This week’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Game of the Week will feature a crucial SEC Eastern Division clash between the Georgia Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1 SEC) and the Florida Gators (4-3, 2-3 SEC) in their annual meeting at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
This game looms large, as it will go a long way in determining which SEC East team will earn the right to meet the Alabama/LSU winner in the SEC Championship game. South Carolina still has the inside track at the moment, but a Georgia win in this game would put them in position to take over if the Gamecocks were to stumble against Tennessee, Arkansas, or Florida. And although they have struggled of late, Florida can still play their way back into the race with wins over Georgia and South Carolina, the only two teams currently ahead of them in the East.
Both teams are coming off their bye week for the first time in the history of the series; Florida will look to put the breaks on a 3-game skid and avoid its longest losing streak in 23 years, while the Bulldogs will be seeking their 6th win in a row after dropping their first 2 games of the season. Scheduling has undoubtedly played a prominent role in both team’s streaks, as the Gators have played the likes of Alabama, LSU, and Auburn (ranked 3rd, 1st, and 24th respectively) whereas Georgia has earned victories over Championship Subdivision opponent Coastal Carolina, then SEC foes Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt (who are a combined 1-15 in the SEC).
The Florida offense will be aided by the return of senior quarterback John Brantley, who has missed the last two and a half games with an ankle injury. Freshman replacements Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel struggled mightily in his absence, combining to complete only 50% of their passes for 228 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, and 17 total points in the 10 quarters that Brantley missed. It could be much of the same for Brantley on Saturday, however, as he will be facing a Georgia defense that is sixth in the FBS in total defense (273.0 yards per game). A confident UGA secondary, anchored by junior safety Bacarri Rambo who is tied for 2nd in the nation with 5 interceptions, will be looking to victimize Brantley and the Gators. Georgia registered a team-high three picks in their win last week at Vanderbilt. Look for Florida to possibly incorporate sophomore athlete Trey Burton (who has seen time at quarterback, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, and h-back) into the mix as a ball carrier from the quarterback position as well, after Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers was able to have a field day running the ball on the Georgia defense last week.
The Florida rushing attack will also receive a boost with the return of dynamic speedster Jeff Demps. Demps missed last week’s tilt with Auburn and was limited the prior week vs LSU after sustaining an ankle injury in the Gator’s October 1 contest with Alabama. He will team with senior running back Chris Rainey to attempt to penetrate a stout Georgia run defense that only allows 101.9 yards per game (18th in FBS). The duo have proven to be the catalysts for the Florida offense this season, consistently combining for a large percentage of Florida’s total offense. Among active players in the NCAA with at least 300 carries, the duo rank first and fifth in the nation, with Demps averaging 7.2 yards per rush and Rainey averaging 6.4 yards per rush. Rainey leads the Gators in both rushing (500 yds, 2 TD) and receiving (275 yds, 2 TD) this season, and is one of two players in the nation to lead his team in both categories (Lance Dunbar, North Texas). The Gators will once again be looking to these two big-play backs to shoulder the offensive load.
As for Georgia, they will have no problem relying heavily on the arm of sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray. After posting one of the best statistical seasons by a freshman quarterback in SEC history, Murray’s encore campaign has been even better. The Tampa, FL native just scorched Vanderbilt for a career-high 326 yards and 3 touchdowns, and has 23 TDS to six INTs in his 11 wins as a starter. Under Murray’s direction this season, the Bulldogs are leading the SEC in passing offense, averaging 245.8 yards per game. However, continuing that prowess against an aggressive Florida pass defense that ranks sixth in the country, allowing only 168.4 yards per game, would be quite the feat. This should undoubtedly be the most intriguing matchup of the game. The Gators lead the nation in interceptions since the start of the 2008 season, picking off 72 passes. They are also first in the country with 12 interceptions returned for TD and 1,312 interception return yards in that span.
The Bulldogs offense should also be bolstered by the return of their standout freshman running back and wide receiver, Isaiah Crowell and Malcolm Mitchell. Crowell, currently 4th in the SEC in rushing at 86.86 yards per game, was limited at Vanderbilt last week with a wrist injury. He has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times this season. Mitchell, who has been Murray’s top target and leads the Bulldogs in receiving at 73.0 yards per game, also missed the Vanderbilt game with a hamstring injury. They will need both of these playmakers to meet their quotas in order to move the ball on a Florida defense that ranks 11th in the nation, surrendering only 289.1 yards per game.
Look for the first quarter to have a huge impact on the result of this game. Georgia has benefitted from a quick start this season, outscoring their opponents 61-10 in the first quarter. As for Florida, they have outscored their opponents 54-3 in the first quarter of their four wins, but have been outscored 31-10 in the first quarter of their three losses. It will be absolutely critical for both teams to come out ready to play from the onset of this one.
There is sure to be plenty of drama when these two schools renew their age-old rivalry in this pivotal matchup of SEC Eastern division foes. Neither team can afford to suffer a loss if they want to keep pace for the SEC East crown. Be sure to catch all the action at 2:30 PM CST on Saturday!