Florida Football Friday Final: Gators under pressure in make-or-break rivalry game vs. No. 1 Georgia

By Adam Silverstein
October 29, 2021
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators under pressure in make-or-break rivalry game vs. No. 1 Georgia
Football

Image Credit: Kelsi Bevington / UAA

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is of paramount importance for the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs no matter the season or situations of the respective teams entering the game. Whether it’s a top-10 matchup, No. 1 team on a national championship push seeking to advance past a rival or just a showdown between two of the winningest teams of the last few decades, the Florida-Georgia game always takes on additional meaning.

The 2021 version of this matchup features a situation the Gators have never encountered before (more on that in a minute). At the same time, the lower-ranked team has also won five of the last nine meetings between these teams. UGA enters as the No. 1 team in the nation, while UF is unranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2018. Given both teams are coming off a bye week, Saturday’s showdown also stands as a potential turning point in their respective seasons.

Let’s take a look at the top storylines and conversation points ahead of the biggest remaining regular-season game for both Florida and No. 1 Georgia.

1. ‘Dogs to the Dawgs: Don’t get it twisted. The Gators are in a tough way right now. Not only have they lost three of their last five games, they enters as two-touchdown underdogs to the Bulldogs for the first time in rivalry history with data available dating back to 1995. Georgia enters boasting the nation’s top defense, while Florida is coming off a disastrous loss to an under-manned, depleted LSU team that was on the verge of firing its coach. (UF has lost such a game to LSU for the second time in the last three years, by the way.)

The Dawgs have only allowed one team (Kentucky) to score two touchdowns against them in a game more than midway through the season. The Gators have scored at least 29 points in six of seven games and feature one of the nation’s best rushing offenses. Georgia’s defense has been other-worldly to this point, but it has not faced an offense like the one Florida is about to bring to town.

UF has almost nothing left for which to play this season, but it can spoil UGA’s undefeated campaign and hand it a blemish entering the first set of College Football Playoff Rankings, in which it is surely going to be the top-ranked team if it gets past its rival. The last time Georgia entered this game No. 1, by the way, was 1942; it beat Florida 75-0. Meanwhile, the the Gators are the last team to win this rivalry game as an unranked team beating a ranked opponent, defeating top-10 Dawgs teams in both 2014 and 2002. Something’s gotta give on Saturday, and if history is an indication, anything can happen.

2. Quarterback controversyies: There’s been much angst over who starts behind center for Florida between redshirt junior Emory Jones and redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson. Gators fans have been up in arms for the last two weeks as head coach Dan Mullen has repeatedly said both will play in the game. What Mullen’s not done is list a starter. And you know what? Neither has Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. Just as the Gators are choosing between Jones and Richardson, the Dawgs have to decide whether to go with Stetson Bennett IV or JT Daniels.

In case you forgot, Florida absolutely throttled Georgia 44-28 in this game last season. Sure, the offense was markedly better, but the defense was not. And as the Gators struggled defensively, they held Bennett to 78 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 5 of 16 passing in this game. Since that loss, Bennett is undefeated as a starter, but he’s also throwing 21 passes or fewer in every game with UGA relying on defense and its running game. When he’s healthy, which is almost never, Daniels is adequate. He’s completing 76.1 percent of his passes, but two of this three starts were against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. he has only five touchdowns to two interceptions in his starts this season.

Bennett should be expected to start for Georgia, while Florida’s situation is murkier. Fans are losing patience with Mullen’s dedication to Jones, particularly after Richardson came in as a replacement in the second half to lead four straight scoring drives against LSU. The offense looked more dynamic and balanced with Richardson’s proving to perhaps everyone but Mullen that he’s the future of this team. Just don’t enter the game assuming he won’t be the primary passer Saturday because Mullen hasn’t blatantly declared as much. There’s no reason for either Mullen or Smart to tip their hands.

3. Mullen’s hot seat — simmering or burning? Depending who you ask, Mullen is either already on the hot seat or on the precipice of such a designation. I’ve fallen into the latter category despite Florida being 2-6 in its last eight games against Power Five competition. Save for the LSU losses each of the last two seasons, the other four losses are explainable, particularly two to Alabama — two of the three most competitive games the Crimson Tide have played the last two seasons — and one to Oklahoma in a bowl game where the entire team was checked out. Still, there’s no doubting that the pressure is rising.

As far as his current status, I’d define it as “warming” on its way to officially “warm” if Florida loses to Georgia on Saturday. The Gators would start the season 4-4 for the second time since 2011 with four losses before November begins for the first time since that season. Not only are the LSU losses inexcusable, Mullen is the first UF coach to lose twice to Kentucky since Charley Pell. UK has been playing better over the last few years than anytime since the 1970s, sure, but that’s no excuse for what should perennially be a top-two program in the SEC East.

Couple all of that with Mullen’s indefensible decision to stick with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham — not only following last season but after the Gators allowed 49 points against the Tigers two weeks ago — the team’s growing recruiting problems and a buffoon-like stance to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s no doubt that Mullen’s backside is starting to feel warm. What he has going for him most is the support of athletic director Scott Stricklin, but given problems of different sorts with men’s and women’s basketball, perhaps Stricklin is not long for his position, either.

4. Upset potential: As mentioned, Florida enters as a 14-point underdog to Georgia, largely due to its loss to LSU being so spectacularly pathetic that it drastically shifted national sentiment for the program. Before that defeat, even in times of struggle, the Gators appeared to be legitimate this season. Ups and downs? Absolutely. But an unranked team sitting at 4-3 entering the rivalry game? Not something most would have predicted.

As such, this may be a prime spot for Mullen to spring an upset. This is not to say Smart is overlooking Florida, which is not only Georgia’s toughest remaining game but arguably the most difficult of its regular-season schedule, rankings be damned. The Dawgs know, if they get past the Gators here, they can cruise into the SEC Championship Game and potentially the CFP, win or lose that game. Still, they haven’t really been tested, and their rivals have the talent and coaching to hold their feet to the fire?

Will that actually happen? It may be difficult to see given Georgia’s absolute dominance defensively. But out of the 130 FBS teams, how many offensive coaches do you actually believe can out-scheme a defense like this? Maybe a handful? Mullen is among those five or so names.

It appeared as if Florida opened some of the playbook it had planned for Georgia in the second half against LSU, but Mullen’s offensive repertoire is so deep that one can assume there is plenty he can still deploy. Whether that will make a difference — especially if UGA stops the UF run game — remains to be seen.

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