This isn't quite how the build-up for this game was supposed to unfold. Georgia and Florida combined to go 22-3 against teams not named Georgia or Florida last season, finishing fifth and ninth, respectively, in the AP Poll. The Dawgs and Gators began this season ranked fifth (with a first-place vote!) and 10th.
Despite some personnel losses, they were two of three SEC East teams that began the season in the top 10; now only one of those three (No. 14 South Carolina) is ranked at all. Injuries and youth have wrecked what was supposed to be a pair of great seasons, and while the winner of Saturday afternoon's battle in Jacksonville could still be in position to make some noise in the SEC East race (especially if it's Georgia) and even finish with 10 wins, the loser could run off the rails (especially if it's Florida).
Georgia's injuries seem to be healing a bit, while Florida's keep getting worse. How much of an edge do the Dawgs have on Saturday? To answer that, let's just keep asking more questions.
1. What can't Georgia blame on injuries?
There was reason to worry about Georgia's defensive experience from the start, and while injuries haven't helped, this was destined to be a young, inconsistent unit. And it is. Injuries to players like safety Tray Matthews haven't helped, but he's still an unstable freshman anyway.
In the most recent two-deep, Georgia features four true freshmen (two starters) and two sophomores among eight spots in the secondary, four freshmen (one starter) and two sophomores at linebacker, and a redshirt freshman and three sophomores on the defensive line. That's despite the fact that most injuries have come on the offensive side of the ball. Considering that, the defensive play really hasn't been that bad -- 35th in Def. F/+, 19th on standard downs, 21st on passing downs. Georgia has made plays, but the breakdowns have been terribly costly. And that's based more on growing pains than aches and pains. No matter the star ratings, there is value in experience, and Georgia just doesn't have it. (And a couple of the players who do -- corner Damian Swann and linebacker Jordan Jenkins, for instance -- haven't played at the levels they were expected to this season.)
2. What can't Florida blame on injuries?
Shoddy offensive line play, for starters. Injuries have wreaked havoc on the Gators' defensive front, making it suddenly quite mortal, but the offensive line has struggled to keep opponents out of the backfield against either the run or pass, and injuries haven't played much of a role in that. Florida allowed six sacks in 35 pass attempts against Missouri, and the line has been mediocre at best when it comes to creating opportunities for its running backs. Kelvin Taylor is showing signs of serious, Fred Taylor-esque potential, but for every running lane he finds, he twice finds defenders in his face as he gets the handoff.
Now, of course, the injury bug has bitten the line, as well. Left tackle D.J. Humphries is out with a sprained MCL, meaning right tackle Tyler Moore, benched after some pretty poor play, is right back in the starting lineup. That's not exactly the confidence boost this offense needed.
3. What does Tyler Murphy still have to offer?
In Murphy's first couple of starts after taking over for the injured Jeff Driskel, he showed potential as an efficiency passer and reasonably mobile threat. Against LSU and Missouri, however, he showed little of anything. His supporting cast didn't even slightly help him out, and even in a miserable game against Missouri he was able to extend plays out of the pocket and find open men a few yards downfield. But there are no more surprises; opponents have adjusted to his strengths and weaknesses, and in the last two games, 66 pass attempts (including sacks) have gained 125 net yards. That's horrific.
Murphy needs help he's not getting. The line is a hot mess, and aside from Solomon Patton he doesn't seem to be getting much help from the receiving corps. This offense wouldn't be much (if any) better with Driskel, in other words. But with a week off, Murphy had a chance to hit the reset button (and heal a bit from his own injuries). What kind of quarterback will we see in Jacksonville?
4. How much does Gurley help?
The marquee injury for Georgia in 2013 has been that of star running back Todd Gurley. The sophomore was starting to take on the look of a "Marcus Lattimore, but faster" back but suffered a high ankle sprain and missed games versus Tennessee, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. His return has been hyped, but honestly, Georgia's running game was still pretty good in his absence. Even with Keith Marshall's season-ending injury versus Tennessee, UGA freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas still produced 154 yards in 27 carries versus Tennessee (5.7 per carry) and 157 in 26 versus Missouri (6.0). The run game had some costly problems versus Vanderbilt, but the Dawgs were still done in more by special teams errors than anything else in that one.
