By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
The stakes are high this weekend in Jacksonville, where one of the SEC’s best traditional rivalry games will take place between No. 2 Florida and No. 10 Georgia at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. As has been the case many times in the past, the outcome of this battle will be critical in the race to represent the SEC Eastern Division in Atlanta on December 1st.
Florida (7-0, 6-0 SEC) has an opportunity to clinch the Eastern Division crown on Saturday afternoon, as a win would guarantee that the Gators finish no worse than 7-1 in conference play. On the other side, the Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1) can take the lead in the division standings with a win and give themselves the inside track to the Georgia Dome heading into their last two SEC games of the regular season.
On the sidelines, UGA’s Mark Richt will be going head-to-head with UF coach Will Muschamp for the second time. Richt has struggled during his tenure against Florida, winning only three games in 11 tries against the Gators including last year’s 24-20 win. Muschamp’s role in the series dates back to his playing days at Georgia from 1991-1994, but he hasn’t had great results either; as a Dawg, Muschamp lost all four games against the Gators and he is 0-1 against UGA as coach in Gainesville.
Georgia leads the all-time series against Florida by four games, but the Gators have been dominant since 1990, winning 18 of the last 22 meetings. Each year is independent of itself, however, and Florida enters this year’s showdown with the one-loss Dawgs as an undefeated team. Last year, the Gators entered Jacksonville on a three-game losing skid while UGA was in the midst of a five-game win streak that eventually stretched to 10 games.
What a difference a year makes.
The Gators enter this year’s edition as one of two teams in the nation (Notre Dame being the other) with wins over three ranked opponents, and the only team with wins over two top-10 foes.
Georgia Offense vs. Florida Defense
Florida’s defense is one of the best in the country.
The Gators enter this week ranked seventh nationally in total defense, holding opponents to 281 yards per game and only 4.1 yards per play. Florida’s defensive performance was excellent last weekend against South Carolina – so good, in fact, that the UF offense was able to put up 44 points in the win without reaching the 200-yard mark in total yardage.
Florida forced four turnovers against USC on defense and special teams, and the Gators’ offense was set up inside the Gamecocks’ 30-yard line for two-thirds of their scoring drives. On the season, Florida is plus-11 in turnover margin thanks to 15 forced turnovers.
Georgia is at its best offensively when it’s churning out big plays on the ground. The "Gurshall" tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall has combined for 1,110 yards and 14 scores this year. Along with standout quarterback Aaron Murray, the duo is a big reason that the Dawgs lead the SEC in plays of over 20 yards.
UGA has broken off 50 such plays in 2012 (18 runs, 32 passes), including 24 of 30-plus yards and 14 of 40-plus. On the other hand, the Gators have been very successful at limiting opponents’ big plays this season (only four plays of 30 yards or more). Something has got to give in this regard.
Georgia has not looked like the same team offensively in the past two weeks, dropping off significantly from their production in the first five games. In a loss at USC and a close win at Kentucky UGA averaged 15.5 points per game (compared to 48 in games one through five) and Gurshall only managed 73 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry (compared to 158 and 6.8 previously).
Things won’t get any easier against the Gators. The front seven has been stellar, led on the defensive line by standouts Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd, and safety Matt Elam has established himself as one of the premiere defensive backs in the nation with his ball-hawking skills and knack for making big plays.
Fortunately for UGA, it has one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the land at the helm. Murray is in the top-10 nationally in efficiency (168.3 rating) and yards per attempt (9.6) while throwing 16 touchdowns for the Dawgs.
The Gators will be in good shape if they can limit UGA’s big plays and force Murray to shoulder the load through the air with wide-outs Tavarres King, Malcolm Brown and Michael Bennett. Ground production will be critical for Georgia, because if the Gurshall boys get it going, the offense is usually clicking on all cylinders.
Florida Offense vs. Georgia Defense
Unlike the Georgia offense, Florida’s attack has not been very explosive. The Gators are near the bottom of the SEC in plays of 20 yards or more, and have only produced 13 such plays on passes this year.
So far, though, it hasn’t mattered.
The Gators have proven to be one of the most physical teams in the SEC, relying on a strong running game and timely, smart play from sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel has not been asked to throw much (UF hasn’t needed him to), but he has shown an ability to make intelligent passes and stay calm under pressure when he does.
Looking at last week’s offensive numbers, one would hardly believe that Florida ran away from South Carolina to a 33-point blowout; the Gators registered just 183 total yards (3.0 yards per play) on the afternoon. But what Florida did do well was take advantage of short fields that its defense and special teams provided.
Although Driskel only threw for 93 yards, he connected on four touchdown passes and played turnover free football. Driskel has only thrown one interception all year, making him one of three SEC QBs remaining with a zero or one in the interception column, along with AJ McCarron of Alabama (0) and Tyler Russell of Mississippi State (1). Not coincidentally, all three of those quarterbacks play for undefeated teams.
Florida’s rushing attack has been methodical in wearing down opposing defenses. The Gators play at a slow pace, pounding away behind a physically imposing line. Running back Mike Gillislee is fifth in the SEC in yards per game. The senior has been a work horse for UF, carrying the ball more than any other player in the league.
All of this is evidence that Florida imposes its will on opponents. Defenses know the run is coming, but the Gators pound the football again and again until they find success. And they find it just about every week.
Versatile athlete Trey Burton has also been a factor on the ground, featured mostly out of the wildcat formation. Burton has been effective with just under eight yards per carry, and Driskel has added 321 yards with his legs.
Georgia has struggled to defend the type of rushing attack that it will see from the Gators. UGA has given up over 100 yards on the ground in all seven games this year, and it has given up an average of 211 yards per game over its last three contests (two narrow victories and one blowout loss). Kentucky ran for 206 on the Dawgs last week after they surrendered 230 at USC.
The Bulldogs should receive a boost from the return of All-SEC linebacker Jarvis Jones, who missed last week’s game with an ankle injury. Jones was recently named a finalist for the Butkus Award for the country’s top ’backer. Fellow linebacker Amarlo Herrera and DB Shawn Williams have registered over 50 tackles for Georgia this season, and their support against the run this week will be important.
Expect Georgia to load up the box to defend the run in hopes of making Driskel beat them with his arm. Driskel has not had to do that yet this season, but slowing down the Gators’ rushing attack will be a very difficult task. The Dawgs can avoid allowing prolonged drives by stepping up their third down defense, an area that the Gators have not excelled in this season (39 percent conversion rate).
Florida was boosted by game-changing plays on special teams last week.
The Gators forced two fumbles that resulted in great field position and easy scores in their win over South Carolina, and Floyd managed to get a paw up to block a field goal in the win as well. Punter Kyle Christy, who has emerged as one of the nation’s best, blasted seven punts for 50-plus yards to flip the field on the Gamecocks.
Christy has been a consistent weapon for the Gators even despite averaging more punts per game (5.1) than anyone in the SEC. Georgia’s Collin Barber has not been as potent for the Dawgs, averaging less than 40 yards per punt so far this year. Barber did manage to pin Kentucky inside its 20-yard line once last week.
Kickers Caleb Sturgis of Florida and Marshall Morgan of Georgia have been solid in 2012. Sturgis has connected on 12-of-14 field goal attempts (85.7 percent success rate) while Marshall has hit five of his six (83.3 percent) on the year. If the game comes down to a late field goal for either team, each has a capable kicker to bring them home.
Andre Debose (25) and Malcolm Mitchell (23) are each averaging over 20 yards per kick return on the year.