Florida Football Friday Final: Upset-minded Gators have obstacles to overcome against No. 1 Georgia

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 27, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Upset-minded Gators have obstacles to overcome against No. 1 Georgia

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Even with the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs down their best player entering Saturday’s showdown in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, it will be an uphill battle for the Florida Gators to upset their greatest rival. Entering as two-touchdown underdogs, Florida will be looking to pull off the most notable upset in program history from a point-spread standpoint.

The Gators enter 0-17 over the last half-century when entering a game as more than a two-touchdown underdog. The Dawgs, meanwhile, are the two-time reigning national champions — though they will be without their best playmaker in star tight end Brock Bowers.

As head coach Billy Napier continues to rebuild Florida, games like this matter more than most. There is no such thing as moral victories, but UF putting up a significant fight against a deeper, more talented and more experience UGA squad would certainly serve as continued proof that the Gators’ arrow is pointing in the right direction.

Let’s take a look at everything head coach Billy Napier had to say going into the Florida-Georgia game, one in which the Gators are undoubtedly seeking to win outright.

Respect where it’s due

There’s no harm in noting the Dawgs got it going on right now. While they are far less dominant this year than they have been over the last two seasons, Georgia remains the cream of the crop in the SEC due to eight years of consistent recruiting and development under head coach Kirby Smart.

Florida is still in the process of trying to catch up in Year 2 under Napier, who noted that UGA’s fundamentals, execution and overall personnel give it an inherent edge in the game.

“Ultimately, it speaks to the level of consistency that they’ve been able to achieve from a continuity standpoint. The systems on offense, defense and in the kicking game have remained the same, therefore, the players continue to develop,” he said Monday. “… Obviously, they’ve got a talented team. This is a result of a lot of hard work. … It’s evaluation, it’s recruitment, it’s teaching and development. There’s an intangible side of that as well that’s important. To sustain that is impressive.”

Perhaps giving the Gators a bit of an edge Saturday is the absence of Bowers. Florida’s linebackers have not been overly successful in coverage this season, and not having their leading pass catcher in the lineup forces the Dawgs and quarterback Carson Beck to look elsewhere. Given the bye week, there’s no doubt that Georgia has a game plan, but it has not been forced to attempt to execute it yet.

“Obviously, this is not only one of the best players in America this year, last year, this is one of the best players of all time. This guy is a really, really unique matchup relative to his ability to run routes and get open, his ability to run after the catch,” Napier said. “… Ultimately, the matchups just change. These are probably questions more for them than they are for me, but we’ll prepare for the personnel that we’ve been watching. … Probably having an open date helps.

“They’re not lacking for skill players. They got ’em — all positions. Obviously up front, it’s a big, tall, long group that’s very effective. The quarterback gets a little bit better each week obviously as he gains experience.”

Evaluations at the midway point

Napier was not asked about special teams this week, but he did provide some insight into how he sees the Gators developing both offensively and defensively. For the first time in his career, a Napier-coached team is passing more than it’s rushing — this despite Florida entering the season with one of the best running back duos in the nation (junior Montrell Johnson Jr., sophomore Trevor Etienne). That likely speaks to issues along the offensive line, but the Gators also have a steadily improving group of pass catchers around redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz — particularly at the tight end position.

“The freshmen tight ends are growing up. The continuity in the offensive line has helped us. We’re getting some pretty good receiver play week to week depending on who’s available. (That’s another area of our team where we’ve had different lineups for some weeks.) But overall, if you’re going to move the ball in this league, every position’s got to do their part,” he said.

Mertz is completing 76.2% of his passes this season, a 15.1% better rate than his prior career-high — and not because he’s dinking and dunking. He’s averaging 8.5 yards per completion, tops in his carer by an entire yard. He’s 12 touchdowns are the second-most in his career (despite only playing seven games so far this season), and his two interceptions are on pace for a career-low given this many snaps. The continued development of Mertz will be essential to Florida having a chance Saturday.

On the other side of the ball, the Gators have improved defensively from a year ago. However, Florida has faced the fewest defensive snaps among FBS teams (54.5 per game), and it is giving up 5.7 yards per play (No. 85 nationally). Perhaps most concerning is that the Gators have only created four turnovers through seven games, a far cry from even how they performed last season.

“We’d like to be ahead of schedule a little bit more in terms of forcing more third-and-longs. To do that, you need to create negative plays. We’ve been playing probably too many downs in the four to six, two to three range. You’d like to play some more yardages and ultimately the havoc rate is not quite where we want it to be on normal downs,” Napier explained. “.. We’ve been pretty effective on third down, but we’re probably getting away with some there. We’re just playing really good in that area of our team, although we’re not playing in long yards as often as we’d like.”

Notes and quotes

Regarding issues playing away from home, Napier said is the discipline problems were apparent when doing a self-evaluation of the program: “The margin of error is small. In this league in general — I don’t care who you play, where you play ’em — you can’t afford to give the opponent anything. Certainly, undisciplined penalties are in that category.”

Former Florida head coach Steve Spurrier was one of a few program legends who spoke with the team this week about the importance of Saturday’s rivalry showdown: “Coach has been great to me since my first day I got the job. He’s been awesome,” Napier said. “Ultimately, for me, it’s a blessing to have him around. The wisdom, had an opportunity to spend some time with him, and he’s the right balance of staying out of your way but also giving you some insight. You’d be foolish not to take full advantage of having such an accomplished coach. … Coach has got conviction about the University of Florida. He cares about this place. It’s important to him. It’s always good to have him around.”

Napier did not shy away from discussing sign stealing, which has been a hot topic this week given the accusations that Michigan has been involved in practices to that end against NCAA rules. “It’s a real factor. There’s no question it exists, and you have to do a good job of creating a system and quality controlling your system,” he explained. “… But it’s real, there’s no question. Now, some of these things that I’m hearing out there out is a different level. Most teams have some sort of operation where they’re [sign stealing], but I don’t know if they went to the lengths [of Michigan], maybe. Now, I’m not up to speed. But I do think it is real, it exists in college football for sure.”

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