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Friday, April 12, 2024

Know Your Enemy: Georgia Bulldogs

Sports editor Jackson Reyes leads a Q&A session with the Red & Black assistant sports editor Owen Warden

Gators safety Tre'Vez Johnson dives to make a tackle against a Georgia player in Florida's 42-20 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2023.
Gators safety Tre'Vez Johnson dives to make a tackle against a Georgia player in Florida's 42-20 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2023.

The Florida Gators and the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs renew their rivalry Saturday in Jacksonville.

The Gators (5-2, 3-1 SEC) carry a two-game winning streak into the matchup, while the Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have yet to drop a game in search of a third straight national championship. Both sides will feature new starting quarterbacks as Florida looks to snap a two-game skid to Georgia. 

I sat down with Owen Warden, the assistant sports editor at the Red & Black, the independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, to break down the matchup and learn more about the Bulldogs this season. 

What are your team’s strengths and weaknesses this season?

Warden: “It's tough to really pick one area where they're excelling. But I mean, it feels like the passing game has looked really well. Carson Beck, obviously, in his first year as a starter, has looked really well. I think he's been a very good player at about a 73.6% completion rating, thrown over 2100 yards, 12 touchdowns and four picks, which isn't great, but, still had a tremendous performance. Brock Bowers, who is not playing this week, has been stellar for the team. But aside from him, there's been plenty of other players including Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Dominic Lovett, Rara Thomas, plenty of other guys that have been impactful in the passing game and will likely continue to be impactful, you know, with Brock Bowers, his absence, including Oscar Delp, who currently sits fifth for Georgia's receiving group. The young sophomore tight end will fill in for Brock, and I think he'll do a pretty solid job. 

The running game hasn't been bad either. It hasn't been as consistently dominant as it has been in previous years. But Daijun Edwards, Georgia's number one, you know, he's got 460 yards on the ground six touchdowns. So the offense as a whole has been really solid and the defense has continued to look great. The run-stopping is great. Georgia held Ray Davis to about 50 yards and Florida fans should know how dominant Ray Davis is as a running back. So clearly Georgia's run stopping group is still really effective. Their pass coverage unit is really top tier. Kamari Lassiter, who flashed some inconsistency last year has been awesome has been just someone you don't have to worry about. It's one of the best safety groups I've ever seen with this Georgia program. So it's a really dominant group on both sides of the ball. 

But as far as weaknesses go, you know, consistency with the offense, the big plays, that everyone's so used to with Georgia football just hasn't always been there this year, which has caught the ire of many Georgia fans. And there's been moments, you know, Kentucky definitely was the opposite of that. Georgia got rolling pretty quickly. But for a lot of games, Georgia starts pretty slow. And Georgia fans aren't a big fan of that. But also Georgia's linebackers had been a little iffy, a little few blown coverages not as dominant as they have been. And the past few games have been solid for them. But if there's any weakness to point to maybe the defense, it might be them as when it comes down to the one thing that Georgia really couldn't stop, over the course of the season was the QB run. And you saw that mostly against Auburn where they just weren't able to stop it. And a lot of that I feel falls down to the linebackers not being able to stop that. But in recent weeks, they've looked really solid, they've started to really step up their play. And we'll see how it goes. But I would say those are probably the strengths and weaknesses of Georgia this year.”

How have they looked so far, how has the season fared for your team?

