Jacksonville, FL – The third-ranked Florida Gators can clinch a spot in the SEC Championship Game this Saturday if they are able to knock off the 12th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs when the two long-time rivals meet at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville.
The Gators, who are actually second in the most recent installment of the BCS rankings, have jumped out to a 7-0 start for the sixth time in school history, and the fourth time since 1995 when they won the first of back-to-back national championships. This game represents UF's fourth against a ranked opponent this season, as it took out No. 23 Tennessee (37-20), No. 3 LSU (14-6) and No. 8 South Carolina (44-11), not to mention a 20-17 triumph over now-ranked Texas A&M early on.
As for the Bulldogs, they are 6-1 on the season despite not facing the same daunting schedule as has Florida. Georgia's biggest wins have been over league foes Missouri (41-20) and Tennessee (51-44), and the team is coming off a less-than-inspired 29-24 victory at Kentucky. UGA's one loss was a 35-7 verdict at South Carolina on Oct. 6, meaning a win in this game is an absolute must if it has any chance of reaching the SEC title tilt for the second straight year.
Georgia owns a 48-40-2 advantage in the all-time series with Florida, which includes a 24-20 win in last year's tussle. The Bulldogs haven't won two straight over the Gators since taking three-in-a-row from 1987-89. Prior to last year's encounter, Florida had won three straight and 18 of the previous 22 meetings.
The Gators have outscored their six SEC foes by a 184-71 margin, including 57-8 in the third quarter and 51-13 in the fourth. Last week against South Carolina, the Florida offense certainly wasn't firing on all cylinders as the unit generated a mere 183 total yards (89 rushing, 94 passing), but QB Jeff Driskel threw four TD passes, with a pair going to Jordan Reed. All 21 of the Gators' points in the first half came off turnovers, the Gamecocks committing four giveaways on the day. Conversely, Florida did not have a single turnover.
The UF defense was on point as well, allowing USC a meager 191 total yards, which included just 36 yards on the ground. In addition to coming up with the four takeways, the Gators logged four sacks and got 11 tackles from Reginald Bowens.
Driskell has been an efficient, if unspectacular, game manager for coach Will Muschamp's squad this season, completing 66.9 percent of his pass with eight TDs and only one interception, but he averages just 132.7 ypg. The UF run game however, has been rather potent, with Mike Gillislee picking up 652 yards and scoring seven TDs, helping the team churn out 212.7 ypg on the ground and account for 16 of its 24 offensive scores.
Florida is averaging 30.1 ppg while allowing just 12.1 ppg, the defensive yield currently ranking the team fourth in the country. The unit has been especially tough against the run, as foes are averaging just 3.1 ypc and only 97.3 ypg. As for their effort against the pass, the Gators have allowed a grand total of three aerial scores in seven games. Florida has collected 15 sacks and 16 turnovers.
Despite their success, Muschamp knows there is still a considerable amount of work that needs to be done before the team reaches all of its goals.
"We are very hard self-evaluators and I said if from the beginning that we watch the film and say what do we need to do better. I stand in front of the team on Mondays and tell the team what I need to do better as far as managing the game and how we practice and how we approach the week. I tell them each week what we need to do to be successful and we self-reflect on what we need to do."
The Bulldogs trailed three times in last week's game against Kentucky, but used a record-setting 427-yard, four-TD pass performance from Aaron Murray to avoid what would have been a monumental upset. Murray, who now has 16 TD passes and only four interceptions on the year, set a new school record for career TD passes and was named the SEC's Offensive Player of the Week as a result. Both Tavarres King (nine catches, 188 yards, two TDs) and Malcolm Mitchell (nine catches, 103 yards) had monster receiving days.
In addition to Murray's exploits (130-of-199, 1,914 yards), the Georgia offense has gotten production from RBs Todd Gurley (93 carries, 622 yards, nine TDs) and Keith Marshall (70 carries, 488 yards, five TDs), as well as King (26 rec., 511 yards, five TDs), Michael Bennett (24 rec., 345 yards, four TDs) before he suffered a knee injury a few weeks ago that will sideline him for the remainder of the season, Marlon Brown (22 rec., 326 yards, three TDs) and Mitchell (18 rec., 229 yards). In all, six guys have at least 100 receiving yards, helping the UGA offense average 39.6 points and 486.9 total yards per contest (205.1 ypg rushing, 281.7 ypg passing).
The Georgia defense has performed much better in the second half of its seven games to this point, as it has allowed a total of 108 points in the first two quarters compared to just 61 over the final two. The unit permits 367.4 ypg, and has come up with just 10 turnovers and 11 sacks. Shawn Williams and Amarlo Herrera currently sit atop the team's tackles list with 51 and 50, respectively, while Jarvis Jones has proven his worth in the trenches by logging a club-best five sacks.
Kentucky scored the first points of the game last week, and wound up with 206 rushing yards on 43 attempts (4.8 ypc). The Wildcats finished with just 123 passing yards, as Alec Ogletree led three UGA defenders in double-digit tackles with 11.
Murray knows his team is going to have play exceptionally well in all phases of the game to have a shot against Florida.
"At the end of the day, it all depends on how we play next Saturday. We know we have to play an unbelievable game offensively, defensively and special teams if we want to have a chance to win that game so we just have to be ready to go."