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Game of the Week Preview: Florida-Georgia

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Once again, the Florida-Georgia matchup will almost certainly determine who advances to the SEC Championship Game.

Overview -- Once again, the Florida-Georgia matchup will almost certainly determine who advances to the SEC Championship Game. This top ten pairing also has national implications, soon set to shake up the rank-and-file in the polls. Though the Bulldogs were picked as the overwhelming favorite back in the preseason, and remain slotted 8th overall, it's the top six Gators who enter Saturday as the higher ranked team behind only LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Penn State. The winner in Jacksonville, while either the Crimson Tide or Tigers will be waiting in Atlanta, is very much in the College Football Playoff Picture. Historically, Florida-Georgia has long been a series of streaks; the Bulldogs, having won the last two meetings against the Gators by a combined score of 78-24, are looking for their third-consecutive victory in the rivalry. Two elite defenses will step into the spotlight as Georgia and Florida rank 5th and 12th in the country respectively in scoring defense. The two sides are now well-rested and healthy, entering the weekend after a bye as is tradition.         

Why to Watch -- The deep-rooted disdain is real; Florida and Georgia can't even agree on a series record. Add in the neutral site pairing, memorable moments and week-long tailgating scene as this is a rivalry with an energy and appeal that stands alone. Both programs, led by Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart, are college football heavyweights and the stakes make this one a must-see. So do the storylines, notably at quarterback. For Georgia, Jake Fromm, perfect in Jacksonville, has one of the best resumes in the country. He leads a team looking for a springboard back into the national forefront after a disappointing loss to South Carolina a few weeks prior. Florida's Kyle Trask has done good work replacing the injured Feleipe Franks and has rallied the Gators offensively entering the home stretch. While just one game on the schedule, what happens in this rivalry helps define season successes and program momentum alike. Taking everything into account, there simply aren't many matchups like this one in the game today.

Keys for Florida

1. Wreck Havoc at the Line -- Florida must win at the point of attack defensively. Led by edge rushers Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, both back from injury, the Gators boast a disruptive unit up front. In fact, Florida ranks eighth nationally with 29 sacks, a big reason why Florida ranks third in the country with 12 interceptions. So much of what Florida does in Todd Grantham's defense starts with a consistent ability to overwhelm opponents in the treches. Greenard is the name to watch. He had four sacks in the Gators' first five games. When he is locked in, Florida is at its absolute best. Controlling the line of scrimmage defensively is the ideal way to slow down Georgia's offense, a notion easier said than done. The Bulldogs boast perhaps the nation's premier front five, with just four sacks allowed all year, so the challenge speaks for itself. Greenard and Zuniga will square off against tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, one of the best tandem pairings anywhere in college football this season. Look for Grantham to bring extra blitzers at times in an attempt to disrupt the timing of quarterback Jake Fromm. If Florida can consistently penetrate the offensive backfield or clog rushing lanes, the Gators will have a good chance to slow down D'Andre Swift. The Georgia running back is difficult to contain once he reaches the second level.

2. Trask to Pitts -- Tight end Kyle Pitts has quickly become one of the best players at his position in all of college football. In some ways, he is the catalyst for an impressive Florida passing game. A smooth route-runner and fluid athlete, Pitts, reminding many of former UF All-American Ben Troupe, is a near-impossible matchup one-on-one. The defensive attention he draws in the middle of the field only results in more favorable coverages for the Gators' talented rotation of wide receivers. Pitts leads Florida with 35 receptions, 391 yards and four touchdowns; he had five receptions for 108 yards at LSU. Against Georgia, Pitts may prove to be the one playmaker in particular, being productive both underneath and down the seam, who can keep the Bulldogs off balance. Pitts will be an important security blanket for quarterback Kyle Trask, a reliable option who can also make plays after the catch. Emerging as one of the top tight ends in the entire country, Pitts is ready for a big-time performance on this type of stage.