The biggest injury-related issue for Georgia has not been in the backfield; it's been out wide. Aaron Murray lost Malcolm Mitchell in the first game of the season, then lost both Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett against Tennessee. Bennett should be back on Saturday, but now Chris Conley is out with an ankle injury.
Missouri proved that a big, deep receiving corps can potentially poke holes in an awesome Florida secondary, but right now, even with Bennett's return, Georgia's receiving corps is neither big nor deep. And Gurley's return doesn't help that.
5. What next?
Since 2005, the Dawgs have gone 3-4 versus Florida. Following their three wins, they have gone 12-0 with an average score of 39-14 for the rest of the regular season. Following their four losses, they have gone 12-5 with an average score of 32-23. After their loss to Florida in 2006, they lost to Kentucky. After their loss in 2008, they barely beat Kentucky and lost at home to Georgia Tech. They lost to Kentucky again in 2009, three weeks after the Florida loss.
But when the Dawgs win that game, they wreck shop for the rest of the regular season. They certainly did last year.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): Georgia 39.2, Opponent 24.7 (plus-14.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games, sans Georgia Southern): Georgia 44.1, Opponent 21.1 (plus-23.0)
Despite the injuries, a win in Jacksonville could spark a pretty strong November for the Dawgs. The schedule has built-in wins versus Appalachian State and Kentucky, and while Georgia Tech's Flexbone could very much force some breakdowns from a young, confused defense, the Dawgs are still stronger than the Yellow Jackets overall. Georgia will be favored in three of four games down the stretch, and the fourth game -- a trip to Auburn on November 16 -- isn't entirely unwinnable. At 4-3, Georgia's odds of an East title are long, and the best the Dawgs can hope for is a 9-3 finish and a bowl win. That might not be what they had in mind, but there are worse things in the world than sending quarterback Aaron Murray off with a six-game winning streak.
While a win could prompt a Georgia run, it could also head off a different kind of run for Florida. Georgia's schedule is easing up, but the Gators' isn't; there are likely home wins vs. Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern on the slate, but Florida visits South Carolina on November 16 and hosts Florida State on November 30. With a loss to Georgia, a 6-6 record very much comes into play for the Gators. But a couple of wins, combined with some defensive healing, could make the Gators, at worst, a salty spoiler for either South Carolina's SEC title hopes or Florida State's national title hopes.
This might not be the game we expected at the beginning of the season, but as usual, the former Cocktail Party is a crossroads for these two schools and will define the stretch run. The narrative may have changed, but there are still story lines aplenty.
Other SEC games
Tennessee at No. 9 Missouri
A good portion of Missouri's success in 2013 -- and despite last week's rough late loss to South Carolina, a 7-1 record and an SEC East lead are still drastic successes in the wake of last year's 5-7 campaign -- has been credited to quality leadership from upperclassmen like receiver L'Damian Washington and linebacker Andrew Wilson. If the leadership truly is strong, then the Tigers should be able to bounce back from last week and play at a pretty high level. The Tigers will need to, because while Tennessee is still too young to take a game from a superior opponent without some help, the Vols proved against both Georgia and South Carolina that they are far enough along in their development to take advantage of whatever mistakes you make.
Joshua Dobbs will start at quarterback for Tennessee. The true freshman will take over for the injured Justin Worley, making this the third straight Missouri game in which both teams start backup quarterbacks (assuming Mizzou's James Franklin, listed as questionable in his third week after a shoulder sprain, indeed does not start). Dobbs will pilot an offense that has quite a few weapons -- Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane in the backfield, the quickly emerging Marquez North at receiver -- and a seasoned, stout offensive line. The Vols have been quite good on standard downs this season (18th) but have gone into a shell once behind schedule (84th on passing downs). One cannot imagine that will change with a true freshman taking on Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, and the rest of a Missouri pass rush that has thrived in SEC play (nine percent sack rate).
