By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – The annual showdown between Florida and Georgia in Jacksonville has been a pivotal matchup in the SEC Eastern division battle for years. While this year’s battle takes on a bit of a different feel, it will still have big-time implications on the race for Eastern Division crown.
Unlike last year’s contest, which featured two top-10 teams boasting unbeaten conference records, the Bulldogs (4-3, 3-2 SEC) and Gators (4-3, 3-2) come into this year’s renewal battered and in similarly desperate situations. Each team has lost a pair of conference games, including mutual losses to division leader Missouri, and the course of each team’s season has been dramatically changed by injuries to major contributors.
“Both teams are 4-3 and both of us have two losses in league play,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “Both of us lost a game out of conference and then lost the last two games. Both teams have had a lot of injury issues and both are fighting to try to stay in the race for the East.”
While Mizzou holds the keys to the bus in the division race, the Tigers’ loss to South Carolina last weekend was a speed bump that prevented them from pulling away from the Gamecocks, Gators and Bulldogs in the hunt for Atlanta. Missouri still has four conference games remaining, including a season-ending tilt against No. 12 Texas A&M, so the winner of this weekend’s game at EverBank Field could have new life in the fight for the division.
“I think it definitely helped a little and gave us some more hope, but I always had hope,” UGA linebacker Amarlo Herrera said in reference to Mizzou’s recent loss. “We still have to do what we have to do and go out there and take care of our business.”
To take care of business on Saturday, Georgia will need a solid performance from its wounded offense, which is particularly thin at receiver. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the Gators’ defense has been stung by injuries as well – most notably on the d-line – and starting running back Todd Gurley will return to the lineup after missing three games with an ankle injury.
As Will Muschamp noted at his weekly presser on Monday, neither team is coming into this game feeling sorry for itself despite a rash of injuries on both sides.
“That’s part of the game,” Muschamp said. “Injuries are a part of it – you just strap up with who you have and move forward.”
The Florida defense will be hoping to improve upon its last performance at Mizzou, when it had its worst outing of the 2013 season in a 36-17 defeat. Although the Gators have felt the effects of losing defensive tackle Dominique Easley for the season along with a slew of other less serious ailments, UF still ranks among the nation’s best defensive units. Florida’s ‘D’ is still in the nation’s top 10 in the four major statistical categories, but it will try to reverse a trend of increased yards per play averages for opponents; in UF’s last three games, it has surrendered 3.82, 5.84, and then 6.85 yards per play.
Offensively, the Gators figure to feature more of their young running back Kelvin Taylor, who has impressed in limited playing time thus far. Taylor has run for 6.1 yards per carry this season and keyed Florida’s best drive of the day against Missouri on Oct. 19 with several strong runs.
“He’s a guy that can certainly do some things in the run game,” Muschamp said of his freshman back. “He’s got great vision and great instincts in the run game. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Kelvin and what he’s doing but again, he’s earned this opportunity.”
Although the game won’t serve as a de facto division title game as it did a season ago, Florida and Georgia will have plenty of motivation to notch a win after a bye this weekend, although players really don’t need any extra motivation in this type of rivalry. While the Gators and Bulldogs may be down after early conference slip ups, they’re certainly not out, and each will look to get itself back into conference contention in Jacksonville.
“I don’t think this is a game that needs a whole lot of extra motivation,” Muschamp added. “Our guys understand the importance and I know their team does as well.”
Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
Georgia and Florida have a dispute in the actual record of their series…Georgia contends that it holds a 49-40-2 lead in the all-time record, but the Gators say that the record is actually 48-40-2 in favor of the Bulldogs...The dispute lies in the 1904 meeting between UF and UGA, which Florida says occurred before the Gators competed at the varsity level…The Bulldogs lead the series when it’s played in Jacksonville by a count of 42-37-1…In Athens, Georgia has won four of five meetings…In Gainesville, the Gators and Bulldogs are tied at 1-1.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – Georgia 17, Florida 9 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
2011 – Georgia 24, Florida 20 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
2010 – Florida 34, Georgia 31 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
2009 – Florida 41, Georgia 17 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
2008 – Florida 49, Georgia 10 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
No. 2 Florida and No. 10 Georgia met in a top-10 clash a season ago, and the Bulldogs took advantage of six Gator turnovers en route to a 17-9 win that eventually helped the Dawgs win the SEC Eastern Division. UGA held Florida out of the end zone for the first time since 1988, with linebacker Jarvis Jones forcing a fumble from UF’s Jordan Reed at the 5-yard line that the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone to seal the deal with two minutes to play. Jones had a huge game for Georgia, recording 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in the victory. Florida picked off UGA quarterback Aaron Murray three times, but 118 yards from Todd Gurley on the ground and the stellar play of the Bulldogs defense were enough to boost the Bulldogs past the Gators. The loss proved to be Florida’s only regular season defeat of the 2012 season.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Florida – Kelvin Taylor, Freshman, Running Back
Taylor was buried on the depth chart early in the season, but he has emerged in recent weeks following the loss of Matt Jones. Taylor, the son of former Gator great Fred (1994-1997), has provided a spark for the offense in the past two weeks when the Gators have not been able to get going anywhere else. The freshman carried 10 times against LSU on Oct. 12 with a 5.2-yard per carry average and ran 12 times at Mizzou on Oct. 19 for 6.1 yards per carry and a touchdown. Against Missouri, Taylor ignited a six-play, 70-yard scoring drive that kept the Gators close in the third quarter. No other Florida drive went longer than 19 yards in the game and Taylor proved to be the catalyst with five carries, including a 20-yard scoring run, on the Gators’ most impressive march of the afternoon. Florida has struggled mightily on the offensive side of the football, but look for Taylor to see more carries going forward against a Georgia defense that ranks ninth in the SEC in total defense and last in scoring defense.