3. Maximize Redzone Opportunities -- With notable momentum entering Saturday, Florida needs to put the pressure on Georgia by converting redzone opportunities into touchdowns. The difference between seven points and three points on such trips can be the difference in winning and losing. Pressure will be on the Gators once they pass the visiting 20-yard line as the Bulldogs are tied for first nationally in allowing opponents to convert just 25% of their redzone chances into touchdowns. Dan Mullen will need to be aggressive and creative the closer Florida gets to the goaline and quarterback Kyle Trask must be especially-efficient. Georgia is the only team in the country to have not yet given up a single rushing score, so the Gators' offensive line, which has been improving throughout the year, must bear down. For as great as kicker Evan McPherson is, and he is an asset, Florida simply has to find a way to get into the endzone, even against an elite redzone defense, to control some of the tempo of the game.     

Keys for Georgia

1. Win With Physicality -- Georgia boasts one of the largest offensive lines in all of football, the professional ranks included, a strength which should be taken full advantage of. Though Florida is extremely athletic along its defensive front, the Bulldogs will have a significant size and strength advantage in the trenches. Correspondingly, the play of Georgia's offensive line should be the foundation for the Bulldogs' entire offensive gameplan. Led by all-everything tackle Andrew Thomas, Georgia can control the clock, the ebb and flow of the afternoon and limit the Gators offensive opportunities with an offensive line that has often been the nation's best by a wide margin. For point of reference, the Bulldogs are tied for the fewest sacks allowed in the nation and rank sixth in the country with a team rushing average of 6.07 yards per carry. Defensively, Georgia slots in the top five in the game in rush defense and is the lone unit to have not yet allowed a single rushing score. The Bulldogs are strong up the middle and should win regularly against a still-evolving Florida front. A smashmouth brand of football has long been Georgia's legacy, a style that energizes both on the sidelines and in the stands.

2. Find a Way to Pressure the Passer -- The Georgia defense has been exceptional this fall, but the Bulldogs are still struggling to get after the quarterback. Georgia stands just 10th in the SEC with 16 sacks and has just one sack over the past twk weeks. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has proven to be an accurate, efficient thrower of the football. Given the options he has in the passing game, Trask could be quite productive if the Bulldogs cannot rush his progressions. Freshmen Azeez Ojulari and Nolan Smith are talented young stars coming in their own, but Georgia will need a comprehensive defensive effort to get to Trask. If veteran lineman Tyler Clark can beat his blockers, that would be a great starting point for the Bulldogs' pass rush. Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning may even blitz defensive backs on ocassion in an attempt to reach Trask. In the biggest game of the season, Georgia needs to address one of its biggest inconsistencies. 

3. Diversify the Passing Game -- Some of the numbers through the air have been inconsistent, at times, for Georgia. That said, Jake Fromm remains one of the elite quarterbacks in the entire country and a player clearly capable of leading the Bulldogs to a championship. His rhythm will be important against a proven, playmaking Florida secondary, a unit featuring three top-tier cover corners in C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean. It will be important for Georgia to spread the field, find favorable matchups and get multiple pass-catchers involved to make the Gators defend the whole field. While it will be important to showcase the likes of George Pickens on the perimeter, Lawrence Cager in the redzone and Demetris Robertson in the slot, Fromm also needs to find tight ends Charlie Woerner, who has just four receptions for 15 yards on the season, and Eli Wolf. Getting running backs D'Andre Swift and James Cook involved in the passing early would also help jump-start the passing game. Georgia has playmakers and Fromm can obviously get them the football; the Bulldogs need to be unpredictable and multi-faceted through the air.      

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Georgia -- Some of the numbers have regressed for Jake Fromm, but his resume clearly speaks for itself. Fromm is a great quarterback, still completing over 70% of his passes, a great leader and has considerable big game experience. Additionally, he is 2-0 against Florida with four passing touchdowns and one interception. Give Kyle Trask credit for the job he has done replacing Feleipe Franks. 

