This game has been circled on the Gators’ schedule since last November. This is a chance to take out three years of pain and frustration, a chance to retake the SEC East and a chance to validate everything Dan Mullen has done in his three years in charge of the UF program.
Everything sets up perfectly for the No. 8 Gators to beat No. 5 Georgia (4-1) on Saturday. They have their best offense since 2008, while Georgia lost a ton of offensive firepower from last year’s team and isn’t as strong in the secondary as they usually are.
This game provides a crossroads for UF (3-1). If they win, they’ll prove to the world that they are ready to compete for championships. If Mullen’s best team at Florida loses to one of Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s weakest teams, you have to start wondering if it’ll ever happen.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness, and three players to watch for from the Bulldogs.
Three Positions of Strength
You have a better chance of running through a line of hungry grizzly bears than you do of running through these guys. They’re giving up just 80 rushing yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry, both of which lead the SEC by a wide margin. They’ve given up a total of two rushing touchdowns since the beginning of the 2019 season. Their three-man front is huge, deep and experienced. Senior Malik Herring starts at defensive end. He’s made a sack and knocked down two passes at the line. Senior Devante Wyatt starts at tackle and has made 15 stops. Depth is provided by former top recruits Jalen Carter and Travon Walker. Injuries are a concern, however, as nose tackle Jordan Davis and top reserve Julian Rochester left the Kentucky game last weekend with injuries. Rochester will not play this week, while Davis is questionable. This unit doesn’t put up huge sack or tackle-for-loss numbers, but they form the most effective brick wall in the country. The Gators already aren’t a great rushing team, and the challenge will be even tougher this week.
While the defensive line is unspectacular but effective, the linebacker group contains the disruptive playmakers. Azeez Ojulari starts at one outside linebacker spot. He’s made a conference-best 4.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. Nakobe Dean plays at the other outside spot and leads the team with 34 tackles. Nolan Smith (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Jermaine Johnson (seven tackles, two sacks) and Monty Rice (27 tackles, one sack, one pass defensed and two forced fumbles) split the snaps at the two inside spots. Rice is questionable to play with a foot injury. This is perhaps the best linebacking corps in the country.
As usual, the Bulldogs are loaded with future NFL draft picks in the backfield. Former five-star recruit Zamir White has the ideal blend of speed and power a la D’Andre Swift. He leads them with 90 carries for 402 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. Freshman Kendall Milton is a similar type of runner and has added 165 yards on 29 carries (5.7 yards per carry). James Cook is a versatile weapon. A shifty, make-you-miss type of back, he’s contributed 122 yards on 23 carries and 173 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions. As a team, Georgia is rushing for 175.2 yards per game, which is third in the conference. They will test the Gators’ newfound strength up the middle against the run.
Three Positions of Weakness
The Bulldogs aren’t bad at any level of the defense. However, the secondary is their weakest link, and they’ll be matched up against the strength of Florida’s offense. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns against them a couple of weeks ago, and UF has an equally potent passing attack. Former five-star prospect Tyson Campbell starts at one cornerback spot but hasn’t quite lived up to the hype. Eric Stokes starts on the opposite side. He’s intercepted two passes and returned one of them for a score. They have some depth issues at safety. Lewis Cine starts at free safety and is fourth on the team with 25 tackles. He is questionable to play with an ankle injury. Strong safety Richard LeCounte, who’s tied for the SEC lead with three interceptions, was involved in a motorcycle accident on Saturday night and will not play against Florida. In his place, the Bulldogs will turn to either undersized junior Chris Smith or freshman Major Burns.
Georgia’s depth chart consists of a former walk-on in Stetson Bennett, a transfer who lost his starting job at USC and can’t seem to get healthy in J.T. Daniels and a pair of freshmen who weren’t considered elite prospects in D’Wan Mathis and Carson Beck. As they’ve done throughout most of Kirby Smart’s tenure as head coach, they’ll try to win despite their quarterback instead of because of their quarterback. Bennett has completed just 58.4 percent of his passes for 1,089 yards with nearly as many interceptions (five) as touchdown passes (seven). In their last two games against Alabama and Kentucky, he went a combined 27-for-53 for 400 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions. Smart has exercised patience with his quarterback so far, but don’t be surprised if Daniels makes an appearance if Bennett falters again.
Georgia has talent at receiver, but due to either the quarterback issues or the scheme they run, they haven’t been very productive. They rank just 10th in the league with 228.8 passing yards per game. Future high draft pick George Pickens is a physical 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver who excels on jump balls down the field but doesn’t have elite speed. He’s had a disappointing season, catching just 13 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He missed the Kentucky game with an injury, and his status for the Florida game is uncertain. Kearis Jackson has been their only consistent weapon, hauling in 24 passes for 348 yards and a score. Once you get past Pickens and Jackson, the other wide receivers on the roster have combined for 21 receptions and one touchdown.
Three Players to Watch
Safety Lewis Cine
With LeCounte out, Cine becomes the leader of UGA’s secondary, assuming he’s healthy enough to play. He’ll be tasked with getting everybody lined up correctly and could draw the unenviable assignment of trying to cover Kyle Pitts. The Gators will likely try to throw toward the other side of the field a lot to test LeCounte’s replacement, so Cine needs to take advantage of his playmaking opportunities when they present themselves.
Linebacker Azeez Ojulari
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore is one of the best pass-rushers in the country, and he’s capable of making things very difficult for Kyle Trask. Florida likely won’t be able to run the ball much, so they’ll need Trask to throw for around 350 yards again this week. With LeCounte out, the Gators have the advantage on the perimeter, but that is a moot point if they can’t keep Ojulari off of Trask.
Running Back Zamir White
Even with the Gators’ struggles in the secondary, this game should come down to Georgia’s running game versus Florida’s rush defense. The Bulldogs have to rush for 200 yards to win this game. Otherwise, they’ll be forced to throw the ball more than they want to, which could lead to turnovers and more offensive possessions for UF. The Gators gave up 164 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per rush in their first three games but held Missouri to 40 yards and 1.7 yards per carry last week. They need to do whatever it takes to shut down White and force Bennett to channel his inner Jake Fromm to beat them.