Florida heads into the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party as (roughly) a touchdown favorite, depending on where you look. The Gators are the favorite not in the least because they’re sitting at 5-1 with two off weeks in the past three, while the Bulldogs have lost three of four including a home defeat to Vanderbilt.
Beyond the records, there are several reasons why Florida should be favored to win the game in Jacksonville. I’ll give you three big ones that suggest the Gators will prevail again against UGA.
Jacob Eason Away From Home
The Bulldogs’ true freshman quarterback has held his own in 2016, showing off a cannon of an arm and an abundance of potential. However as might be expected out of an inexperienced player, he has been far better at home than away from it.
In three games in Athens, Eason has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt and a passing efficiency rating of 145.6. Away from home, he has completed 48.3 percent of his passes for just 5 yards per attempt and a passing efficiency of 99.43.
There hasn’t been a huge scheduling difference to explain the disparity. The average defensive rank of UGA’s two FBS home opponents is 38 in defensive S&P+, and the pass defense rank specifically averages to 43. In games outside the hedges, those averages are 51.8 overall and 44.3 in passing.
Eason did light up Nicholls State for over 10 yards per attempt at home. However he threw for 7.5 YPA against Tennessee (S&P+ pass defense rank: 23) and 8.7 against Vandy (63) at home, but he managed only 5.6 against Missouri (27), 3.8 against Ole Miss (45), and 1.7 against South Carolina (61).
Kirby Smart said that Eason had happy feet in UGA’s last road game, and it was obvious from the first throw.
Credit: SEC Network
There wasn’t a defender within six yards of Eason, but he never stopped dancing in the pocket. He didn’t set his feet, and he slung the pass too high as a result. Eason misfired on several occasions due to his footwork, and he completed just 5 of 17 for 29 yards.
It is worth noting that Eason’s best game by both passing efficiency and yards per attempt was his first one against North Carolina at a neutral site. However, the Tar Heels’ pitiful rushing defense let Nick Chubb run all over them, which caused them to devote more resources to stopping the run. As opposing defensive coaches have seen more of Eason, he’s been unable to replicate those results.
Moreover, Florida’s defense is stiffer than UNC’s. Playing in the true 50-50 split of Everbank Field is also different than going into a Georgia Dome stocked full of Bulldog fans. Unless Eason can recapture the poise he displayed against UNC, Florida’s pass defense will probably have a great day against the freshman.
Winning First Down
Georgia prefers to run the ball on first down. In non-garbage time against five Power Five opponents, the Bulldogs have done so 65.3% of the time (counting sacks as pass plays).
In four SEC games so far, Florida has allowed 4.9 yards per carry with a 41.7-percent success rate on first down. Those figures aren’t outstanding, but part of why they’re not so impressive is that Joshua Dobbs hurt the Gators badly on the ground. Take out his 10 carries for 65 yards on first down—which is reasonable because Eason is nowhere near the runner Dobbs is—and UF’s defense ends up allowing 3.8 YPC with a 38-percent success rate. Those are much more foreboding figures.
It’s important for the Gators to win the first down battle because Georgia’s offense deteriorates thereafter. Eason has zero interceptions in 73 passes on first down, but he has two in 67 second-down attempts and three in 64 third-down attempts. Georgia’s rushing offense also has its lowest success rate on second down.
Winning first down will help avoid Georgia getting to third and short, and anything more than three yards to go bodes very well for the Gator defense. On third down with at least four yards to go, Eason is 24/57 (42.1%) for 354 yards (6.2 YPA) with two TDs, three INTs, and a passing efficiency of 95.3. In the same down and distance situation, Florida’s defense has allowed 15 net yards on 67 plays—a mere 0.2 yards per play—with a conversion rate of only 17.9%.
Florida’s defense will probably win first down more often than not. When it does, the odds of offensive success for Georgia plummet.
There isn’t a single disparity between the Gators and Bulldogs as wide as Florida’s advantage in special teams. UF ranks third nationally in the S&P+ special teams rankings, while UGA is a dismal 121st.
Some of the advantage there is undoubtedly because Georgia’s William Ham has made only 3-of-7 field goals, and replacement Rodrigo Blankenship has made 4-of-5. He made all three attempts in the loss to Vanderbilt, meaning the kicking situation might be solved to a degree.
However, poor special teams plays by Georgia basically gave Vandy 10 of its 17 points. Vanderbilt’s Darrius Sims ran the opening kickoff 95 yards to set up a short Ralph Webb touchdown run. In the third quarter, Georgia’s Reggie Davis inexcusably fielded a kickoff and went out of bounds at the 3, and a short punt with a good return afterwards set up Vandy at the Bulldog 27. VU got a field goal from that exchange.
Antonio Callaway’s confusing fair catch decisions against Tennessee aside, Florida’s special teams have been terrific. Eddy Piñeiro has been as good as advertised, making 9 out of 12 field goals including 6-of-8 from 40 yards or more. He also has booted 74.3 percent of kickoffs for touchbacks, more than double Blankenship’s 35.5-percent rate. Punter Johnny Townsend averages about eight yards per punt more than UGA’s Marshall Long does, and Townsend’s rate of pinning opponents inside the 20 is about 25 percent higher than Long’s.
Coaches like to talk about the “hidden yards” of the special teams phase of the game, and all signs point to the Gators likely having the hidden yards advantage.
Don’t Count Georgia Out
All of this isn’t to say that Florida has the game in the bag. Luke Del Rio was terrible against Missouri, throwing three picks and hitting defenders in the hands on multiple other occasions. He won’t carve up the UGA secondary like Chad Kelly did. Georgia also was the team that came far closer to beating Tennessee of these two, and the Bulldogs have scored more offensive points than Florida has against every common opponent the teams have faced so far.
Still, the matchup in this game favors Florida to win. UGA might be a couple of plays against the Volunteers and Commodores from being 6-1, but the Bulldogs are also a couple of plays against Nicholls and Missouri from being 2-5. The Gators haven’t been flashy, but they’ve been more consistent and don’t show as many obvious deficiencies as the Bulldogs do.
If Florida does end up victorious on Saturday, it’s likely going to be due in no small part to Eason having a bad game away from home, Florida winning first down, and a special teams edge for the Gators.