Running Back: Georgia -- No team in the country can match Georgia's depth in the offensive backfield. Starting with star D'Andre Swift, the SEC's leading rusher with 107.4 yards per game, the Bulldogs have multiple options in the running game. From Lamical Perine to Dameon Pierce, Florida has gotten big, teimely plays from its rushers as well.

Pass-Catchers: Florida -- Quarterback Kyle Trask has notable options in the passing game as seven different wide receivers or tight ends have at least a dozen receptions. Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain lead the playmakers out wide, while tight end Kyle Pitts is a unique talent. Georgia has impressive young talent. 

Offensive Line: Georgia -- What Georgia has is one of the best offensive fronts we have seen in college football in years. There is size and strength, experience and depth and the unit has been equally effective in pass protection and run blocking. Tackle Andrew Thomas is putting together a career that will ultimately have him regarded as one of the SEC's best ever. Center Nick Buchanan plays a key role for Florida.

Defensive Line: Florida -- Jabari Zuniga gives Florida a dynamic presence at defensive end. He and tackle Adam Shuler are a formidable inside-outside tandem for the Gators. Florida gets quite varied and multiple up front in Todd Grantham's defensive scheme. Tyler Clark is the catalyst for Georgia up front.         

Linebackers: Florida -- Few defenders in the country can impact a game quite like Florida's Jon Greenard. Back healthy, he is a major boost for the Gators who can do a number of different things, rush the passer included. David Reese is the SEC's second-leading tackler with 66 stops. Keep an eye on Georgia's young group of linebackers.

Secondary: Florida -- One of the nation's top playmaking defensive backfields, Florida has stars at both cornerback and safety. C.J. Henderson is a true number one corner capable of winning consistently downfield. Georgia boasts a top-tier safety duo in J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte.   

Special Teams: Florida -- Not only does Florida have a proven track record of blocking kicks, the Gators lead all of Power Five football in punt coverage. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is one of Georgia's best players, a distinction he has very much earned. Punter Jake Camarda has had a nice year as well, averaging 47.8 yards per boot. Florida has also has a good kicker-punter combo with Evan McPherson and Tommy Townsend.

Coaching: Florida -- Both Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart are elite head coaches, see their respective track records, with excellent staffs, but Mullen's recent success in big games has been quite impressive. Georgia is still trying to settle into a clear identity offensively.

Intangibles: Georgia -- There seems to be a growing outside-consensus that Georgia has taken a step back, a talking point that, especially after a bye week, has to have the Bulldogs' attention. Look for Georgia to take the field with a chip on its shoulder, playing with an intensity and focus on this big stage.

Players to Watch

Florida: Jon Greenard, Edge -- Simply put, a healthy Greenard lining up at both outside linebacker and defensive end results in a different type of Florida defense. His athleticism and range gives the Gators more bit at the line of scrimmage and puts Florida's pass rush in high gear. On third downs, especially, Greenard is the type of talent who can make game-changing big plays.       

Georgia: D'Andre Swift, RB -- One of the nation's best running backs, Swift has really settled into a groove as of late. He has 79 carries for 462 yards and five touchdowns over his last four games. Look for Swift to, of course, be the featured back on the ground, but also turned to at times in the passing game as well. Swift is the singular x-factor who makes the Georgia offense go. 

Final Thoughts

This pairing of top ten teams is set to live up to the hype. With a likely spot in the SEC Championship Game on the line, expect a close, competitive afternoon. Though perhaps lacking some of the big play potential of Florida, Georgia's consistency, and corresponding lack of volatility, could prove to be the difference. Jake Fromm's experience under center, along with the Bulldogs' dominance along the offensive line, helps Georgia in the game's deciding moments. In a matchup where emotion always plays a big role, the Bulldogs make fewer mistakes. Georgia 27, Florida 23

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports