By staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
No. 3 Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) vs. Florida (3-3, 3-2), 3:30 p.m. today
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Georgia by 14.
Series Record: Debatable. Georgia counts a win in 1904 and says it leads 50-43-2. Florida insists it didn’t compete at the varsity level until 1906 and calls it 49-43-2.
Gators looking to get playmakers back
If Florida’s offense hopes to stretch the field against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs, the Gators will need all the help they can get. And that means the Gators are hoping to get back wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney, two underclassmen who haven’t played in nearly three weeks after exiting with injuries in Florida’s 17-16 loss to LSU. Cleveland attempted to participate in Florida’s subsequent loss to Texas A&M, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be fully cleared before the Gators head for Jacksonville. If the Gators don’t have two of their dynamic playmakers on Saturday, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks could struggle to make anything happen downfield against a Georgia defense that enters the contest ranked third in the nation in total defense.
It starts on the ground
But Florida likely won’t be able to create anything downfield if it doesn’t establish the run early. Fortunately for Florida, freshman Malik Davis and sophomore Lamical Perine have shown no signs of slowing down. Davis has already made a name for himself in his short time in Gainesville, as Florida’s 19-17 loss to Texas A&M marked his fifth consecutive game of at least 90 rushing yards. And Florida’s backfield as a whole seems to be working cohesively, as the Gators have tallied at least 165 yards on the ground in all five games, marking the first time since 2009 that UF has rushed for at least 165 yards in five consecutive games. Much of that credit goes to Feleipe Franks, whose 79-yard scamper against the Aggies set the record for the longest run by a quarterback in program history. While they won’t need that from him every game, the strength of Florida’s offense lies in its backfield.
Beasts in the backfield
Much of Florida’s focus will be making freshman quarterback Jake Fromm feel uncomfortable, but the Gators will need to bring more of the same when it comes to their rush defense. Although they’ve played just six games due to Hurricane Irma, the Gators have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season, tied for the third-lowest total in Division I football. But they’ll have their work cut out for them, as Georgia ranks No. 10 in the country in rushing offense. The Bulldogs arrive with 21 rushing touchdowns to their name and an average of 282.9 rushing yards per game, meaning UF can’t afford to take any plays off against the vaunted duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Searching for turnovers
Florida has just one interception in its last four games, but UF’s defense has been even more dismal when it comes to getting the ball on the field. The Gators have yet to recover a fumble this season, resulting in long stretches of the defense being unable to get off the field. While Florida hasn’t tinkered with its tactics in practice, the Gators have continued to emphasize the need to force fumbles, and they’ll likely need some as they’ll face a Georgia offense that’s averaging 37.6 points per game this season. They are the only team in the nation without a fumble recovery. “We’ve definitely been focusing on that, takeaways and turnovers,” linebacker Jeremiah Moon said. “We’ve just got to wrap up and the second man has to get the ball out. It is what it is.”
Freshman phenom Fromm
While the Gators continue to struggle with a redshirt freshman quarterback, the Bulldogs have taken off with true freshman Jake Fromm, who has started the last six games and is second in the SEC in passing efficiency. With a strong cast around him, especially at tailback and on the offensive line, Fromm isn’t asked to do much, but when he is he’s been highly efficient. Fromm, whose passing efficiency rating is 170.4, has thrown for 1,162 yards and 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions. When the ’Dogs needed to crank up the passing game in what was a close game at the time with Missouri two weeks ago, he came up big, throwing for 326 yards and a TD. The word in Athens is that Fromm, a five-star recruit, clearly has the IT factor at the position. The Gators can’t say the same about their young quarterback at this point.
’Dogs dominating up front
Heading into the season, the biggest concern on offense for Georgia was a questionable offensive line that really struggled a year ago. But a lot obviously has changed since thing. Georgia’s big, physical front may be the best in the SEC. It is controlling the line of scrimmage in the power running game — and controlling games. The line has cleared a wide patch for tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and given up only eight sacks in seven games, just four in the last five. UF coach Jim McElwain was asked earlier this week how much improvement he’s seen in UGA’s offensive line from a year ago. “Tons,” he said. “Boy, they’ve done a really good job. They do a really good job offensively as far as teaching. They give those guys, those backs, those two-way gos. If your linebackers fill wrong, they make it happen. They’ve done an unbelievable job up front.”
Gators looking deep
Georgia is a defense that refuses to give much on the ground, often crowding the line of scrimmage with eight defenders and daring opposing offenses to beat them with the pass. The strategy has worked. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in rushing defense (just 82.1 yards a game) and second in total defense (252.6). Knowing the Bulldogs will be out to shut down UF’s offensive strength, its running game, the Gators know they’re going to have to take some deep shots in the passing game — and hit a few — if they hope to have any success on offense. “We’ve got to do a really good job changing up not only tempo, but making sure when they do get the box loaded, we’ve got to hit some of those shots downfield,” McElwain said. That, of course, has been a struggle for most of the season for UF.
Today’s game questions
•• Will Florida’s struggling offense have any sustained success against a tough UGA defense that is giving up only 12.6 points and 252.6 total yards a game?
•• Can the Gator defense slow down the two-headed terror at tailback — Nick Chubb and Sony Michel?
•• Florida has not recovered a fumble this season. Does that trend continue?
•• Can the UF defense put the Bulldogs in some obvious passing situations, then put pressure on the quarterback?
•• Will the Gator special teams be their usual unproductive selves?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers
Georgia 31, Florida 6
Florida run defense vs. Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel:
This will be a true strength vs. strength matchup. The Bulldogs offensive success can be attributed to a powerful and dangerous ground game, led by the devastating one-two tailback punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The two have combined to rush for 1,180 yards and 14 touchdowns and both are averaging more than 6.3 yards a carry. Alternating means they’re always fresh, and they’re running behind an offensive front that has been dominant coming off the ball. The good news for the Gators is that they’ve been pretty dominant on run defense in the past three games and have stymied some of the SEC’s best backs. They held Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb to 29 yards on 11 carries, LSU’s Derrius Guice to 50 yards on 17 carries and Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams to 18 yards on 10 carries. Chubb and Michel like to cut back against the flow along the line of scrimmage, so it’s imperative that the Gators stay in their run gaps to avoid giving up explosive plays.