Georgia vs. Florida preview: For Dawgs to surprise, Aaron Murray must start hot

John Sommers II

Two months ago, Florida was expected to be a moderate hindrance on Georgia's quest for a second straight SEC East title. Now, Georgia is the only obstacle left in Florida's path.

First things first: it appears Georgia star linebacker Jarvis Jones will play on Saturday. We start there because with Jones, Georgia's defense is flawed but explosive. Without him, it is a defense capable of making Florida Atlantic look decent (318 yards, 4.5 per play, 20 points) and making Kenucky seem downright solid (329 yards, 5.2 per play, 24 points). With him, Georgia can turn tables on anybody (he forced two turnovers in one minute in the fourth quarter against Missouri); without him, the Dawgs can make Florida Atlantic running back Graham Wilbert look like Florida's Mike Gillislee (18 touches, 102 yards) and Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow look like Florida's Jeff Driskel (5.7 yards per pass attempt, 7.4 yards per carry).

But he "looks pretty good." So that's one hurdle cleared for Mark Richt's squad. One down, quite a few more to go.


VIDEO: Florida, Georgia bloggers debate the game on ESPNU

Narratives change quickly, don't they? Two months ago, Georgia was the class of the SEC East, a team with a stalwart defense (if it could overcome an early run of suspensions, anyway), an inconsistent offense and a much easier schedule than South Carolina.

One month ago, the undefeated Dawgs were coming off a rout of Vanderbilt; the defense was coming together post-suspensions, and the offense was leaps and bounds ahead of last year thanks to a deep passing game and a suddenly explosive running game led by two freshmen.

Now? Suddenly Georgia is the No. 3 team in the East. Quarterback Aaron Murray's security blanket, receiver Michael Bennett, is out for the season. Running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who averaged 8.4 yards per carry against Vanderbilt and Tennessee, averaged just 3.4 against South Carolina (forgivable) and Kentucky (less so). A young offensive line that treaded water in the first month has completely lost effectiveness.

And the defense? It currently ranks an egregious 71st in Def. F/+. Georgia safety Shawn Williams is calling out his own defense in public in an attempt to light a spark. Georgia is still 6-1, but the one loss was a demoralizing rout at the hands of South Carolina, and a loss to Florida on Saturday would officially hand the SEC East title to the Gators. In the blink of an eye, you can go from the class of your division to an afterthought.


Rivalry history: The man who made the Gators

It also works in the opposite direction. Two months ago, 81 percent of poll respondents said that an 8-4 or 9-3 season would represent "success" for Will Muschamp's Florida Gators in the head coach's second season in Gainesville. A terribly mediocre offense was starting work under a new coordinator, but a potentially solid defense and strong special teams was expected to at least keep the Gators afloat. I talked myself into Florida to an extent, but even then I hedged my bets.

[W]hile I'm not going to make any "I wouldn't be surprised if this team competes for the national title" proclamations this time around, I have to say it wouldn't surprise me if the Gators were to compete for the East title. They get South Carolina, LSU and Missouri at home, and the best SEC team they play on the road is either Texas A&M or Tennessee. (They play Georgia in Jacksonville, obviously.) That's manageable, even if only some of the former blue-chippers on the roster begin to fulfill potential.

Last year, according to the F/+ rankings, Florida ranked 65th in offense, 22nd in defense and fourth in special teams. Occasional competence was typically ruined by offensive mediocrity and/or an inconsistent secondary.

Two months into the 2012 season, however, Florida is No. 2 in the BCS rankings and can wrap up the East title before November. The Gators have already handed LSU its first regular season loss in almost two years and thoroughly emasculated South Carolina (the same team which emasculated Georgia) by 33 points. (Granted, they did so with almost no offensive output whatsoever, but a 33-point win is a 33-point win.) The offense is occasionally exciting (17th in Off. F/+), the defense is complete (fourth in Rushing S&P+, ninth in Passing S&P+), the special teams unit is the best in the country, and Will Muschamp has gone from seeming in over his head to projecting his tough personality onto a mean, fast, physical, occasionally dominant squad. A month ago, the Gators were flawed but optimistic -- they had held off challenges from Texas A&M (with defense) and Tennessee (with offense).

Now? They are downright cocky. Potential is matching production.


Muschamp: "It's a one-game season"

Two months ago, Florida was expected to be a moderate hindrance on Georgia's quest for a second straight SEC East title. Now, Georgia is the only obstacle left in Florida's path.

How much resistance can the Dawgs offer at the moment? That answer will probably be determined by first-and-10. The advantages the Gators have on passing downs are dramatic -- Florida's offense ranks ninth on passing downs, Georgia's defense ranks 79th; Florida's defense ranks sixth on passing downs, Georgia's offense ranks 52nd -- but the tables can be turned a bit on standard downs. Even having played without Michael Bennett for a couple of games, Georgia still has the No. 1 standard downs offense in the country.

The Dawgs attempt an almost perfectly balanced mix of run and pass, and though run production has fallen off of late (Georgia now ranks just 59th in Adj. Line Yards), early-downs passing has still worked out pretty well for the Dawgs. Marlon Brown and Tavarres King have combined to catch a staggering 35 of 45 passes (a 78-percent catch rate) for 664 yards on standard downs, and sophomore Malcolm Mitchell, once again playing a larger role in the offense following Bennett's injury (Mitchell started the year playing mostly cornerback thanks to suspensions), has caught 12 of 14 for 123 yards. Georgia has three outstanding weapons, and as long as defenses have to at least somewhat mind the run, the Dawgs can keep opponents on a string as long as they can avoid mistakes and stay on schedule.

Florida's defense, however, is even better than South Carolina's on standard downs, and the Gamecocks were incredibly effective against a predictable Dawgs offense. Against S.C., Georgia could not even pretend to run the ball effectively, and once in passing downs, Aaron Murray could not find any open targets. Mitchell caught three of five passes for 52 yards; all other targets caught just eight of 26 for 57 yards.

If Georgia is to defeat Florida, it will likely be with a "pass to set up the run" approach. That puts a lot of pressure on Murray, but it is probably the only way Georgia can pull off the upset.

In theory, Georgia will have more trouble on offense than defense, but that is dependent on the degree to which the Florida offense is forced to show up. Against LSU, the Gators managed just two solid drives, but since the defense only allowed two field goals, it was enough for a 14-6 win. Against South Carolina, the Gators scored easy points off of South Carolina turnovers, then simply packed it in. Florida hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game all season; for the most part, that means that the Gators can just pound away with running back Mike Gillislee, hoping to wear down defenses, eventually exploit a few cracks and score two or three times to win. It has worked beautifully thus far, and it will work again unless Murray and the Georgia offense can consistently win first down.

If Georgia IS able to put some points on the board and force the Florida offense to keep up, things get interesting. Thus far, Florida has responded when it has needed to, typically via the ground; quarterback Jeff Driskel averaged just 3.5 yards per pass attempt in a 31-17 win over Vanderbilt but rushed for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Challenged by Tennessee on the road, Driskel passed for 219 yards (11.0 per attempt) and rushed for 81 (10.1 per carry), and the Gators pulled away. But you can get to Driskel if your pass rush is decent, and you can keep Gillislee in check if you can avoid those one or two big drives -- since rushing for 146 yards versus LSU, Gillislee has gained just 104 yards in 36 carries (2.9 per carry). Can a Georgia defense with a one-man pass rush (Jones has 5.5 sacks in five games, the rest of the team has 5.5 in seven, and the Dawgs rank a horrific 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate) and sketchy run defense (66th in Rushing S&P+) raise its game in its biggest game of the year?

Probably not. There is a path for Georgia to follow -- win standard downs on both sides of the ball and fight to a draw in the field position battle against one of the best field position teams in the nation -- but there has not been a lot of evidence in the past month that the Dawgs can actually follow it to victory in Jacksonville.

This being an election year, you could say that opinion polls have shifted dramatically in the last couple of months, and barring an October surprise (likely one named Jarvis Jones), we probably know how this vote is going to turn out on Saturday.

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