GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida coach Will Muschamp is 20 games into his head-coaching career. Game 21 has potential to be a significant one for Muschamp and the Gators.
The annual Florida-Georgia game is on tap for Saturday in Jacksonville. The River Rivalry is always a special one. This year there is added importance for both teams.
If the Gators win, they clinch their first SEC East title in three years. If Georgia wins, the Bulldogs move into the driver's seat toward Atlanta.
Muschamp refused to get caught up in the title talk this week, but the former Georgia captain confessed that, yes, Saturday is a little different.
"We understand what is at stake and again our approach will be the same,'' Muschamp said. "Obviously it’s a rivalry for the University of Florida, it’s an important game for our program and for our university and for the fans."
With the stage set, let’s take a look at 10 things to watch in Saturday’s game:
There has been a lot of talk this week about how the Gators might be overconfident after their 33-point win against South Carolina. The pundits say perhaps they will overlook the Bulldogs, who lost 35-7 to the Gamecocks.
That’s very doubtful based on the vibe the coaches and players gave off this week. The Gators are still a young and hungry team and Muschamp has reminded them they haven’t won anything with their 7-0 start. Plus, the Gators remember what happened last year. Florida hasn’t lost two in a row to the Bulldogs since a three-game skid from 1987-89, the pre-Steve Spurrier era.
Seniors such as Jon Bostic don’t want to go out that way. If the Gators lose, it won’t be because they took Georgia too lightly.
“I haven't really looked too much back at that game,’’ Bostic said. “We've been trying to look at film from this year.”
AARON’S AERIAL ATTACK
Georgia starting quarterback Aaron Murray had more incompletions (19) than completions (15) in last year’s game against the Gators, but two of those completions were fourth-down touchdown passes that helped the Bulldogs overcome a 17-3 deficit to knock off the Gators for only the fourth time in 22 tries.
Murray is at it again. He threw for a career-high 427 yards and completed a career-high 30 passes in Georgia’s win over Kentucky. He finished 30 of 38 last week, the 78.9 completion percentage a school record for a quarterback with at least 30 completions.
Murray is tied for third in the SEC in passing (1,914 yards) and has thrown 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Gators’ secondary will undoubtedly be tested by the redshirt junior from Tampa’s Plant High, whose 75 career touchdown passes is a Georgia school record.
100 YARDS PASSING
OK, here is my one guarantee for Saturday: Florida will break triple digits in passing yardage. It’s gotta happen sometime.
The Gators have gone three consecutive games without passing for 100 yards and won all three. They haven’t needed quarterback Jeff Driskel to win with his arm. They may not need him to do it this week, but there should be opportunities against a Georgia defense ranked ninth in the SEC overall.
Driskel likely have thrown for 100 yards last week if not for a penalty that negated a 41-yard touchdown pass to Omarius Hines. Georgia is seventh in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 199.6 yards per game passing.
Georgia has the potential to strike quickly each time Murray drops back to pass. The Gators are more of a possession-type team than can wear down opposing defensive lines the way they did in the second half against LSU.
While Florida's defense has shown an ability to adjust to whatever opposing teams are running, expect Murray to make some plays. If he does and the game takes on more of an offensive tone, look for Driskel to take some shots in the passing game like he did earlier this season in the win at Tennessee.
That means the play of the wide receivers and tight end Jordan Reed will be crucial. Former Georgia tight end Orson Charles put up some big numbers the past two years against the Gators. Reed might have the opportunity to do the same for the Gators.
WELCOME BACK GILLY
Gators running back Mike Gillislee continues to challenge for the SEC rushing lead. He is currently fourth with 652 yards and seven touchdowns.
However, Gillislee has been relatively quiet the past two games and is coming off a season-low 37 yards in the win over South Carolina. Gillislee picked up 67 yards the previous week at Vanderbilt after taking over the LSU game with a 146-yard performance on a career-high 34 carries.
It’s a safe bet Gillislee runs for more yards Saturday than he did against either Vanderbilt or South Carolina if the Gators’ offense runs its normal game plan and is not taking over deep inside Georgia territory. Georgia’s defense is good but not as physical as the LSU and South Carolina fronts.
NIXON, GREEN VERSUS JONES
If there is one player Saturday the Gators must slow down it is Bulldogs outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
Jones was a one-man wrecking crew last year against the Gators, registering four of Georgia’s six sacks. Jones offers much the same challenge for left tackle Xavier Nixon – and right tackle Chaz Green when Jones switches sides – as did South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney a week ago.
Jones missed last week’s game due to an ankle injury but is expected to be ready Saturday. Jones has 36 tackles, 9 ½ for loss, and 5 ½ sacks in five games. The Gators will need to double team Jones at times and make sure they help Nixon and Green on the perimeter when Jones is in their neighborhood.
The Gators didn’t beat Georgia a year ago, but Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease did. Of course, Pease was at Boise State when the Broncos opened the 2011 season with a victory over Georgia in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome.
Georgia returns nine starters on defense, so Pease is familiar with most of the talent the Bulldogs will have on the field Saturday. In a 35-21 win over Georgia a year ago – Boise State’s first win against an SEC team – the Broncos passed for 261 yards and had 390 yards of total offense.
Georgia’s defense will see much of what it saw in last year’s loss.
“We are running the Boise State offense, other than probably Kellen Moore couldn’t do some of the runs that Jeff [Driskel] can,’’ Pease said.
RIVER RIVALRY REVELRY
The Florida-Georgia game remains one of college football's most unique matchups. The stadium is split 50-50, one side in orange and blue, the other in red and black.
The game has a great history, a great setting on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, and great pageantry. A walk through the parking lots outside of EverBank Field on Saturday is one you won't forget.
An added bonus is that this year's game features SEC East implications. Still, even if both teams were winless, Florida-Georgia -- or Georgia-Florida for those north of the state line -- is one of a kind.
Early during his tenure in Athens, Georgia coach Mark Richt's teams had a good run against ranked teams. Well, those other than the Gators.
However, since 2008, the Bulldogs are 6-14 against ranked opponents and only 2-8 in their last 10 games.
The Gators are favored on Saturday and need to extend the Bulldogs' recent struggles against Top 25 teams if they want to stay in the hunt not only for the SEC title, but perhaps a national title if they can keep stringing together wins.
FLORIDA'S FRONT FOUR
The Gators' defensive line was a mass of disruption in the win over South Carolina.
The defensive line of ends Lerentee McCray and Dominique Easley and tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter constantly pressured Gamecocks quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson.
Easley, after not playing the previous game, brings instant energy when he is on the field. Floyd is a run-stopper in the middle and Hunter is having his best season. Meanwhile, McCray has consistently been the team's best pass rusher and recovered a fumble on the first play against South Carolina.
No. 3 Florida (7-0, 6-0 in SEC) vs. No. 12 Georgia (6-1, 4-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (EverBank Field, Jacksonville)
TV: CBS -- Verne Lundquist (play-by-play); Gary Danielson (analyst); Tracy Wolfson (sideline)
Bottom line: The Gators can clinch the SEC East title with a victory over the Bulldogs. If Georgia wins, the Bulldogs can win the division by winning the rest of their conference games.