Florida Gators vs. Georgia Bulldogs game preview
For just the fifth time in the long-time series, both teams will be coming out of a bye week when Florida and Georgia meet at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
The 14th-ranked Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) spent the time to prepare for a stretch run they hope ends in an East Division title and berth in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators gained 530 yards of offense in their last outing, a 40-14 win over Missouri, but also turned the ball over four times.
"We’re nowhere where we need to be, and yet, we’re getting guys to realize how good they can be," Florida coach Jim McElwain said. "You can really be good if you allow yourself to be good."
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is taking a wait-and-see attitude before giving his assessment of what progress his Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3 SEC) might have made during the break.
"I’ll answer that question Saturday, because I certainly think we worked towards it," Smart said. "I thought that we got to attack some areas that we needed, and I really thought the kids had good energy and attitude to go out and practice the way they did, physical, hitting each other, with toughness."
There will be plenty of storylines entering the game, including the relationship between the two coaches. McElwain and Smart worked together at Alabama under Nick Saban from 2008 to 2011. McElwain served as offensive coordinator while Smart worked the other side of the ball as defensive coordinator.
"His ability to see the game and put a plan together is really, really good," McElwain said.
McElwain is concerned about Georgia’s offensive potential, led by junior running back Nick Chubb and freshman phenom quarterback Jacob Eason. Chubb was held to 40 yards on 16 carries in the 17-16 loss to Vanderbilt in Georgia’s last game, but despite that and despite missing most of one game to injury, the junior still has rushed for 586 yards.
Eason took over as starter in the second game of the season and drove the Bulldogs to the late decisive touchdown the next week in a one-point win at Missouri.
He completed 27 of 40 passes with a touchdown against Vanderbilt and on the season has completed 54.3 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. A five-star recruit out of Lake Stevens, Wash., Eason was recruited by both Florida and Georgia.
"This guy in my opinion is the future of the SEC," McElwain said. "He’s that good. His ability to push the ball downfield is something that’s impressive."
The Bulldogs did get some good news this week on the defensive front as their two leading tacklers, linebackers Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith, have been cleared of possession of marijuana charges and are eligible to play Saturday.
Florida’s offense has not been particularly overwhelming this season, but the Gators do have quarterback Luke Del Rio back. He missed three weeks to a knee injury and was a bit rusty in his first game back — "I played terrible. I didn’t take care of the ball," he said of his play against Missouri — but has completed 80 of 139 passes for 998 yards and seven touchdowns for the season.
Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland also is starting to emerge as a threat downfield. The true freshman caught his first career touchdown pass against Missouri and finished with three catches for 79 yards.
"He’s a talented guy," McElwain said.
For the season, Cleveland is averaging 20.7 yards per reception.
With 84 of the meetings between the two teams in Jacksonville, the game has a special air about it, which is not lost on the coaches.
"When you walk in that stadium and see it half and half, half Florida fans, half Georgia fans," McElwain said, "I get goosebumps just thinking about it."
Smart called it the best "neutral site" game in college football.
"I think when you get recruited to go to Georgia and Florida, that’s a game that you always point to you want to play in," Smart said. "I know historically I was that way as a player.
"But I know our players are that way. It’s considered to them one of the biggest games we have each year, especially because of where it’s played."