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Can This Banged-Up Georgia Team Beat Florida?

Georgia’s defense is dominant, but it may not be so dominant with Richard LeCounte (2) out of the Florida game. Credit: Mark Cornelison

Three weeks ago, I had no doubt Georgia would lay a beatdown on Florida in this year’s edition of the World’s Largest Socially Distanced Outdoor Cocktail Party. 

On Oct. 10, the Dawgs beat Tennessee 44–21, giving them consecutive top-15 wins over the Vols and Auburn. That same week, Florida—which the media crowned as the preseason favorite to win the SEC East—lost to Texas A&M on a last-second field goal. Among the literal and figurative ills of the Gators, COVID-19 ran rampant through the Florida program the following week, forcing the postponement of the LSU game and shutting down team operations for almost two weeks.

Just like that, the narrative flipped, and Georgia became the front-runner in the East. But in college football, a matter of weeks can make a world of difference. First came the loss to Alabama, which exposed Georgia’s weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Then came an uninspiring 14–3 win at Kentucky that saw some of the Dawgs’ key players sidelined through injury. 

Suffice it to say, any confidence I had in an easy win over the Gators in what has shaped up to be a de facto SEC East title game has evaporated. By any measure, Georgia’s defense is by far the best unit on the team and one of the best defenses in all college football. Meanwhile, Florida is working with one of the most explosive offenses in the game. It’s not on Alabama’s level, but it will be the second-best offense we face this season.

This Bulldog defense may still be up to the task of stopping the Gators, but it has been exposed in some key areas. The most notable weakness is the propensity to give up the long ball. Of the nine touchdowns Georgia has allowed this season, five have come off passes of 25 yards or more. Florida’s strength is its passing game, so if its offense is going to make hay, it’ll be with deep passes.

All things being equal, I’d pick Georgia’s defense over Florida’s offense. But all things are not equal, thanks to a spate of injuries on both sides of the ball. The Dawgs lost a number of key contributors over the course of the win over Kentucky. The team’s top defensive lineman, nose tackle Jordan Davis, went down against the Wildcats, along with defensive tackle Julian Rochester. Linebacker Monty Rice, the team’s leading tackler, has been nursing a foot injury and didn’t start against Kentucky. His replacement, Quay Walker, didn’t finish the game after going down with an injury. In addition, star safety Richard LeCounte is expected to miss several games after being involved in a car crash while riding a dirt bike back in Athens Saturday evening.

On offense, wide receiver George Pickens and tailback Kenny McIntosh weren’t deemed fit enough to travel to Lexington for the Kentucky game. Offensive lineman Ben Cleveland also left the game injured. For an offense that has struggled the past few weeks, those injuries couldn’t come at a worse time.

Then there’s the quarterback situation. I haven’t had less confidence in a Georgia quarterback heading into a WLOCP since the infamous Faton Bauta game of 2015. Stetson Bennett IV, who threw two interceptions on 13 pass attempts against Kentucky after throwing a trio of picks against Alabama, will start. Despite Bennett’s recent struggles, Kirby Smart has made it clear he has no interest in benching Bennett. If the Dawgs are to beat the Gators this season, it will be with Hat IV under center.

So yeah, my confidence has waned. But that isn’t to say that Georgia can’t win or won’t win. Even with the injuries, the Dawgs are more talented than the Gators at almost every position. Smart has faced Dan Mullen three times in the last three years, going back to the Florida coach’s final season at Mississippi State. Mullen hasn’t managed to put up more than 17 points in any attempt.

On the other side of the ball, our old friend Todd Grantham is heading up the Florida defense. And the one thing this Georgia offense might need to get moving again is a healthy helping of third-and-Grantham.