What will it take for UF to upend rival Georgia? | Analysis

For Florida’s football program and its SEC brethren, a matchup with top-ranked Georgia has become the gold standard.

Yet, Gators’ coach Billy Napier doesn’t see Saturday’s showdown as a measuring stick, either.

“I don’t think you’ve got time to look up and think about that,” he said. “Ultimately you’re engrossed with preparing. We’re all aware of what Georgia has been able to accomplish.

“Certainly we have respect for that.”

The Chatsworth, Ga., native’s admiration for the Bulldogs’ historic run is understandable.

Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) pushes for a three-peat and rides a 24-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Gators (5-2, 3-1) are 14.5-point underdogs, just 20 games into Napier’s rebuild and losers of consecutive meetings by a combined score of 76-27.

Despite UF’s slim upset hopes, the annual date in Jacksonville stirs anticipation and ample discussion.

Is this Florida’s most one-sided rivalry since the Steve Spurrier era (1990-2001)?

Georgia still has some work left to match the ruthless success of Spurrier, who won 11 of 12 in the series by an average of 23.6 points.

There’s also no end in sight to the Bulldogs’ dominance. They’ve won 8 of 12 meetings, including five of the past six under Kirby Smart by an average of 22 points.

Florida State is the only program to consistently get the best of the Head Ball Coach, a claim none of his successors can make — save Urban Meyer.

Bobby Bowden was 4-1-1 during first six meetings with Spurrier, but the legends spilt the next eight games. The Seminoles later reeled off seven of eight under Jimbo Fisher from 2010-17, when Florida’s program went into a tailspin amid coaching turnover, poor quarterback play, lagging facilities and so-so recruiting.

Since Spurrier’s days of dominance against the Dawgs, Napier is Florida’s sixth head coach. Smart is just the second in Athens since Mark Richt arrived in 2001, the season before Spurrier left for the NFL.

“There’s good continuity in terms of the veteran players have a good comprehension of the system,” Napier noted Monday.

During Florida’s fall from the SEC’s upper echelon, Alabama won eight straight dating to 2009’s conference title game, yet also is not an annual opponent. West division crossover foe LSU has come out on top in eight of the past 10 meetings.

But losing to the Bulldogs carries extra weight. The teams first met in 1915 — the first of six Georgia wins, five of them shutouts.

At least it could be worse.

Does Brock Bowers’ injury make Georgia vulnerable?

Georgia’s All-American tight end is usually the best player on the field and invariably the toughest matchup.

Bowers is a unicorn because of his size (6-4, 240), speed, elusiveness, route running and sure hands. His production is virtually unparalleled, highlighted by 29 scores in 36 games — all but one a Georgia win.

The Bulldogs will not be the same without Bowers, who is out with an ankle injury.

Smart also has signed a top-three recruiting class every year since 2017 other than 2021, when Georgia was No. 4.

“They’re not lacking for skill players,” Napier said.

Even so, Napier called Bowers, “one of the best players of all time.”

Florida’s star receiver Ricky Pearsall marveled, “I can’t say enough about him.”

UF quarterback Graham Mertz likely summed up the sentiment of the college football world at large.

“He’s a baller,” he said. “I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Even so, Mertz and Co. also caught a major break a season after Bower torched the Gators for 154 yards, including a 73-yard score.

Is there a Gators’ path to victory?

The ultimate upset is a long shot, but not entirely out of the question.

Georgia looked vulnerable during come-from-behind seven-point wins against South Carolina and Auburn. At times, the Florida has looked inept, but is coming off an emotional, high-scoring win during the final minute at South Carolina.

To beat the Bulldogs, the Gators will have to limit mistakes that have plagued them away from Gainesville and capitalize on every opportunity — and it still might not be enough.

UF won the turnover battle 3-0 in 2022 and still lost by three scores, trailing 21-0 early after opening with five consecutive punts.

Napier said he’d like to see more takeaways from a defense with just four, fewer than all but two teams nationally.

A fast start is imperative. The Gators fell behind immediately during lopsided losses at Utah and Kentucky, undone by red-zone penalties, defensive breakdowns, special teams mishaps and poor offensive line play.

UF must flip the script to have a shot Saturday.

Napier’s attack managed just 82 rushing yards and allowed eight sacks of Mertz during those two road losses.

Even with Bowers, Georgia aims to establish the run. Smart’s defense leads the SEC in stopping it.

The Bulldogs have scored 19 times on the ground while allowing just five rushing touchdowns. If the Gators are not considerably better up front, a long, humbling day awaits.

Will anyone feel more pressure than Georgia quarterback Carson Beck?

Beck has acquitted himself well since stepping in for Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on who ended his career with a 6-touchdown, MVP performance during the 2022 national title game and a 29-1 record the past two seasons.

Among SEC QBs, Beck is second in yards per game (306.7) and completion rate (73.6%), fifth in yards per attempt (9.1) and rating (163.81) and has 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

But the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Jacksonville native and former Gators’ recruit will be without his top target (Bowers) as family, friends, foes and a national TV audience watch Beck’s every move during his first Florida-Georgia game.

Smart said Beck’s demeanor caught his eye as a high school recruit and state champion at Mandarin. It should serve him well.

“He continues to work on the things that are going to give us a chance to win,” Smart said. “Him being accurate, him making good decisions, him putting us in right plays. He’s a bright kid.

“He knows it’s not all on him. He has people around him to help him.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at