Game 1: Miami Hurricanes
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats
Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers
Game 6: Auburn Tigers
Game 7: LSU Tigers
Game 8: South Carolina Gamecocks
|GEORGIA BULLDOGS (2018: 11-3, 7-1 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Kirby Smart||7 offense, 7 defense||465 YPG/37.9 PPG||311 YPG/18.5 PPG|
|4th year (32-10)||54%, 72% of stat production||18th/14th in FBS||13th/16th in FBS|
All time series: Georgia 51, Florida 43, 2 ties
Introduction: No team has won the SEC East three straight times since Florida in the first five years of the conference’s split division format, but even with heavy personnel losses at the skill positions, Georgia appears well equipped to do so. The Bulldogs looked suspiciously flat at various points in the 2019 season, though, most notably in losses to LSU and Texas, and they did catch Florida at a particularly vulnerable juncture of the season without both starting corners and starting safety. At its current form, the goal for the program in Athens is to win a national championship. But it’s worth noting that this has been the goal for literally dozens of years now- and while the rise of Alabama has made this goal harder than ever to achieve, historically, more often than not it’s been a stumble in this rivalry game that’s tripped them up midway through their quest. And for Florida, this game serves as a golden opportunity to make the type of declaration that the Gators are “back” that not even Nick Saban could ignore.
Jake Fromm is, by the admission of even his biggest haters, a solid quarterback. Whether he can be a great one or not will be determined by what he does as a junior in 2019. His stats are impressive (5,376 yards, 54 touchdowns and 13 INTs in 29 games as the starter) and his arm strength and mechanics are fine, but his accuracy starts to decrease once he starts throwing more than 15 yards down the field. With a much younger cast of receivers this year (more on that in a minute), that could be an issue. On the whole, though, Fromm is probably the third best QB in the SEC behind Tua Tagovailoa and Kellen Mond.
Georgia’s loaded ground game will certainly help him out. De’Andre Swift (1,049 rushing yards and 10 TD’s in 2018) will lead the way, and Brian Herrien (295 yards, three TD’s) will return for some experienced depth. But the guy to really keep an eye on is Zamir White, a former five star recruit that missed all of last year with an ACL tear. If he’s even close to 100%, he could be a handful for even the most stacked defenses to deal with. And don’t forget about James Cook, the brother of Dalvin Cook and yet another weapon to have to worry about. Helping solidify the ground game even further is an offensive line that placed three players on the preseason All-SEC team in Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley and Isaiah Wilson.
The real questions for this unit are at receiver. There’s plenty of talent there, with guys like Tyler Simmons, Trey Blount, Demetris Robertson, Lawrence Cager, Kearis Jackson and Matt Landers, but only Blount and Simmons have ever caught a pass (and they have only combined for twelve receptions). The Bulldogs lost six of their seven top receivers from 2018, with the one returner being Swift, so he may need to step up and make some catches out of the backfield to take some of the pressure off the wideouts.
Offensive grade: B+. The running game is absolutely terrifying, and deep. But it’s hard to know precisely what Georgia has in the passing game until the new wideouts prove what they can do. At worst, though, Fromm and the ground attack can carry this team to a top 25 offensive ranking.
Georgia is stacked up front, highlighted by six rising seniors. It starts with senior DT Tyler Clark, a dynamic playmaker in the middle who can both stuff the run and crash through the line to get to the QB. He’s joined outside by Justin Young, who burst onto the scene with a nice spring. Other seniors who will step into larger roles on the line this year include Julian Rochester, Michael Barnett and David Marshall. And then there are juniors Malik Herring at DE and Devonte Wyatt on the interior. Georgia coaches are high on each of these guys, meaning a deep rotation on the line is possible.
New defensive coordinator Dan Lanning has his work cut out for him at linebacker, though. Monty Rice and Tae Crowder return at their respective ILB slots after up-and-down 2018 seasons, and they’ll both need to take sizable steps forward if that area is to be removed from Georgia’s list of weaknesses. Outside, Georgia will be young, but talented. There are three former five star recruits to choose from at those two spots, between Nolan Smith, Brenton Cox and Adam Anderson. So there are questions here, but it shouldn’t be too big an issue because of the natural talent.
Losing DeAndre Baker to the New York Giants is a major blow, but Georgia looks able to recover from such a loss as well as anyone. Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell played well at cornerback when their numbers were called last year, and they figure to get the nods at the two corner spots. And the safety positions seem to be in good hands, with JR Reed (two INTs, two PBU’s in 2018) anchoring one safety slot and Richard LeCounte (one INT, three PBU’s) ready to thrive at the other one.
Defensive grade: A-. There’s an overwhelming amount of raw talent on this defense, but only a small percentage of it has proven to be able to play to that talent level on a consistent basis. But with the combination of Kirby Smart and the sheer volume of natural ability on this unit, the label of “very good” seems to be this defense’s floor.
