We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Florida.
Most important game: Nov. 1 vs. Georgia
Key players: Georgia tailback Todd Gurley was the big difference-maker in last year's contest, a 23-20 win that was the Bulldogs' third in a row in this contentious border war. Gurley had 187 total yards and two touchdowns, doing most of his damage in a 17-0 first quarter before Florida's defense regained its composure. There were lots of scuffles and penalties in that game, so the Gators will need leaders such as quarterback Jeff Driskel, wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, linebacker Michael Taylor and safety Jabari Gorman to keep their focus between the white lines.
Off the field, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt -- two newcomers to this game -- will engage in a fascinating chess match. Roper's new no-huddle spread offense won't be so new and mysterious by the eighth game of the season, so the Gators will likely have to beat Pruitt's attacking 3-4 defense in the trenches. If the UF offensive line can stay healthy, Roper will have a number of running backs with which to pound away. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor, who got his first career start in last year's Florida-Georgia game and ran for 76 yards, is the likely starter. Mack Brown and Matt Jones, whom the coaching staff expects to be back at full strength after he tore cartilage in his knee last season, are capable backups.
The quarterback matchup also poses an interesting contrast. Driskel is a dual-threat athlete, while Georgia senior Hutson Mason is more of a pocket passer. In his 15 career starts, Driskel has not shown much command of the passing game with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-10. But Roper expects Driskel to be more efficient in his offense. And against Georgia, Driskel will be facing a secondary that has lost three starters in the offseason. Mason, on the other hand, gets to tangle with a Florida secondary that features stud sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III. But Mason has plenty of confidence going into his fifth season in Mark Richt's offense. He threw for 619 yards in starting Georgia's final two games last season after Aaron Murray was injured.
Why it matters: Speculating on head coach Will Muschamp’s future has become a cottage industry for Gator fans ever since Florida went 4-8 last season. Muschamp has never tasted victory in seven Florida-Georgia games -- four as a safety at Georgia from 1991-94 and the last three seasons as UF's head coach. Georgia's three-game winning streak has reignited a rivalry that Florida had dominated in recent years with 18 wins in 21 games since 1990. The Gators might play bigger, more significant games than this one in 2014, but no opponent has been circled by more Florida fans than Georgia. The same fans who are trying to guess how many wins Muschamp needs to keep his job are pinpointing Nov. 1 as one game day that will carry more weight than any other. Simply put, if Muschamp is ever going to win back Florida fans, he absolutely cannot allow UGA to stretch its streak to four. Oh, and did we mention that this game always seems to play a major role in determining the SEC East champion? That will hardly matter to UF in this game. The division race will be a distant subplot, as Florida is likely to be fueled by hatred for the Bulldogs and determination to prove that last season was an aberration.