Meanwhile, assuming Maty Mauk indeed makes his third start, he could find it beneficial to stick with the horizontal game a bit more than he did against Florida and South Carolina. Tennessee's pass defense is strong despite an only mediocre pass rush, but the Vols are vulnerable against both the run (48th in Rushing S&P+) and, as Alabama backed up last week, the bubble screen, a staple of Missouri's offense. Mauk wants to make plays downfield, but if he takes what Tennessee gives him, the Vols should give him enough.
Assuming Mississippi State doesn't upset South Carolina, this is a must-win for Missouri in the SEC East race. The Tigers hold the edge against the Volunteers, but they probably shouldn't dilly-dally.
Mississippi State at No. 14 South Carolina
It's easy to tell what Mississippi State wants to do to you. The Bulldogs want to hold the fort on defense until you fall behind schedule, light you up and flip field position on passing downs, strike a balance between run-and-pass on offense, and stay conservative to protect the quarterback when behind schedule. In theory, this can work. And MSU is indeed quite good at getting off the field once it has leveraged you into passing downs (11th in PD S&P+).
But while MSU has no particular weaknesses on offense, it has no particular strengths either, nothing to lean on when it absolutely needs yards or points. That's a problem against a South Carolina defense that defends the run, forces you behind schedule, and forces mistakes with either Jadeveon Clowney or the thought of accounting for Jadeveon Clowney.
Again, Mississippi State has few true strengths or weaknesses. That means that if South Carolina plays the mistake-prone ball we saw for most of the Tennessee game and the first half of the Missouri game, the Bulldogs could very easily stick around. But if the Gamecocks find fourth gear for at least a little while, they should have too much, especially at home.
Thomas B. Shea, Getty
No. 11 Auburn at Arkansas
In mid-September, this would have been billed as a battle between two bounce-back programs looking pretty decent and searching for enough wins to make a bowl in Birmingham in their head coaches' respective first seasons in charge. In early-November, this is a spoiler game between a team that controls its own destiny in the SEC West and a home team that has completely fallen apart.
Arkansas looked promising early, knocking off a solid Louisiana-Lafayette team with ease, moving to 3-0, and building a big third-quarter lead at Rutgers. But tight losses to Rutgers and Texas A&M turned into big losses to Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, and now the only thing left to play for is ruining other teams' seasons. Auburn isn't quite as good as its BCS ranking -- the Tigers rank 22nd in F/+ (33rd on offense, 15th on defense) -- but Arkansas has just been bad (86th). The Hogs can run the ball but can't convert opportunities into points that well and can't defend (91st in Def. F/+). That's kind of a problem.
Auburn's defense bends on standard downs and breaks you on passing downs. if Arkansas can build an early lead, this game could be redefined quickly, but if this game were played 10 times, Auburn would roll more often than not.
UTEP at No. 12 Texas A&M
Here are some FBS teams that, according to Def. F/+, have better defenses than UTEP: UAB (allowing 288.0 passing yards per game despite being behind a lot), Air Force (allowing 45.0 points per game to FBS teams with losing records), Eastern Michigan (allowing 7.66 yards per play), Nevada (allowing 6.60 yards per carry, basically turning every opponent into Wisconsin), Troy (allowing 332.9 passing yards per game with a 151.3 passer rating), and New Mexico State (allowing 570.0 yards per game).
Alabama State at Kentucky
Alabama State is currently 6-1 in the SWAC and ranks 186th in Jeff Sagarin's overall ratings, just behind Eastern Michigan and ahead of three truly awful FBS squads: Miami (Ohio), Georgia State, and New Mexico State. (Prairie View A&M also ranks ahead of NMSU, by the way.) The Hornets could be worse, in other words. But despite a pretty awful defense, Kentucky will certainly roll.