Key Matchup: QB play. Blame CJ McWilliams for last year’s loss all you want, but Feleipe Franks lost that game by overthrowing a wide open Freddie Swain for a touchdown on his first snap of the game, tossing an ugly interception right to Tyrique McGhee to kill a scoring drove on the next possession, and then later losing a fumble at the shadow of his own goal line. Fromm, for his part, won it by recognizing Florida’s weakness with McWilliams and exploiting it over and over again. Unless another perfect storm crashes down on Florida’s secondary in Jacksonville this year, though, that mismatch isn’t going to be there for Fromm this year and now Franks is a year older, smarter and better. With the playing field now more level (particularly with Franks possessing the better set of wide receivers), we should get a much better quarterback dual in a game with even bigger ramifications than last year’s- and if one quarterback plays better than the other, the odds shift dramatically toward that team.
Florida key to victory: establish the ground game and keep the chains moving. Even if Feleipe Franks takes another mammoth step forward in 2019, the Gators aren’t winning this game if they can’t run the ball. Georgia is solid, but definitely not great against the run and Florida has a deep stable of backs to batter the Bulldogs’ front seven with, beginning with LaMical Perine. Success on the ground will not only wear out the Georgia defense, but sucker their entire unit into the box to try to stop it- and that’s when you get favorable matchups for Franks off of play-action.
Georgia key to victory: score touchdowns in the red zone. Georgia let Florida hang around for far longer than they should have last year by getting turned away at the doorstep of the end zone multiple times. They survived anyway because they had the better quarterback and the healthier defense, but cannot count on that again with Franks continuing to improve and Florida’s secondary- as far as we know- going into this game at full strength. Test this fate again in what should be a mostly even matchup, and Florida almost surely wins.
Fun fact(s): There are many things that makes this rivalry unique, from the fact that it’s one of just four annual rivalries played at a neutral site (along with Texas-Oklahoma, Texas A&M-Arkansas and Army-Navy) to the fact that the two teams take turns assaulting each other for ~20 year periods to the shocking number of times Florida has cost Georgia a national championship by beating them in Jacksonville (1984, 1992, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2014). But the most peculiar feature of this rivalry is that the teams can’t even agree on the all time record- the fault for which lies with Georgia fans’ inability to understand chronological sequences.
Florida says the rivalry record sits at 51-43-2 for Georgia, while Georgia claims it’s 52-43-2, citing a 52-0 win over Florida in 1904. There’s just one problem. There was no University of Florida football team in 1904. There wasn’t even a University of Florida, period, in 1904 (at least not as we know it today). There was, however, a West Florida Seminary in Tallahassee, and there was a Tallahassee College of Medicine and Surgery, in 1885; those schools merged and were informally known by the state government as the “University of Florida,” but without state funding. In 1903, legislation transferred that title to what was then known as Florida Agricultural College, which among other shortcomings, did not feature a football team.
Then came 1905, and the Buckman Act, which officially recognized a flagship university in the Sunshine State for the first time ever. Several small colleges in north Florida were merged into what was temporarily named “University of the state of Florida,” and the new university was built in Gainesville in time for the 1906-07 academic year. That was also the first year that a state-supported university in Florida sponsored a football team. How Georgia fans think they beat the University of Florida in football before the University of Florida had a campus, much less a football team, is beyond me. It’s 51-43-2. Y’all lead by eight games. Let’s move on.
Jokes about Kirby Smart’s propensity for letdowns in big situations can be simplified to downs and distances, like “4th and 11” and “2nd and 26,” but they only hold so much value. He still has a pedigree for churning out ferocious defenses, he still has a quarterback and a running game that are capable of taking his team right back to the playoff and he still has the team that’s favored to win the SEC East. Does he have the “Alabama of the SEC East” that’s capable of maintaining a sleeper hold on the division for the next decade? No, he doesn’t, but he does have a program that’s akin to the Georgia Bulldogs of Mark Richt’s first few years- never the nation’s best, but consistently very good and sometimes great. And that latter piece could very well be the case this year.
This game should not be written off as an automatic loss by any means for Florida, though, because it’s not realistic to assume that the Gators will have the holes they had last year in Jacksonville. And despite those holes, Florida fought back from an early deficit and even grabbed the lead at one point in the second half before things spiraled out of control. With Florida’s secondary presumably back to full strength, and Georgia’s wide receiver corps taking a major hit this offseason, the Bulldogs are going to have to find an alternative path to victory.
The thing is, Georgia is so stacked at running back and on the offensive line that this isn’t going to be a problem for them. Florida’s defense is in good shape by most standards, but they will not have seen such a loaded stable of ball carriers all year, and having to deal with it on the fly is not really likely to end well. Franks and Florida’s defense will hold their own, but in the end Georgia will put together a long, punishing touchdown drive to raise the final toast at the World’s Largest Cocktail Party.
Projection: Georgia 26, Florida 24