Gators get rare opportunity to knock off a second No. 1 team in same season

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida tight end Keon Zipperer runs up the sideline after making a catch against Georgia during last year's game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

At the start of Florida-Georgia week, former Syracuse and UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni put the significance of today’s game into perspective for the Gators. 

UF coach Dan Mullen asked Pasqualoni, who serves as special assistant to the head coach, to chime in as he addressed the team Monday. 

“Coach Mullen brought up the fact that this is our second time in one season playing the No. 1-ranked team,” defensive tackle Antonio Valentino said. “Coach Pasqualoni was the coach at Syracuse way back in the day when it was booming, and he asked Coach P, ‘In all your years of coaching, how many times you play the No.1 team?’ And Coach P was like, ‘In 50 years, never, never played the No. 1 team."

Abolverdi's Analysis: Gators will play UGA close, run out of gas

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The Gators (4-3, 2-3 SEC) played a No. 1-ranked Alabama team twice in the past two seasons, losing both games by one score. The top spot now belongs to the Bulldogs (7-0, 5-0), who’ve won 11 consecutive games since last year’s 44-28 loss to Florida. 

Today’s rivalry matchup marks the first time in program history that UF has faced the AP No. 1 team twice in the same season.

“It’s a pretty unique deal,” Mullen said. “Not many people usually get to do that. That doesn't happen very often, especially in a regular season.

"I think it’ll be a pretty big game for our guys. Obviously, the Florida-Georgia game is always a big game. I think our guys are pretty excited.

“They’ll get juiced for this. I don’t need to motivate our guys a ton. … It’s not like we need a rah-rah speech this week. It’ll be a big game. I thought our guys were extremely motivated last year for the game. I don’t remember what both our teams' rankings were, but I don’t think either of us were No. 1. And the year before the same deal, and our guys were still extremely motivated. I think the rivalry makes it more than whatever the rankings of the teams are.”

Today is the program’s 17th game against AP No. 1 teams and its first against a top-ranked Georgia team since 1942. The 75-0 shutout by the Bulldogs was the largest margin in series history, though UF had lost several players and coaches to service in World War II and did not field a football team in 1943 due to more draftees. 

The Gators snapped a three-game losing streak to UGA last season en route to their first SEC East title since 2016. Now they’re looking to play spoiler with Georgia ranked No. 1 for the first time in the regular-season poll since 1982.

“This is a big game. We all know what’s at stake,” Florida defensive end Zach Carter said. “Right now we’re playing to finish strong and end the year on a good note. So getting this win would mean a lot, especially potentially knocking off the No. 1 team.

“It would mean everything. It’s just one of those games as a Gator you want to win every year. I just want to get that win real bad, I ain’t going to lie. I’ve been talking about this game for about two weeks now through the bye week. So, I’m really pumped up for this.”

This matchup pits the Bulldogs’ top-ranked defense/No. 2 rush defense (in FBS) against UF’s No. 9 offense/No. 4 rush offense. UGA has pitched a pair of shutouts in SEC play and has only allowed five touchdowns all season. 

“Obviously a very talented group,” Mullen said. “They have depth, they have talent. Guys that could have probably gone pretty high in the draft came back for another year, so that's a big advantage for them to have that experience, as well. They do a great job, though. Very talented players. They put them in good positions to make plays, well coached, and they mix you up with a lot of different blitzes. They're going to blitz you from every different angle.

“Offensively, you have to execute. One thing, they have great players. When you’re playing against great defenses you have to execute because if you make little mistakes, they turn into big mistakes and mistakes are hard to recover from when you’re playing against a great defensive front. You’ve got to be efficient and execute at a high level every snap of the game. You can’t be herky-jerky kind of back and forth.”

Florida scored a season-high 42 points in its last outing for the third time this year, but threw four interceptions in the loss at LSU. Mullen plans to continue playing both Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson at quarterback, though Richardson is expected to receive more playing time. 

Jones was benched in the second half at LSU after throwing a pick-six and Richardson rallied the Gators with four consecutive touchdown drives. 

“It keeps the defense on high alert,” UF left tackle Richard Gouraige said of Richardson’s impact. “They know that they can’t over pursue Ant at all because he can extend plays. I know both quarterbacks, Emory and Anthony, are very dynamic. When they get out of the pocket, they can extend plays. I think they’re both going to do great in this game.” 

Florida ranks first nationally in yards per carry (6.33), led by Jones. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per rush, the most by a quarterback in the country. UGA coach Kirby Smart hasn’t revealed whether he’ll stick with Stetson Bennett IV at QB, go back to season-opener starter JT Daniels or play both. 

Regardless, Georgia’s offense is powered by its trio of tailbacks in Zamir White (400 yards rushing), James Cook (296), Kendall Milton (253). White rushed for 107 yards against the Gators last year, including a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game. 

“They’re very physical up front,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Georgia’s rushing attack. “They get movement at the point of attack. Their backs do a very good job with their vision, running where you’re not. They can cut, they can bounce, they can get the edge. If you give them a soft edge, they can take it. 

“They’ll run through tackles. They can take it to the house. They can get you double-digit gains with their ability to run through tackles and get to the soft edge. So the combination of their physicality up front and the talent at running back makes them good at what they do.”

Florida gave up less than 100 yards rushing in four of its first six games and under 150 in the other two, but Grantham’s defense was gashed for 321 yards on the ground at LSU. The unit faces an even taller task today in Jacksonville.

“We’re definitely excited to go out there and play against great competition. They’ve got great backs, great O-line, great scheme. I mean, they’re the No. 1 team in the country,” Valentino said. “You don’t become the No. 1 team in the country by accident. And you don't get many opportunities like this very often. 

“So the fact that we get the opportunity to play two different No. 1 teams within our own conference, that were just on our schedule, it’s a big opportunity and we look forward to it.”

Today

Who: Florida (4-3, 2-3 SEC) vs. No. 1 Georgia (7-0, 5-0)

When: 3:30 p.m. 

Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

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