The keys for the Florida Gators to beat the Georgia Bulldogs

Florida has its latest and perhaps last biggest game of the year against Georgia this weekend, and the Gators could use a win for a ton of reasons. Here are my keys to the game in Jacksonville.

The stats in this piece all exclude garbage time, and sacks are always counted as pass plays.

What a difference a year makes

There were some matchups that Georgia was able to exploit in last year’s game. Isaac Nauta led UGA with five catches for 73 yards. Some of his successes were due to the well-documented failures of last year’s UF linebacking corps in pass coverage. Already down Marco Wilson, the defense lost CJ Henderson to injury and Jake Fromm picked on his replacement CJ McWilliams.

Nauta is gone, and his replacement, Tennessee grad transfer Eli Wolf, is mostly a blocker. This year’s Gator linebackers are better in coverage, and even if he plays more at star as he did against South Carolina, Amari Burney helps clean up that area. Henderson and Wilson are healthy this year, and the team’s third corner Kaiir Elam is better than both McWilliams and true freshman Trey Dean were last year.

Georgia may still win again, but it won’t do it the same way it did in 2018.

Stopping the run

It’s a cliche that you have to stop the run to win SEC games, and this game in particular. Florida will need to do it not because of some cosmic truth to that end but because Georgia prefers to run.

On standard downs — 1st down, 2nd & 6 or fewer, and 3rd or 4th & 4 or fewer — UGA runs 60% of the time. Compared to the two most run-oriented teams UF has faced, that’s about the same as Tennessee and less than Auburn (67.3%). On passing downs, which are what’s left when you remove standard downs, the Bulldogs still run 43.6% of the time. That’s more than both the Tigers (38.7%) and Vols (36.3%).

For all the struggles on the ground, a little over 13% of Florida’s rushing plays go for at least ten yards. It’s a rate well ahead of Tennessee and about half a percentage point behind Auburn.

Georgia hits such explosive runs 20.9% of the time. Both participants get at least ten yards on a little under a third of their pass plays, so the run is the distinctive way UGA gets its chunk plays.

Not coincidentally, South Carolina held the Bulldogs to getting 10+ yards on just 7.5% of their rushing plays.

If you want to know how the Gamecocks pulled off the upset, well, the four UGA turnovers explain the most. Beyond them, Carolina won the field position game in terms of average starting position by six yards and kept the Bulldogs from hitting on many explosive runs.

UGA got pass gains of 10+ yards almost four percentage points less than normal (29.1% versus 32.8%), so worse than but not that far off from average. The key difference was limiting big ground gains. Without those explosive runs, UGA went way off of its normal balance with 55 passes to 40 runs despite D’Andre Swift having a 56.5% success rate on his carries.

Between keeping the run contained and tight coverage in the pass, South Carolina basically held serve and waited for Georgia to make mistakes. Which it did, in the form of those four turnovers. That’s how a lesser team beat this year’s Bulldogs.

Third down

Florida’s defense has been very good at putting opponents in 3rd & long, which I define as seven yards to go or more. I have 3rd & short as being three or fewer yards to go, with 3rd & medium the range in between.

The Gator defense has put opponents in 3rd & long 66.7% of the time. That’s right: two out of three third downs they’ve faced have been with seven yards or more, while the national average is about half at 49.8%. Florida opponents have been in 3rd and short only 21.9% of the time, compared to a national average of 26.3%.

A normal defense gives up the most conversions in 3rd & short, fewer in 3rd & medium, and fewer still in 3rd & long. For instance Georgia’s conversion rate allowed in those situations goes 59.1%, 25.0%, and 16.7%. The national averages go 62.1%, 42.5%, and 25.5%.

Florida doesn’t follow that pattern. The Gators allow just 47.6% on 3rd & short, which is good, but that number goes up to 54.5% in 3rd & medium, which is bad.

You might guess the soft coverage bites them there, and it might, but they’ve allowed 4-of-9, or 44.4%, when the opponent goes with a pass play (including scrambles on called passes). On two true rushing attempts, they’ve not just allowed conversions but big plays: a 21-yard run to Kentucky’s A.J. Rose and a 37-yard run to South Carolina’s Tavien Feaster. The latter at least came late when UF had an 18-point lead with the clock waning.

Florida has finally gotten itself under the national average by allowing 25.0% conversions on 3rd & short, but tightening up on 3rd & medium would be helpful.

As for the Gator offense, I don’t know what exactly to think. You saw above that UGA’s conversions allowed rate drops by more than half from 3rd & short to medium. However the Gator offense has been relatively bad at 3rd & short, converting 50.0% with the run and 46.2% with the pass. They’ve been better in medium range with 66.7% conversions via run and 68.8% with the pass. Your guess is as good as mine.

Postscript: don’t take it too far

Florida is still almost a touchdown underdog in this game according to Vegas, but I have seen plenty of media members picking the Gators to cover if not win outright. From what I gather, UF fans are more confident heading into it than UGA fans are.

I’ve even seen a few places suggest that a Florida win will represent a “changing of the guard” in the SEC East, or something similar. I would stay away from that sentiment in the event of a Florida victory, at least in the short term beyond this season.

You know how the Gator defensive line has struggled with Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard out? They won’t be around next year, nor will the third-best defensive lineman Adam Shuler. The offense has excelled in no small part to having six or seven proven receivers, but that number drops to three next year. If both CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson turn pro, corner will be a mix of three second-year players among whom only one has played appreciably this year. The offensive line only loses one senior, and the main hope for improvement will come from second-year players beating out the older guys. As we saw with this year’s line, second-year offensive linemen apparently can be hard to project.

Dan Mullen has done a good job with getting the average recruit ratings up from the McElwain era, but only 15 players remain from the 2018 class and just 19 are around from 2019 with maybe one more if Wardrick Wilson’s visa issue ever clears. A total of 34 or 35 second or third-year players in the program is not a big core for a team, and 21 of them have yet to play significant snaps. Barring early NFL entries there will be some quality veterans around like Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney, Kyree Campbell, Jeremiah Moon, Brad Stewart, and Shawn Davis, but it’s going to be a young and inexperienced team on the whole.

Meanwhile, UGA will be in Year 5 under Kirby Smart with a half-decade of blowout recruiting classes to its name. By winning Florida can make a statement about the East this year with potential meaning for the future if it boosts recruiting, but this year’s game won’t be a true inflection point due to cyclical factors.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2