Dramatic endings, top-10 upsets and championship dreams busted. All Florida had to do was sit and watch.
The Week 9 bye came at the perfect time for the No. 6 Gators. After two top-10 opponents in Auburn and LSU and a road conference game against South Carolina, UF has had some time to rest and recuperate in preparation for the final four games of the regular season.
Its first opponent: No. 8 Georgia for the annual rivalry bout in Jacksonville. A big game that may decide who will represent the East in the SEC Championship in Atlanta, one that Florida should be near full strength for.
Coach Dan Mullen announced earlier in the week that edge rusher Jonathan Greenard and defensive tackle Jabari Zuniga will be ready to go for game time against the Bulldogs after missing the past two games with injuries. With their return, Florida restores 39 tackles, seven sacks and an interception to the defense.
The run game will especially benefit from the duo’s return. In its absence, the defense conceded 435 total yards on the ground and five touchdowns.
Greenard and Zuniga will also be a welcomed replenishment to the pass rush against possibly the best offensive line in the country.
The UGA offensive line has allowed just four sacks on 200 dropbacks, tied for first in the country, and its push at the line of scrimmage is a big reason for Georgia’s conference-leading 236.9 rushing yards per game.
“When you look at them, they’re really big, really physical, they can push the pile, they can move the point of attack, they play with a little bit of attitude,” Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham said.
The Great Wall of Athens is anchored by junior left tackle Andrew Thomas. The 320-pound lineman is considered a premier left tackle and touted as a sure-fire first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s started all seven games this season and was named to the midseason All-America team by Sporting News on Oct. 16. His combination of size, strength, athleticism and technique make him a nightmare for any edge rusher to deal with.
But, like Florida, the Bulldogs have also seen their fair share of injury problems. Starting tackle Isaiah Wilson, who plays opposite Thomas, has been battling a leg injury for most of the season, forcing sophomore Cade Mays to shift between right guard and tackle all year. With Greenard and Zuniga back, UF needs to take advantage of any mismatches on the line.
“I think any time you get guys that are playmakers and guys that affect the game, both the run and the pass, that can win one-on-one blocks, it’s going to excite you,” Grantham said.
Florida will also get a much-needed boost on offense; Mullen said that speedy wide receiver Kadarius Toney will make his return this week. Toney went down with a shoulder injury in the home opener against UT-Martin.
Florida should benefit from his big-play ability, seen in the first game of the season against Miami, when he took a screen 66 yards for a touchdown.
Though Week 9 saw three top-10 teams lose, UF still needs to win out if it hopes to have a shot at the College Football Playoff, and getting healthy before possibly the biggest game of the year is a good first step.
“It’s really exciting. I think that’s what you come here to Florida for,” safety Donovan Stiner said. “We’ve been having a lot of big games, so it’s another one coming up, and it’s everything for the East.”
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Defensive tackle Jabari Zuniga (92) is expected to return from injury this week.