JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Both Florida and Georgia are coming off bye weeks. Very different bye weeks.
The mood around Gainesville has been glum of late following a 42-13 Homecoming loss to Missouri. In Athens the locals have renewed optimism following back-to-back road wins without Heisman hopeful Todd Gurley.
The teams return to EverBank Field on Saturday for their annual showdown here on the shore of the St. Johns River.
Georgia is playing to stay on track for the SEC East title. The Gators are playing to salvage their season and turn the heat down on head coach Will Muschamp.
The Gators know how important Saturday’s game is after losing three in a row to the Bulldogs. Georgia hasn’t won four in a row over the Gators since a six-year win streak that ended 31 years ago.
"I believe a win this week would mean a whole lot of Gator Nation," sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor said. "We really owe our fans. We have great fans and we owe them a win. We have to play hard, play for our coaches and play for each other. Everything else will turn out fine."
That’s what the Gators want. The Bulldogs want to extend their misery. It’s always like that in this rivalry.
For more on Saturday’s Florida-Georgia game, here is The Opening Kickoff:
— The Gators are turning to freshman quarterback Treon Harris to jumpstart their struggling offense. Florida has 15 turnovers in the last four games. In limited playing time (three games), Harris has led the Gators on six scoring drives.
— Florida’s defense won’t have to stop Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who remains suspended. However, true freshman Nick Chubb has rushed for 345 yards in two starts in place of Gurley and has the Gators’ attention.
— Georgia is the front-runner in the SEC East and controls its own destiny. Meanwhile, the Gators must win to maintain their slim hopes of making it to Atlanta.
— Gators coach Will Muschamp is 0-3 against the Bulldogs. Florida has lost three of its last four games and going back to last season, the Gators are 7-11 in their last 18 games. With questions about his future swirling, a win is one way to quiet the noise.
— With Harris making his first career start, Muschamp said the bye week helped him significantly in learning more of the offense. Muschamp said not to expect a significantly reduced playbook compared to the one Florida used with Jeff Driskel as the starter.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
— Florida defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. leads the Gators with 10 quarterback hurries and could be a difference maker if Georgia has to throw the ball more than expected.
— For the first time since 2009 the Gators face Georgia without Aaron Murray at quarterback. Fifth-year senior Hutson Mason has not thrown for 200 yards in a game this season but has been efficient with 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
— Chubb was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week following his 202-yard performance at Arkansas two weeks ago, becoming the first Georgia true freshman running back to rush for 200 yards in a game since Rodney Hampton in 1987.
— Florida punter Kyle Christy, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, has 13 punts inside the 20-yard line and 13 punts of 50 yards or longer. If it’s a tight defensive struggle, Christy’s contributions could be key.
— First-year Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt leads a staff that underwent an overhaul after last season. The Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (20 ppg) and fifth in total defense (320.6 ypg).
The tide has clearly turned in this rivalry with Georgia winners of three straight after Florida had won 18 of the previous 21 meetings. If the Gators don’t reverse that trend Saturday, the fallout will be loud around Gator Nation.
The Gators need a win. Muschamp needs a win. Florida fans need a win. That pretty much sums up what this game means on the Florida side of the field.