(CBS Local)- The Florida-Georgia rivalry is among the best that college football has to offer, an annual slug-fest dating back to 1915. There have been a few breaks in the schedule here and there, but the teams have met continually each year since 1944.
That history, as well as the raucous atmosphere that comes along with a game nicknamed the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, will be in the spotlight this Saturday, when the teams meet in the SEC Game of the Week on CBS. The pair enter with top-10 rankings for the second consecutive year. The Gators are looking to end a two-game skid in the series. CBS Sports analyst and former Gators quarterback Malik Zaire thinks the Gators have “a lot to prove” against this talented Georgia team that entered the season as Playoff hopefuls.
The Gators actually enter as the higher ranked team, sitting at #6 in the latest AP Top 25 poll, while Georgia is currently two spots behind at #8. Both teams are coming off of bye weeks, meaning they had two full weeks to prepare for what the other is going to throw at them on Saturday afternoon.
The defenses on both sides will be tough to unlock, with Georgia ranking fifth in scoring defense (10.6 PPG) and Florida 12th (15.8 PPG). The Gators’ numbers have been inflated a bit by their last two outings. in which they gave up 42 to an explosive LSU Tigers team and 27 to South Carolina. But, in both of those matchups, the Gators top defensive linemen, Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, were hobbled by injuries. Greenard missed both games, while Zuniga played against LSU and then missed the game against South Carolina. Both guys are expected to be back on the field in better health this week.
That will be key in controlling a Georgia running game that has mauled most opponents this season. The Bulldogs have racked up over 230 yards per game on a six-yard-per-carry average. As usual, the running attack features a trio of talented backs in D’Andre Swift, Zamir White, and Brian Herrien. Matching up with the running game has proven difficult for most Georgia opponents this year, which is why Zaire points to the Gators’ run defense as the key matchup to watch.
“The run defense on Florida’s side. We have seen a lot from Jake Fromm, where if you can put the ball in his hands and really put the pressure on him to win the game, you have a better chance of succeeding,” said Zaire. “Rather than having those running backs, a three-headed monster almost, that can really take over a game. The Florida run defense is going to be crucial for them to really make a statement, not only for this game but for the SEC as well. If you can really stop that run game, with the secondary that Florida has, being able to match up well enough with the receivers to really make it an even game.”
The Gators have been solid against the run, holding opponents under four yards per carry (3.8) and just 124 yards per game on average this season. But, in the loss to LSU, they let Clyde Edwards-Helaire get loose for 134 yards on 13 carries. Having Zuniga and Greenard back should help, but the Gators defense will have to be better slowing the running game this week. If they can do so, that puts Jake Fromm in a position where he hasn’t often been successful in his career.
To this point, when Fromm has attempted 30 or more passes, Georgia is 0-5. Now, not all of those losses can be put on Fromm. But it is interesting to see what happens to the Georgia offense when the running game isn’t bulldozing opponents and they have to rely more on the passing game. Against South Carolina, the Bulldogs lone loss this season, Fromm attempted 51 passes and threw three interceptions, including a pick-six.
“Jake Fromm is a game manager like most quarterbacks in college football. You really see what it takes as a quarterback to make that step from not having to lose games to having to win games,” said Zaire. “Notre Dame’s Ian Book saw a lot of that this past weekend. The adverse conditions were there, and the team wasn’t as talented as the year before. And they are going to rely on you a lot more to pull through in these games and have to throw more than 12 passes a game. We have seen Jake Fromm grow and struggle in that situation. It’s the process of growing as a leader and as a quarterback.”
Though Fromm did struggle against South Carolina, Georgia’s receivers, while highly rated recruits, haven’t quite lived up to their potential just yet. The leading receiver, freshman George Pickens, has 23 receptions for 318 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Lawrence Cager, a transfer from Miami, has been a big-bodied target for Fromm, but he is currently dealing with a separated shoulder and injured ribs, leaving his status for Saturday up in the air.
So, how does Georgia solve the issues in the passing game? For Zaire, it comes down to getting Fromm in a rhythm.
“For Jake Fromm, he has to time more down in the offense and get with his coaches to find some more creative plays to get easy throws in the offense and catch rhythm,” said Zaire. “Because once he catches rhythm, he has proven to be the top quarterback that people believe him to be. But when he is not in rhythm, and they don’t have that run action, it becomes a different game for him.”
As of this writing, the Bulldogs are 6.5-point favorites. Kick off on Saturday from TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS.