Florida-Georgia: Breaking Down the Cocktail Party

This weekend's game in Jacksonville is an elimination game for the SEC East. A Florida loss puts the Gators out of the running as they can't win a tiebreaker in which South Carolina, UGA, and UF all end up at 4-4. A post-loss Georgia would be out because even if Florida and South Carolina end up at 4-4, the Bulldogs would be out with a loss to each of them.

On the surface, everything is going Georgia's way. UGA has won three straight; Florida has lost three straight. Florida scored a combined 42 points in those three losses; Georgia scored 41 or more in each game of its winning streak. Georgia's offense is hitting its stride; Florida's offense hit its nadir two weeks ago.

Here would be the point where I'd normally do a dramatic "But wait!" bit, but I can't honestly do it in Georgia's case. Aaron Murray has been better than anyone thought he'd be, and getting A.J. Green back off suspension turbocharged the Bulldogs' offense. The running game has really picked up in response to the passing game flourishing. On defense, the players are doing a lot less thinking and a lot more reacting. Justin Houston has been amazing. I got some flak for making Georgia the top East division team on my power poll ballot, but every arrow is pointed up with this team.

If you want to temper Georgia's optimism at all, then it's worth a look at who those three opponents were that Georgia blew out. In SEC play, those teams currently rank seventh (Vandy), 10th (UT), and 12th (UK) in scoring defense and ninth (UK), 10th (UT), and 12th (Vandy) in total defense. The response to that would be that Arkansas is 11th in both, and Georgia looked worlds better across the last three than it did against the Razorbacks back in September. The Bulldogs have gotten better as the season has gone on, in other words. 

Meanwhile, Florida's offense has been crappy, but it faced basically the opposite of what Georgia has been going through. In SEC play Florida's three conquerors rank first (LSU), second (Bama), and third (MSU) in scoring defense and first (LSU), third (Bama), and fifth (MSU) in total defense. The catch though is that Georgia is fourth in both categories, and its scoring defense improves to 17.4 per game (1.1 behind Mississippi State) absent the pair of garbage time touchdowns Kentucky scored. Florida's defense misses Charlie Strong, but it is sixth and second in those categories. It does have a good chance at slowing Mike Bobo's offense down, but that's not worth much without offensive support.

The hope for a Florida win rests almost entirely on the fact that the Gators are coming off of a bye week.

The three top running backs on the team have been hampered by injury for anywhere from three to five weeks. They've had five different starting offensive lines across their seven games largely due to injury. The great hope at wideout, Andre Debose, sprained his ankle against MSU. Three different players have had concussions, starting corner Moses Jenkins has been out since Week 1, the kicker Caleb Sturgis went out the week of the Bama game, and the best DT on the team Jaye Howard has battled an ankle injury. Thanks to the week off, everyone who's been hurt has a shot at playing (though some like Jenkins and Howard are likely game time decisions).

In addition, the team has been using the time to work on its woeful execution. I'm not excusing the play calling, which I don't think has been stellar, but it doesn't matter what plays you call if no one can block or the quarterback overthrows anything more than 20 yards up field. It's like what I said about Jeff Demps's 72 yard touchdown run late against Miami (OH): it wasn't a fluky play because of the result but rather because it was the first play the team blocked properly the whole day.

As bad as it seems for Florida right now, just cleaning up the messy bits on offense would make a big difference. Turnovers set up seven points for LSU and 21 for Alabama, and the team got just a single touchdown out of its 361 yards against Mississippi State. UF is only scoring on 71.4% of its red zone drives in conference play, good for 11th in the league, while having the third most red zone opportunities per game. Florida's defense is not championship caliber this year, but it played well enough to beat Mississippi State and stay in the game against LSU.

That said, a team with trouble executing on offense is in for a long day against Justin Houston. He's just behind Nick Fairley in tackles for loss and leads the conference in sacks. Florida has played two guys near him in the stat rankings: LSU's Drake Nevis and Mississippi State's Chris White. Nevis had 4.5 TFLs (a season high) and 1.5 sacks, while White had 4.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks (both season highs). Barring some sort of miraculous turnaround on Florida's offensive line, you can expect to see Houston have similar totals.

It will be interesting to see how Caleb King and Washaun Ealey do. We already know that A.J. Green will shred Florida's defense, which has had trouble with big receivers like Kentucky's Chris Matthews and LSU's Terrence Toliver. However, Florida has only allowed a single running back to go for over 100 yards this season (Derrick Locke, though Vick Ballard got to 98), and only one running back has managed more than five yards a carry (Trent Richardson). King has been effective when not injured or suspended, and Ealey has gone for 123 and 157 yards in his last two games. Georgia might be able to win anyway if those two can't get on track, but it probably won't be easy.

When it comes down to it, I have to give Georgia the edge. The defenses are probably about a wash, but the offenses are definitely not. Georgia knows exactly who it wants to be and how it will go about being that. Florida still doesn't have an identity nine weeks into the season. Murray has far outplayed John Brantley so far this year, while Green and Kris Durham exceed anything Florida's got in its receiving corps. Georgia's offensive line hasn't lived up to billing, but it's worlds better than UF's horrow show of a line. None of Florida's running backs are at 100%, and while Ealey is a bit hobbled by an MCL sprain, King is rested and ready to go.

My final pick with a score comes tomorrow, but I have a hard time seeing a Florida win this weekend. Unless the Gators uncovered some magic during the bye week, Georgia should take this one.

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