Gators upset hopes of No. 1 Georgia begin up front

GAINESVILLE — Coach Billy Napier knows Florida’s chance to upset top-ranked Georgia begins at the line of scrimmage, where his team has been hit or miss.

The Gators ran past Tennessee to cruise to a 29-16 win, but failed to create push or protect quarterback Graham Mertz during one-sided losses at Utah and Kentucky.

The return of veteran center Kingsley Eguakun should help, but he’s appeared in just two games for UF (5-2, 3-1 SEC) and not since September.

Meanwhile, Georgia (7-0, 4-0) has won 24 straight, including two national titles, and become the SEC’s standard-bearer largely because of its work in the trenches.

“A huge part of their success is they have had that in the past,” Napier said. “They had significant players on both fronts.”

The Bulldogs placed five defensive linemen and four offensive linemen on the first and second All-SEC teams in 2021 and 2022, while UF had only one — guard O’Cyrus Torrence in 2022.

Georgia is not as stout or deep this season, but does hope to welcome back right tackle Amarius Mims, a likely first-round 2024 NFL draft pick, after a four-game absence (ankle). This would allow Xavier Tuss’ return to left guard and boost a run game already averaging 5.07 yards.

Georgia’s pass rush has been below par with just 12 sacks. But UF allowed 19 sacks of Mertz, including seven during wins against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, two of the league’s lesser pass-rushing teams.

“We got to get less hits on Graham so he can get out there and perform,” said left tackle Austin Barber, who returns after missing the South Carolina.

Whoever is successful up front will have a decided edge.

“Every week in this league is a line-of-scrimmage emphasis,” Napier said. “There’s not a week off.”

Quick slant: Florida has lost five of the past six meetings by an average of 22 points, including a 42-20 decision in 2022. Kirby Smart, a former Bulldogs’ safety, was 0-4 as a player but 5-2 as Georgia’s head coach. The Gators have never beaten a No. 1 team while unranked and are just 3-15 against top-ranked opponents.

Coaches: Smart, 88-15 in 8th season; Napier, 11-9 in 2nd season (51-21 overall)

About Georgia: The Bulldogs have been vulnerable, trailing by a touchdown against three SEC opponents with a combined 1-10 record — South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Georgia also manhandled Kentucky 51-13 a week after the Wildcats throttled Florida 33-14. Quarterback Carson Beck is second in the SEC in yards per game (306.7) and completion rate (73.6%), but is without All-American tight end Brock Bowers (ankle) — the team’s leading receiver. Yet, skill players abound. Among them, tailback Daijun Edwards averages 5.8 yards and has 6 touchdowns on 80 carries a season after rushing for a season-high 106 yards and 2 scores on just 12 carries against UF; veteran receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint has 18 catches for 333 yards and 2 scores; and backup tight end Oscar Delp has 13 catches for 160 yards and 2 scores. Defensively, 6-foot-3, 320-pound tackle Nazir Stackhouse anchors the interior, while linebackers Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon Jr. have combined for 55 tackles, including 4.5 sacks. Safeties Malaki Starks, a preseason AP All-American, and Tykee Smith, a West Virginia transfer, have combined for 11 passes defended, including 6 interceptions, and 52 stops.

About Florida: The Gators push to build on a two-game stretch with 79 points, matching the most scored in two games under Napier. UF’s attack fizzled after wins against Texas A&M (41-24), South Carolina (38-6) in 2022 to end with three straight losses. Highlighting the past two games are Mertz’s hot hand (6 touchdowns, no interceptions, 667 yards, 71.4% completion rate), the production of callow pass-catchers Eugene Wilson III and Arlis Boardingham (26 catches, 301 yards, 4 scores) and the sustained excellence of veteran receiver Ricky Pearsall (44, 619, 3). The run game will need to keep Georgia honest. Tailbacks Trevor Etienne (18 carries, 54 yards) and Montrell Johnson Jr. (13, 48) were non-factors at Utah and Kentucky. Following a hot start this season, Florida’s defense has been less of a factor lately. South Carolina averaged 7.4 yards per play and Vanderbilt 6.4, well above their season averages. The Gators had 2 sacks in each game, but are last in the SEC with 11, just 3 by veteran edge rusher Princely Umanmielen, who does have 9 hurries. The play of linebacker Scooby Williams has tailed off; he has 5 tackles the past two games. Veteran cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. needs to elevate his play the final five games after allowing 3 scores and committing interference in the end zone.

3 things to watch

Third-down defense. The Gators have improved from 129th nationally (49.7%) in 2022 to 10th (29.1%). But first-year coordinator Austin Armstrong faces the ultimate test. Georgia ranks second nationally (57.1%). The Bulldogs also lead the nation defending third down (23.6%) while UF coverts at a woeful 33.3% rate, ranking 109th.

Etienne. Playing in the same Jacksonville stadium where his brother Travis stars for the Jaguars, the Gators’ sophomore needs a big game. Since rushing for 172 yards to lead Florida past Tennessee, Etienne has not cracked 50 yards. The Gators need to get their most explosive playmaker the ball early, often and in a variety of ways.

Red-zone efficiency by UF. The Gators have scored touchdowns on 21 of 31 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line, a 67.7% clip third in the SEC. Georgia is last in the league allowing opponents to score red-zone touchdowns at a 73.3% rate. When the chance arrives, UF cannot settle for field goals.

Where: EverBank Stadium

When: 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS; Radio: ESPN FM 98.1/AM 850 WRUF, Sirius/XM 134 or 191

Weather: 82 degrees, 3% rain chance

Favorite: Georgia 14.5 points

Online:; @osgators on X.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at