Each of the last two seasons, the Gators made the 1 ½-hour trek to Jacksonville with championship aspirations and momentum. Each of the last two seasons, Georgia dealt them a crushing loss that left fans wondering what it would take to usurp the Bulldogs and represent the SEC East in the conference championship game.
Once again, No. 8 UF finds itself riding high following its most complete game of the season in a win over Missouri and hoping that this will finally be the year that they restore order in the series. Is the third time the charm for Dan Mullen and Co.?
“This is a competitive game,” Mullen said. “We want to be a championship football team, and whoever wins this game is going to have the inside track towards being there. And that's what you're competing for in this game, is that opportunity to put yourself in the driver's seat to go out and win a championship. Those are the opportunities you want to be in, is competing for championships as the season goes on.”
The Gators (3-1) and No. 5 Bulldogs (4-1) are tied atop the division, two games clear of the rest of the division. The winner on Saturday will essentially go up two games on the other once you consider that the head-to-head result serves as the tiebreaker.
While fans may use this game as a referendum on the coaching staff, the coaches don’t feel any additional pressure this week because of the Gators’ three-year losing streak that dates back to Jim McElwain’s final season. In their mind, this year’s Georgia game is completely independent of what’s happened in the last two seasons.
“I kind of approach it like I approach every game,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Obviously, it is a big game because it’s a conference game, it is Georgia. You understand that. We do a lot of preparation all season as well as this week to play to our best. I don’t have any more pressure on me this week than any other week because I’ve got a pretty high standard of myself and how I want us to play. From that standpoint, it’s all the same, but we do understand that it’s an important game.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said the key is for his players to be excited to play in a big game like this but not to the point where they feel like they have to do something bigger and better than they’ve done all season. They have to keep things as normal as possible.
‘You've got two great teams playing against each other,” Johnson said. “It's definitely going to be a 15-round heavyweight fight, and we got to be ready to go out there and play to our standard each and every snap.”
Cracking the Kirby code
In Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s 4 ½ seasons, the Bulldogs have regularly ranked among the top defenses in the nation, and Smart’s defensive wizardry has been on particular display against Florida. He’s limited the Gators to less than 300 yards of total offense and exactly 17 points in each of his two meetings with Mullen. The Gators are a combined six of 21 on third down.
“The talent level they have front to back, and I don’t want to say it’s just players, I think Kirby, they have a great defensive scheme,” Mullen said about what’s made the Bulldogs’ defense so tough. “They have answers to the questions. He knows it inside and out. They do a good job of putting their guys in great position to make plays, and they’re not afraid to tweak. They’re different this year than last year.
“They can put big guys in the game to stop the run; they can put pass rushers in the game to get pressure; they can cover and play man coverage; they can try to confuse you with looks and a lot of different zones. They mix it up a lot. They’re a very, very good defensive football team, and it’s not one thing that makes them a great football team. It’s every layer of it that makes them a really good defensive football team.”
Johnson said they’re going to have to execute at an extremely high level to move the ball in this game. Georgia plays very disciplined on defense and has elite talent at all three levels, so they’re not likely to give you many busted coverages or poor run fits. The Gators will need to find a way to win plays even when Georgia plays near-perfect defense.
“The reality of it is when you play a defense that's full of great players, you're going to have to make plays,” Johnson said. “Whether it's breaking tackles, I think the biggest thing is obviously making contested catches and straining to finish blocks. Because when you play a team that has great players on both sides, it's going to come down to those details, and this is obviously a huge game, and our guys are excited to go out there and get a chance to compete."
Defense improving but a stiff challenge awaits
UF entered Saturday giving up 495 yards per game, 33.3 points per game, and 6.3 yards per play. Opponents were converting on third down 59 percent of the time.
On Saturday, they limited Missouri to 248 yards, 10 points (not counting the pick-six), 3.9 yards per play and 3-for-15 on third down.
That’s more like it.
“I think when you watch the difference between that and the first three games you see a distinct drop in missed tackles,” Mullen said. “You see a massive improvement of 11 guys running extremely hard to the football. Those are things that we can control. Those are things that I think I was worried about when you say coming into the season because you missed so much football time.
“Then in training camp, I’ll say this a little bit too, I think this year has been different. When you started training camp there were guys going out to practice every day wondering if we were playing. We weren’t even sure who we were playing, what we’re doing, how’s it going to work, are we going to make it to the season? You didn’t have spring practice. Your training camp is a completely unorthodox training camp. I think there were a lot of guys that weren’t to the level that they needed to be to be ready to play. I think we looked more like a Florida defense Saturday night.”
Grantham said the turnaround started upfront. They played much more physically than they did in the first three games, limited the Tigers to 1.7 yards per carry and harassed quarterback Connor Bazelak. Getting Kyree Campbell back at nose tackle made them bigger across the line and allowed them to move some players back to their more natural positions.
“The guys did a good job of playing physical and then executing the game plan, and that allowed them to make plays,” Grantham said. “The credit needs to go to the players and the ability to have some guys available that gave us the flexibility to play guys where they need to be playing.
“Our players put a lot of work into the performance that they play, and they expect us to have a certain standard. That standard wasn't being met the first few games for whatever reasons. The guys did a good job of taking coaching, understanding what we have to do and buying into what we were doing. And they did that, and we went out and executed and were able to play to our ability.”
The Gators need their physicality at the point of attack to be more than a one-game aberration against an average offense. Georgia will try to pound them into submission. The Bulldogs rank third in the SEC in rushing offense, are three-deep in the backfield and have a shaky quarterback situation. In their win over Kentucky on Saturday, the Bulldogs threw just 13 passes versus 43 runs. This game will be won in the trenches, which is something the Gators haven’t been able to consistently do under Mullen.
“I think the biggest thing when you talk about stopping the run is your ability to set the edge of the defense, build a wall inside, don’t give them seams, don’t create displacements and then make sure you’re always coming downhill and fitting your gaps,” Grantham said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that you’ve got to look for is your ability to set the edge of the defense because they do got some talented running backs. Their offensive line’s a veteran group.”
While the ground-and-pound mentality is still there and probably always will be under Smart, Grantham said Georgia’s scheme is a little bit different under first year offensive coordinator Todd Monken. They utilize more bunch formations and motions to confuse defenses and create better boxes to run into.
“I think that when you look at game one until now, I think [Monken’s] done a really good job of trying to get their playmakers the ball in space, trying to create one-on-one matchups in the pass game while still being functional and physical in the run game with what they’re doing,” he said. “They try to really work some of their motion in their run game to try to remove your edge player, your force player and those kind of things. I think that he’s tweaked it a little bit to where those guys can be really functional.”