Gators struggling defensively entering showdown with Georgia

KNOXVILLE, TN - September 24, 2022 - Running back Jaylen Wright #20 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

What in the name of Jevon Kearse, Brandon Spikes and Vernon Hargreaves is going on with Florida's defense this season?

The Gators are 22-point underdogs entering this week's task of taming No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville, the largest point spread they've faced in this rivalry. One sizable reason for that is a Florida defense that is normally stout but ranks 80th nationally in points allowed a game (28.1) and 109th in yards yielded per contest (429.3).

When it comes to third-down defense, the Gators are 130th among the 131 Bowl Subdivision teams, allowing a staggering 52.6% success rate.

"There are lots of factors that contribute to that, and we're evaluating all the areas," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "The things that we can control are the things that we're focused on -- the fundamentals, communication, alignment and certainly playing good team defense and being on the same page at the first, second and third level.

"Then there is finishing when given an opportunity. It's not like you can watch all our third downs and pick one thing. There is no magic pill and no secret potion here."

Florida's defense is not without talent, with redshirt junior outside linebacker Brenton Cox and sophomore defensive lineman Gervon Dexter having been five-star recruits, and with sophomore safety Rashad Torrence II, senior safety Trey Dean and fifth-year senior inside linebacker Amari Burney having been high four-star signees.

The Gators yielded a combined 1,104 yards in losses to Tennessee and LSU, but Georgia coach Kirby Smart believes Florida can be extremely disruptive.

"You know, the size and girth in the middle is what you want in the SEC in order to control run games and control the A and B gaps," Smart said. "Then they've got the edge guys with Brenton, who is probably the most disruptive guy that we've played in terms of just violence, striking, knock-back, setting edges and affecting the quarterback.

"He's a game-breaker at that."

Cox, who signed with Georgia in 2018 and played in 13 games that season before transferring, has amassed 33 tackles for the Gators and a team-high eight tackles for loss.

The Bulldogs have been dominant offensively in routs of Oregon (49-3), South Carolina (48-7) and Vanderbilt (55-0) but had inconsistent stretches against Auburn, Missouri and Kent State. Georgia would love to have sophomore receiver Adonai Mitchell (high ankle sprain) and junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter (MCL) fully healthy this week, with Mitchell giving the Bulldogs a deep threat they have lacked at times in recent weeks.

"He's one of the best receivers in the country, if not the best," Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. "I've got an immense amount of trust in him and what he brings to the table from a skill standpoint to a twitch standpoint. We've missed him."

Mitchell had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown in the Oregon opener, which is when Carter sustained an ankle injury that began the derailment of his promising year.

"The very first play of the season against Oregon is when Jalen's ankle injury occurred," Smart said. "He continued to play through that ankle injury, and some of that I think was on adrenaline, but then he injured the knee. It just so happened that right when he got back from the ankle, he got the knee.

"It affects your depth more than anything, but it affects everything because he's a really phenomenal player and you'd like to have him out there."

A joint statement

Jacksonville is scheduled to host the Georgia-Florida game through next season, and there is an option to extend the contract through 2025.

Whether the matchup should remain in Jacksonville or move to campus sites is often an offseason topic that can bleed into the season as well, so the two schools elected to issue a joint statement Monday.

"The annual game between our two universities is an important tradition," the statement read. "At this time, both programs are focused on our current seasons. Typically both schools begin conversations regarding future games in the series as the last contracted game nears. We anticipate following that timeline.

"When those discussions take place, we will consider a multitude of factors, including tradition, finances, future SEC scheduling models with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, and what is best for both schools' football programs overall."

Of course, that didn't stop questions about the subject from being asked.

"It would be cool to play in Gainesville," Bennett said.

Comparing coaches

Alabama's 2015 coaching staff under Nick Saban had Smart as defensive coordinator, Napier as receivers coach, current Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, current Miami coach Mario Cristobal as offensive line coach, and current Michigan State coach Mel Tucker as defensive backs coach.

Kiffin was recently asked to compare Smart and Napier.

"They've got different personalities," Kiffin said. "Billy is super smart -- well, they both are -- and Kirby is a little louder and more energetic. Billy is more think-through-things, but they both did a great job and are both phenomenal recruiters as well as 'X' and 'O' guys."

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