richt is a better game day coach than Smart. Remember that Smart inherited a roster full of four and five star recruits that won ten games- which, by the way, wasn’t good enough for Richt to keep his job- and managed to win only eight with it.

Georgia should be able to slow the Gators’ running game down, if not fully bottle it up. And if Chubb and Michel are able to get the ball in space, they could have a big game against Florida given the Gators’ lack of depth at linebacker. However, that’s about where the Dawgs’ advantages end. Florida may be a year away from becoming the juggernaut that McElwain is assumed to turn them into, but they have the defense to completely shut the Bulldogs down and just enough firepower on offense- whether it’s Malik Zaire or Feleipe Franks at the reins- to get the job done. Jordan Scarlett salts it away with a late touchdown run to put the Gators at 6-2 on the year, and one step closer to winning the SEC East.

Projection: Florida 20, Georgia 13