Florida Football Friday Final: SEC, playoff hopes on the line in rivalry tilt vs. Georgia

By Adam Silverstein
November 6, 2020
Florida Football Friday Final: SEC, playoff hopes on the line in rivalry tilt vs. Georgia

Image Credit: Kelly Chase / UAA

No. 8 Florida Gators football is making final preparations for its most important game of the 2020 regular season as it is set to take on the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. With a traditional 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS, the annual Florida-Georgia game appears to once again have incredibly high stakes as the top two teams in the SEC East go head-to-head to become the clear leader in the race for the division title.

The Gators and Dawgs will meet as top-10 opponents for the third straight season, though Florida comes in as the underdog having not defeated Georgia since 2016. Given what we have seen from both teams already this season, there’s a lot of consternation about what to expect on Saturday afternoon.

Let’s take a look at everything we have already written and what else you need to know entering the game.

1. SEC East is (likely) on the line: The winner of the Florida-Georgia game has advanced to the SEC Championship Game in each of the last five seasons, so it should come as no surprise that the division title is likely on the line again Saturday despite both teams having additional games to play after it’s over. The Gators are looking to return to Atlanta for the first time since 2016, and they’re looking to be offensively competitive in an SEC title game for the first time … well, since Tim Tebow left the program. Florida’s destiny is still completely within its own hands as winning out this season would earn it a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time. “Our goal is to win a championship,” head coach Dan Mullen said Monday. “The winner of this game is going to be in the driver’s seat to win that SEC East championship, so it certainly does that.”

Though the Gators have dealt with exceptional adversity this season — from the COVID-19 pandemic itself to an outbreak within a program to not playing a single game this season with its planned starting defense — Mullen remains confident about the team’s potential. “It doesn’t clinch it or seal anything, but it’s certainly whoever wins this game certainly is putting themselves in the driver’s seat to get to Atlanta,” Mullen said Monday. “You’re two games up on this team [if you win], and you’re really two games up on everybody else in the league at that point. It makes it a big game, but it’s always been a big game for a long time.”

He continued: “I’d love to be a championship team this year. … I thought coming into the season we had the potential to be a championship team. I thought there were certain things I wanted to see us grow on. You never got to see it through spring; we never got to see if we could develop all those things. To be honest, to be a championship team this year, it’s going to take something a little different than it would in most other years. If we’re able to do that, I hope I don’t ever have to replicate it the exact same way and we don’t have to deal with what we’re all going through again.”

2. Florida offense vs. Georgia defense: The tale of the tape tells a definitive story entering this year’s game. The Gators offense is going to be beastly, and the Dawgs defense is going to cause trouble. The game will primarily be won or lost depending whether Georgia’s ferocious defense will stifle or be torn apart by Florida’s explosive offense. UF enters with the SEC’s second-ranked scoring offense (42.0 points per game), while UGA boasts the top-ranked scoring defense (16.2). The teams are relatively even when flipping sides with the Gators now ranked sixth defensively (29.3) and the Dawgs T6 offensively (29.2).

So, what’s going to give? Well, the only team ranked better than Florida offensively is Alabama, which beat Georgia 41-24 last month. That does not tell the entire story, however, because the Crimson Tide are a far better rushing team, averaging 40 more yards per game, and they boast a more dominant offensive line that successfully combatted the Bulldogs’ stingy defensive front. This fact has not been lost on Mullen.

“The talent level they have front to back. … Kirby [Smart], he has a great defensive scheme. 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, Mullen said. “They’re different this year than they were last year. … They are a very, very good defensive football team, and it’s not one thing … it’s every layer that makes them a great defensive football team.”

Still, Florida has scored 168 points through four SEC games, its highest-scoring start in league play since 1996. It has also scored 24+ point sin 19 of 21 games under Mullen dating back to 2018. The Gators clearly have the offensive firepower to win on Saturday. The questions are whether the offensive line can hold up and whether Florida can keep Georgia honest in the trenches to give redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask enough time to deliver.

3. #Kyle2Kyle has cooled, but … First, let’s clarify. “Cooled” does not mean it is cold. But after Trask and junior tight end Kyle Pitts looked to be the most unstoppable duo in the nation over the first two games of the season, their connection has predictably slowed down. Though Trask hit Pitts 12 times for 227 yards and six touchdowns over the first two weeks, the duo has combined for 10 hookups, 128 yards and one score over the last two. Forget the touchdowns. Defenses have clearly spent more time taking Pitts out of the game, cutting his average yards per reception from 18.9 to 12.8. Pitts said this week he has experienced double teams and extra safety coverage as of late, which may not be a great thing for his stat line, but it is not necessarily a bad thing for the Gators offense.

An additional set of defensive eyes on Pitts means the rest of the offense may get a little extra cushion with which to operate. And there’s no one that helps more than senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who exploded with seven touches for 83 total yards and three touchdowns against Mizzou. In fact, during the two games in which Pitts has been “limited,” Toney has totaled 15 touches, 184 yards and five scores. Mullen and Toney’s teammates have frequently praised him this season for dedicating himself to the game more than before and improving his route running; the proof, they say, is in the pudding.

4. Time for a breakout? Redshirt sophomore linebacker Brenton Cox Jr., a Georgia native and former Bulldogs player, patiently waited to be cleared to play after transferring into the program last season. Since he stepped into the Florida locker room, Mullen, the assistant coaches and Cox’s teammates have praised his leadership. So much so that Cox was awarded the prestigious No. 1 jersey without the Gators even holding spring practice amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through four games, Cox has compiled 21 tackles (11 solo) and 1.5 sacks (none since Week 2). He also had a fumble recovery last week. So while it’s not fair to say he has been unproductive, it’s fair to say Florida would like to see him become a force in the middle of its defense. Considering he’s going up against his former team on Saturday, Cox should have all the motivation in the world to be exactly that for a defense that needs a dominant playmaker from whom it can draw energy and momentum.

Georgia has outscored Florida 102-41 in the teams’ last three meetings. This year, with former walk-on Stetson Bennett IV at quarterback, the Gators have less to worry about in the passing game but plenty to be concerned about from a three-headed rushing attack led by running back Zamir White. Cox will hopefully play a significant role as Florida attempts to stifle the run on Saturday afternoon.

“You have to have the ability to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said this week of playing in the SEC. “And then, as you do that, you’re going to create third-down situations and you’ve got to win those. So we understand that we’ve got to be able to stop the run and find ways to win the situations that come up in the game.”

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