The Florida-Georgia rivalry is known by one of the more enjoyable monikers in sports: “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Each year, Gators and ‘Dawgs fans descend upon Jacksonville, Florida (the midway point between the two campuses) for a football game with a carnival feel. This year’s edition of the rivalry features an undefeated Georgia squad that comes in ranked #3 in the country. The Bulldogs will be looking for their first win in three years against the Gators, while also keeping their playoff hopes alive.
With the game set to be the SEC on CBS Game of the Week, we caught up with CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network college football analyst Brian Jones to get his thoughts on what Kirby Smart’s team needs to do to get a win and stay in the thick of the playoff race.
CBS Local Sports: Georgia has started off the season undefeated. What has stood out to you most about this team during this run?
Brian Jones: You have to start with the defense. I call them ‘Bama East. Of course, with Kirby Smart, the former long-time DC at Alabama, and Mel Tucker, an assistant with the Tide prior to coming over to Georgia, you figured they were going to go over and build this program in the same manner and fashion that they did there in Tuscaloosa. That’s exactly what they’ve done. You have 10 returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. They’re fast, they’re big, they fly around. So they’ve been very impressive on that side of the ball.
They’re the only team this season to hold Notre Dame below 100 yards rushing. They held the Irish to 55 yards rushing on the evening in that game. That’s Notre Dame too, who’s been running over everyone, like they did to USC last weekend.
You start there with the defense and then… they’ve always had the running game even under Mark Richt. I’ve said for years that they sprinkle running back fertilizer around that Athens campus, because they grow running backs like nobody’s business. Michel and Chubb have been the mainstays, and now you add in D’Andre Swift. Then, you’ve got Jake Fromm, who’s playing extremely well, though he hasn’t really had to do a ton. He threw for a lot in that last ball game against Missouri, but it’s been that running game that they’ve been leaning on. That’s what’s so impressive, the fact that they fly around and hit you in the mouth, shutting down opposing offenses. And then they’re able to run the rock on you.
CBS Local Sports: You mention Jake Fromm not having to do too much because of the running game. At what point do you think he’ll be tested? Do you think he’ll be able to withstand those tests?
Brian Jones: It may be in this game, you know how these rivalry games are. You throw out the records. Those stats, you can throw those out. Those stats… show you a lot, but they don’t show you everything. Fromm may be tested in this one. That Florida defense is damn good. Their last two ball games, 17 and 19 points is all they’ve allowed. So they’ve been stout defensively, even dealing with injuries. The big injury for them is losing big Jordan Sherit at that defensive end spot. They’re still playing really good defense.
Offensively, they’ve been challenged. They can’t get the ball across the middle of the field, and they don’t have a consistent passing game. They’ve run the ball fairly well with the freshman Malik Davis and Lamical Perine. But Feleipe Franks has to find a way to hit some intermediate throws, or it’s going to be a long afternoon.
This may be the game, going up against that Florida defense, where Fromm really has to air it out more, and they would like for him to do so. They still have a lot of confidence in the young man. He’s shown the moments aren’t too big. To get your first game on the road at Notre Dame? That can prepare you for a lot as you navigate a football season. We’ll see what happens here. He threw for his most passing yards of the season in that Missouri ball game. Granted, that’s not saying much, going up against Missouri, but throwing for 326 yards and a couple touchdowns was some good in-game practice for him.
CBS Local Sports: Florida right now is on a three-game winning streak in this rivalry. Is this the year the ‘Dawgs break through and end that streak?
Brian Jones: I think it is. If you look at the last three, whoever wins the rushing battle, that’s who wins the game. You have to be able to run the rock. Florida has been able to do that, but Georgia has the defense that can shut that down and make the Gators a one-trick pony. The Bulldogs have the horses, as they have for years, and the offensive line too. The running back stable has always been there, but this year up front, they are playing some crazy-good football. They have exactly what it takes to win this ball game. It won’t be easy. It never is in these type of games, but they can definitely go in and give this Florida defense a lot of problems. They average about four yards per carry before contact, which means they’re really moving the line of scrimmage. And they’re going to need to do that in this one. I think they impose their will at some point on Florida and win the running battle.
CBS Local Sports: Looking at the SEC as a whole, they’ve got two teams currently in playoff spots in Georgia and Alabama. Do you foresee that continuing? Can those two teams make it through the conference slate with one or fewer losses needed to likely secure a playoff spot?
Brian Jones: It’s getting more interesting in the West now, with LSU and their resurgence, knocking off Florida after losing to Troy and knocking off Auburn. They played exceptionally well in that second half against Auburn, and they’re coming off their third straight victory over Ole Miss last week. They’ve got a bye this week, as does Alabama, before the two meet next weekend. That’s going to be one that you really didn’t have circled a couple of weeks ago, but now you definitely have to circle that ball game. Then, of course, you have the Iron Bowl looming down the way for Alabama and Auburn. There’s a lot of things that can occur prior to the playoff, so I can’t safely sit here and say that I see that playing out.
Georgia, on the flip side, in the East, they’re clearly the favorite. They’ll have South Carolina to contend with, though they’ll clear that hurdle, and, as I said, I think they get past Florida. It should be smooth sailing for these guys after that. They do still have to go to Auburn though. Both the East and West champion could be heading to Atlanta with at least one loss.
CBS Local Sports: There’s been some talk about the SEC being down compared to previous years. How do you see the conference stacking up nationally?
Brian Jones: I think it’s top-heavy. I wasn’t down on the conference after Auburn lost at Clemson. Losing 14-6 in that ball game, their defense looked like a championship defense. Then they just got worn out at LSU, with their offense giving them nothing in the second half. Florida right now is half a team. Their defense is playing really well, but they’re offensively challenged. Georgia is definitely the bell cow in the East.
Yes, the conference is top-heavy, I would agree with that. Texas A&M is playing really well right now too though. Coach Sumlin has been on the hot seat since the season began. He’s had to deal with a ton of disrespect from his AD, from a regent there. And then recently there were reports that James Franklin would be contacted if there was a change at Texas A&M. But all they’ve done is win. And they went into the Swamp and beat a team, in Florida, that the Aggies hadn’t beaten since joining the conference. With A&M stepping into the mix, with Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Auburn, you’ve got some teams that are still highly regarded nationally. So while it’s been top-heavy, you still have to look at the SEC as one of the best conferences.
CBS Local Sports: Finally, we’re past the midway point of the season for most teams. Who is leading the Heisman Race in your opinion?
Brian Jones: I still like Baker Mayfield. He was outstanding last week against Kansas State. He was my preseason favorite, and, of course, he’s the only one of the guys returning who has been in the Top 5 of the voting the last couple of years. That guy is so much fun to watch. He is like a video game player, though you could say the same thing about Saquon Barkley, with the creative way that Penn State gets the ball in his hands. Bryce Love really doesn’t have a passing game to lean on at Stanford, it’s all about him. But Baker Mayfield took over that game last week, throwing for over 400 yards, hitting 78 percent of his passes, and rushing for a couple of touchdowns. I said on our show that he’s the Muhammad Ali of college football. He’ll talk noise, and then he’ll go out there and back it up. He’s my guy right now, he’s just such a joy to watch.