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This is the game Florida has had circled all season. The Bulldogs and the Gators have split the SEC East over the last six years, winning three division titles apiece.
UF won this game last year, eventually winning the division as a result, and it came up just short of an upset over Alabama in the SEC Championship. Heading into 2021, it was expected that this game would once again be a de facto SEC East Championship.
But that’s not exactly how it played out. After losing to the Crimson Tide in September, the Gators dropped two games to Kentucky and LSU. Now sitting at 4-3, even a victory in this game wouldn’t do much to help their chances at a division title, as the Wildcats still rank ahead of them in the division.
Alas, all Florida really has to play for in this one is bragging rights and the chance to spoil an undefeated start (and possible championship run) for the Bulldogs. Still, it’s a rivalry game, and it will certainly draw an emotional performance from both sides. UF will have its hands full, but it could surprise some people (especially if a change is made at quarterback).
Here’s everything you need to know about this UGA team.
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I don’t need to remind Florida fans that this is a Georgia team that, despite its success over the last four decades, hasn’t won a national title since 1980. Jokes involving some variation of “1980” have been commonly invoked by Gators fans since the team reached its peak in the 1990s and mid-2000s.
But that streak seems destined to end sooner rather than later under coach Kirby Smart (and potentially as soon as a few months from now). After all, Smart was just three points away from doing it in his second season in 2017 when his team lost in overtime to Alabama in the CFP national championship.
Hiring Smart was certainly seen as a bit of a gamble. To make the move, Georgia fired longtime coach Mark Richt, who only had one losing season in 16 years and won 10+ games in nine of those years. But the Smart hire looks like a really smart hire, and there’s one major reason he’s been so successful at Georgia: recruiting.
Smart has signed a top-five recruiting class for five straight years, and three of those were the No. 1 overall class. That has enabled a massive turnaround for the Bulldogs. After going 8-5 in Year 1, Smart hasn’t won less than 11 games in any season other than a shortened 2020 campaign, and he likely will reach that threshold once again this season.
He’s also found success in this rivalry. He lost his first matchup but is now 3-2 against the Gators, and he’s 2-1 against coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs are as good as anyone in the country right now, and even with the moderate success under Mullen, the program is still playing catch-up to its cross-border rival.
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Georgia entered the year with high expectations for quarterback J.T. Daniels, a former five-star recruit and transfer from USC who started the last four games of the season in 2020 and played quite well. He entered the year with potential Heisman hype and was a major reason the Bulldogs were a trendy preseason championship pick.
However, injuries have limited Daniels to just three starts in which he totaled 567 yards, five touchdowns and two picks. In his place, the Bulldogs have started Stetson Bennett IV, who got the start against the Gators last year and struggled.
He’s been much better in 2021, and the UGA passing offense hasn’t missed much of a beat without Daniels available. Bennett has thrown for 996 yards, 11 touchdowns and two picks, but his completion percentage is still lagging a bit behind Daniels.
According to a report from Dawgs247, Daniels has been a full participant in practice this week, and it’s possible he could make his return against the Gators. Georgia ranks just 42nd in total offense, and that’s being weighed down by the passing game, which ranks 62nd and averages 237.4 yards per game. The air attack is doing just enough, but getting Daniels back could prove to be quite a boost.
UGA is also without its top receiver in George Pickens, who is injured and still yet to make his season debut. Freshman tight end Brock Bowers has stepped up in his absence, leading the team in receiving with 416 yards and six touchdowns. He’s followed by redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey (295 yards, two touchdowns), sophomore Jermaine Burton (224 yards, two touchdowns) and freshman Adonai Mitchell (210 yards, two touchdowns).
This unit is far from Georgia’s most fearsome, but it can certainly get the job done.
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Georgia’s rushing game has been significantly better than its passing game. It ranks 39th in FBS, and its averaging almost 200 yards per game. Junior running back Zamir White has seen most of the carries (83), which he has taken for 400 yards and seven touchdowns.
Meanwhile, James Cook (brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin) and Kendall Milton are each over 200 yards rushing. This committee-style run game has proven successful for the Bulldogs, no doubt thanks to the offensive line, which has been great this season. It ranks just above Florida at No. 5 in FBS with just four sacks allowed on the season.
And despite having to replace two starting interior linemen who were drafted, the group up front has created lanes for the running game this season, as well.
UGA returns both its starting tackles from a year ago in Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon. Justin Shaffer, who started at both left and right guard last year, is starting on the left side in 2021. The team has a new center in redshirt freshman Sedrick Van Pran, who was a top-100 recruit, and at right guard in Warren Ericson, a veteran who saw some rotational reps last year.
This line may not feature any bona fide first-round picks, but it is once again one of the league’s better units.
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When examining Georgia’s defensive line (which is loaded with talent across the board) one player stands out: nose tackle Jordan Davis. The 6-foot-6-inch, 340-pound player is a likely first-round pick in 2022, and while his production has been a bit limited in 2021 (18 total tackles, 1.5 sacks), that can likely be explained by drawing double teams. He’s a disruptive player who could make running the ball difficult for the Gators.
Davis is paired inside with Devonte Wyatt (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and at the edge-rushing spots, Travon Walker has 2.5 sacks, while Nolan Smith (who plays JACK, Georgia’s equivalent to UF’s BUCK) has 1.5.
The defensive line is absolutely dominant, and the Bulldogs boast the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense, allowing just 63.4 yards per game. For a Florida team that likes to run the ball, that’s a worrying matchup.
But UGA’s linebacking corps may be even better. Strong-side linebacker Adam Anderson has been one of the SEC’s most productive defensive players, leading the team with 4.5 sacks while also accumulating 25 tackles. MAC (middle) linebacker Nakobe Dean has 30 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a pick, while MONEY (weak-side) linebacker Quay Walker has 18 tackles.
This Georgia front is absolutely ferocious and features four players that are likely to hear their names called in the first half of the draft. UF will have its hands full in what should be its toughest defensive matchup yet.
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If you were hoping to see some kind of weakness in Georgia’s defense here, you will be sorely disappointed. The Bulldogs also rank second nationally against the pass, and they’re allowing just under 145 yards per game through the air.
Whether UF quarterback Anthony Richardson will make his first career start on Saturday remains to be seen, but regardless, this group will pose quite a challenge for whoever lines up under center.
The best player in the group is arguably safety Christopher Smith, who is the only Georgia player with multiple interceptions (two). Opposite him is junior Lewis Cine, who has also had a very productive year with 28 tackles, a pick and five pass breakups.
At the cornerback spots, the Bulldogs have a pair of seniors, but Amaree Speed has missed several games due to injuries, allowing redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo to see starts in the last four games.
The former five-star recruit has done a great job in that action, totaling an interception, four pass breakups, a sack and 15 tackles. Meanwhile, the other cornerback spot is occupied by Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick, who was dismissed from the Tigers program this spring and landed with UGA. He’s been fairly productive, as well, totaling a pick and two pass breakups.
Finally, the STAR spot is occupied by redshirt senior Latavious Brini, who ties Cine for the most pass breakups on the team with five of his own to go with 21 stops.
This is an experienced defensive backfield, and there really is no glaring weakness here. Georgia’s defense is just elite from top to bottom, and points could come at a premium for the Gators in this game.