With No. 10 Georgia’s showdown with No. 2 Florida only a couple of days away, we sought out perspective from the Sunshine State on what to expect from Saturday’s game in Jacksonville, Fla.
ESPN GatorNation beat writer Michael DiRocco was kind enough to answer five questions about the game that could very well determine this season’s SEC East champion:
Q: The most obvious factor in Florida’s turnaround is that it’s getting solid play from Jeff Driskel at quarterback instead of last season’s revolving door of uncertainty. Is that all it took? Why else is this Florida team so much better?
A: Better QB play is one of several reasons for the turnaround. The Gators are also a physically stronger and tougher team on both lines of scrimmage. Remember, UF coach Will Muschamp called the lines soft at the end of last season and they really improved in that area during the offseason. The Gators are also running the ball better than last season, thanks to the OL and RB Mike Gillislee. UF also has more depth, especially on defense, which is keeping guys from getting worn down the way they did last season. Another big reason is the Gators’ turnover ratio. They’re plus-11, having forced 15 turnovers while only giving the ball away four times. UF was minus-12 last season.
Q: That said, it would appear that the Gators are a bit one-dimensional on offense. South Carolina’s mobile quarterback Connor Shaw gave Georgia fits, so that would seem to favor Driskel. But if the Bulldogs can keep him in the pocket, does Florida have confidence that Driskel can win a game by throwing the ball?
A: The coaching staff says it does, but that’s what you’d expect them to say. The bottom line is that nobody knows for sure. It seems unlikely, though, because the Gators’ WRs are average at best. Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar have made plays here and there, but neither is a consistent playmaker. The most dynamic receiver the Gators have is Andre Debose, but he’s been in the doghouse because of his lack of consistent effort and work at practice. UF’s most consistent playmaker in the passing game is TE Jordan Reed. The one encouraging sign for the Gators is that Driskel has progressed rapidly in his development. He’s not making big mistakes -- just two turnovers all year -- and that’s something young quarterbacks struggle to avoid.
Q: What do you think is Florida’s biggest advantage entering this game? What about its biggest disadvantage?
A: UF’s biggest advantage would be on special teams. P Kyle Christy leads the nation (47.9 yards per punt) and has been a field-position weapon. K Caleb Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist last season. But it goes beyond the specialists. The Gators’ coverage units have been fantastic, as well. Opponents are averaging just 1.8 yards per punt return and 18.8 yards per kickoff return. The Gators’ biggest disadvantage is their lack of a big-time pass rusher. That’s the one thing the defense is missing. There’s no Jadeveon Clowney or Jarvis Jones to wreak havoc on opposing QBs, which will be an issue against Aaron Murray on Saturday.
Q: Is it fair to say that if it has a defensive shortcoming, Florida has been somewhat vulnerable against the pass? Georgia has moved the ball well through the air. Do the Gators have enough in the secondary to defend Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs’ passing game?
A: I don’t know about that. The Gators have given up only three TD passes and have picked off eight passes. CBs Jaylen Watkins, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson have thrived this season in man coverage and S Matt Elam has made several big plays. As for the matchup against the Bulldogs, this is a similar challenge to what the Gators faced against Tennessee with QB Tyler Bray and WRs Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell are going to catch passes and win some one-on-one battles, but the key will be limiting big plays.
Q: On a scale of 1-10, what do you think is the average Florida fan’s confidence level heading into Saturday?
A: Probably somewhere in the 7-8 range, which is pretty strange because it’s not like the Georgia team that is coming into Jacksonville has three or four losses. Yet you sort of get that feeling around town that the Bulldogs are not very good and the Gators are clearly the superior team. Maybe that’s because of the beatdown UF put on South Carolina, which had already routed Georgia.