It comes down to Jacksonville for the Florida Gators

This is the biggest of game weeks most seasons. It is even more so this season.

Quite frankly, the game Saturday decides whether this is a really solid first season for new Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain and his staff or if it is something truly special. Coming from where the program was after the firing of Will Muschamp, a trip to Atlanta as the SEC East champions would indeed be special. A loss to Georgia, likely finishing the season at 10-2 or 9-3 with a decent bowl game would still be a respectable first season for the new staff, but the Gator Nation has raised its expectations for 2015 over the last month. While 9-3 would have been considered a huge success back in August, it would now be viewed with a certain amount of disappointment.

Last year the Gators throttled the Georgia Bulldogs and yet the season was still a big disappointment. This year a Gator win in Jacksonville all but locks up a truly satisfying season. While Georgia has looked somewhat lackluster the last month, this is still a very dangerous football team. Running back Sony Michel can score from anywhere on the field and Isaiah McKenzie is electrifying with the ball in his hands. While quarterback Greyson Lambert has appeared average at best of late, he did have a couple of spectacular games earlier in the season. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has a ton of future NFL level talent at his disposal. There is a reason why this game is only a three point spread midweek.

What does Florida need to do to win the game?

First and foremost, avoid giving up big plays to the Bulldog offense. I know that sounds simplistic but the Gator defense got so focused on stopping Leonard Fournette that the secondary was often out of position in the first half which resulted in big plays and allowed LSU to build a big lead. The Gators adjusted in the second half and kept the Tiger offense mostly in check. The defensive approach will be similar against Georgia, don’t let Michel and Keith Marshall beat you on the ground and make a struggling quarterback carry the Bulldogs. With Nick Chubb gone for the season, there is no Leonard Fournette on this team. That should make the task somewhat easier for the Gator defense this time around but they must play with better discipline than what we saw in the first half in Baton Rouge.

Do not turn the ball over on offense. Again simplistic, this holds true in virtually every game. However, in this game, I think the Georgia offense can be held in check as long as Florida doesn’t give them a short field to work with. Treon Harris needs to make good decision and good throws. It would be nice if the Gator running game would show up this week. Florida ran for over 400 yards against UGA last year but this season the running game has been somewhat anemic. Perhaps Georgia will look at the numbers and decide to focus on stopping the Gator passing game and forcing Florida to beat them on the ground. If so, the Florida offensive line must open some running lanes for Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett.

Take care of business on special teams. Do not let Mckenzie or Reggie Davis break long returns. The Bulldogs have been extremely dangerous on returns. This game may end up being a close hard-fought affair and Florida cannot afford to give up easy points or miss opportunities to get points by missing field goals. Kickoff returns are a concern when Florida is receiving the kick as well. Brandon Powell must be smart about bringing the ball out of the end zone. It would be nice to keep Treon from having to start drives on his own eleven yard line.

Don’t let Georgia mess with you emotionally with some ridiculous stunt orchestrated by a desperate Mark Richt. We all remember the “Dog Pile” in the Gator end zone some years back. Don’t be surprised if Saint Richt schemes up something equally deplorable to pull the Gator players into doing something stupid and emotional. Do not get lured into a pre-game fight that could result in the ejection of key personnel. This is a wounded dog that is backed into a corner.

What does Georgia need to do to win the game:  Avoid letting the emotion of the game get them peaked too early. Georgia will come to Jacksonville filled with emotion. This was supposed to be a special season for them. While all hope of making the four team playoff has vanished, winning the SEC East and going to Atlanta would mean the difference between this being a slightly disappointing season and it being a complete bust. Add in the revenge factor for the Gators not only ending their playoff hopes last year but absolutely embarrassing them in the process and it would be easy for the Bulldogs to let their adrenaline get the better of them early. Of course, good coaching can prevent that. You can see why this is such a concern for them.

Find a way to keep the Gator pressure away from Lambert. If Georgia really does stick with Lambert as the starter, expect Florida to come at him hard and often. He has shown a propensity of late to turn the ball over when pressured. Earlier in the year, Lambert had some really productive games but those were games where the UGA offensive line was able to give him plenty of time to sit in the pocket and let the play unfold. If the Gator pass rush can make him hurry this could be a long day for the Bulldogs. I would not be surprised to see Geoff Collins blitz quite often.

Get over the loss of Nick Chubb. This is a team that felt like if they just stayed in the game, Chubb would do amazing things at some point and they would win. When Chubb was lost for the season with an injury, the Bulldogs seemed to go into shock. They continued to play well for a half but have been lethargic on offense ever since. The Gator defense is probably just as good, if not better, than the Alabama defense that shut UGA down a month ago. If the offense is still in its funk, they might not score ten points against Florida. UGA must find other playmakers and those players must come up big for the Bulldogs to win this game.

All Gator fans know that the underdog in this game has derailed big seasons for the other team many times in the series and I’ve heard Gator fans fret about this very fact this week. While it is true, I would argue that usually the underdog had nothing at stake when that happened. Both teams have an awful lot riding on this one game. While recent play by the two teams would suggest that this game might be a blowout for the Gators, the betting public in Vegas doesn’t seem to see it that way. I expect this game to be the brutal battle it has been so many times. However, IF the Gators play a mostly error free game and do not turn the ball over, they should be in complete control of the SEC East Saturday night.