Georgia – Todd Gurley, Sophomore, Running Back
Gurley, who leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 450 yards and four touchdowns on the season, has missed the last three games due an ankle sprain and Georgia has sorely missed its sophomore back. Aaron Murray has been leading a UGA attack that was one of the nation’s best in the early season but has since been depleted by injuries. Gurley’s return to the field will be a welcome sight for Murray, who scored the Bulldogs’ only two rushing TDs in an Oct. 19th loss to Vanderbilt. When healthy, Gurley is perhaps the best running back in college football and he will provide a much-needed boost to the Dawgs with his 6.3-yard per carry average. Look for Georgia to lean on Gurley on the ground, as he has carried almost 18 times per game this year when he’s been available. The Dawgs will need a strong effort from their ace runner against a Florida defense that has been one of the country’s best against the run.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Florida – Defensive Depth
The Gators still boast one of the nation’s best defenses, but it is not the same unit that started the 2013 campaign with dominating performances. The Gators, much like Georgia, have been riddled with injuries that have led to problems on defense. Although Florida still ranks in the top 10 nationally in all four major defensive categories, it had its worst game of the year at Mizzou its last time out. The Gators surrendered 500 yards to the Tigers, by far their highest total of the year, and they missed the presence of Ronald Powell and Damien Jacobs, who suffered injuries at LSU the previous week, on the defensive line. The loss of elite defensive tackle Dominique Easley has been evident as the season has worn on and the injuries have piled up, and it culminated in a 6.85-yard per play average for Missouri, which was also by far Florida’s worst average of the year. The Gators have had a bye week to nurse their wounds before going against a rejuvenated Todd Gurley in the Georgia backfield, and their success Saturday could depend on how healthy they were able to get with the off week and how they continue to deal with the loss of Easley at the point of attack. Muschamp said that Powell’s status was still up in the air early in the week.
Georgia – Ray Drew, Junior, Defensive End
Jones leads the Bulldogs in sacks in 2013, having recorded five to this point in the year. He’s also made a habit of hurrying opposing quarterbacks, with seven QB pressures on top of his team-high sack total. Drew and the rest of the Georgia defensive front will try to get to Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy often this week, just as Mizzou did when it sacked him six times on Oct. 19. Murphy was constantly being flushed out of the pocket in Columbia, and Florida managed a meager 92 yards through the air and 151 yards of total offense in a loss. The Bulldogs have been good in defending the run, limiting opponents to 3.7 yards per carry (fourth in the SEC), and if they are able to bother Murphy then the Gators could be in for another long day on the offensive side of the ball, which would take some pressure off the Dawgs’ battered offense.
• Saturday’s meeting marks only the second time since 1980 that Florida and Georgia both enter their annual showdown unranked. The last time that happened was in 2010, when Florida registered a 34-31 win over Georgia in overtime.
• This will be just the second time in the series that both teams are coming off a bye week. Florida is 15-5 against Georgia when it comes off a bye week, and the Bulldogs are 4-3 against the Gators off a bye.
• Florida head coach Will Muschamp is familiar with Georgia from his playing days, when he suited up for the Bulldogs from 1991-1994. Muschamp has faced the Dawgs seven times as an assistant (at Auburn and then LSU) and this will be his third time facing UGA as head coach in Gainesville.
• Georgia will be going for its third straight win over UF, a feat that the Bulldogs haven’t accomplished since it happened from 1987-1989.
• The Dawgs hold the all-time series lead, but the Gators were dominant over the two decades leading up to UGA’s current two-game win streak. Since 1990, Florida has an 18-5 record against Georgia, including wins in seven of the last 10.
• Florida has 14 players from the state of Georgia on its roster. Georgia has 16 players on its roster from the state of Florida.