Warden: “Yeah, I mean, I can't say it's been going badly, especially when you're undefeated on the year so far, but, I think it's been a little bit more scary for Georgia fans than they would like a couple times and South Carolina, Auburn, you know, the game is tight. Georgia was trailing South Carolina by halftime. And, I mean, they let UAB score 21 points on a Georgia defense, that's just not expected. There's a couple of times where there's a fumble where you wouldn't be happy about, and that's led to a touchdown. There's interceptions that lead to touch touchdowns, and it's these type of things that are unexpected for a Georgia team that’s been so dominant on that side to a point that head coach Kirby Smart would be leaving in his starters for a little bit longer so we could complete shutouts towards the end of seasons to keep up that streak because clearly he really wanted that. But that's not the case this year. You know, backups are getting in a lot earlier, these leads are starting to happen. But ultimately, Georgia has also shown a lot of resilience in those moments. They came back on South Carolina and won that relatively convincingly with its second-half performance. Auburn got really close towards the end, but ultimately, they pulled it out. And Brock Bowers had an incredible game to give Georgia the win. Carson Beck marched the team down. Everything was really scary, and no one really knew if Georgia had the ability to put up big-time performances. And then they went out and put one up on Kentucky who was ranked 20th at the time and has one of the best running backs in Ray Davis in college football. It's a team that we know has that championship ability when they're playing at the top of their power. But they haven't been playing at the top this entire year. And it's curious because Florida is the start of Georgia's meat and potatoes of the schedule, you know, where things really get difficult, where, you know, they travel to Jacksonville, but then they're back home for, you know, top 20 ranked Missouri and Ole Miss. And then they traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. And I know you guys got to win over them in the Swamp. But man, I think we know how dangerous Knoxville is to play in. So Georgia's got a tough schedule here. And it's definitely going to be a prove-it type of run to see if they can make an SEC run and if they can make a championship run. But it starts with this Florida game. And if they can recapture success they did against Kentucky. It'll be an interesting one.”

How has quarterback Carson Beck performed so far this season? 

Warden: “Yeah, I think he's been great. We've been kind of talking about it about it here around the office and stuff like that. But just based off his performance, he's been kind of a top-three quarterback in the SEC, just the way he's been performing. And sure, he does love the check down. There's no doubt about that. He's got a lot of love for that play. But he also can push it downfield. And while there's times where maybe he's not hitting a guy that you want to hit, or maybe him and Arian Smith just really can't connect for whatever reason, he still makes plays, he's still able to put the team on his back in moments and really lead them out to a large lead, like against Kentucky. So as far as Stetson Bennett compares, I would not put him at the level that he's getting Heisman buzz, right. Like, he's not at the level where, you know, he's going to be finishing fourth place in Heisman voting or anything like that. It's tough for Bulldog fans to see because you get a Heisman quarterback, and you would love to get another one. But Carson Beck is just not that. But what he is, is a very talented quarterback and one that's played really well. There's a reason he's got over 2000 yards already. There's a reason he's got 12 touchdowns. You know, he's a good quarterback. He plays well, and he plays well in the offense and the scheme that he's got. 

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I'm not going to call them all-world, I'm not going to call them a potential number one overall pick or anything like that, but a quarterback that can definitely win you football games, and I think, you know, he had a little bit of a tough time playing in Auburn, but in that second half, he turned it around and had a great half. And you know, the one interesting thing about Beck is it'll be his first time playing in Florida starting as the quarterback for Georgia, but he's from Jacksonville, you know, he that's his native. That's where he's from. So if anything, unlike anybody else really on that field, it is it's a home game for him at the very least. At the very least, it's a homecoming, kind of like it was for Brock Bowers when Georgia went out to California for the natty but Beck's familiar with Florida, I doubt that area is going to be too tough for him, especially with it being a neutral site. But you know, you never know. I think that if the first half struggles continue, we could see a similar thing to what happened in Auburn, but something tells that tells me that he might, he might be a little bit more comfortable playing in Jacksonville and playing in his hometown.”

Starting on the defensive side of the ball, who are some key players to look out for who could make an impact?

Warden: “It's tough because there's so many names. There's so many guys that you are going to see on Sundays and stuff like that. So I'll try and limit it to just a few, and I'll start with the secondary. I kind of hyped them up the most Malaki Starks, the sophomore safety has been tremendous. His impact. sometimes it's been seen where he gets an interception, and he shuts down a play, and he's following a guy all the way and stuff like that. He's been tremendous. And then sometimes his impact isn't seen where he's just doing the unseen things where he's doing the small things to make sure that other guys are getting in position where he's helping get sacks and pressure and stuff like that. He's been tremendous and absolutely a name to keep an eye on. Tykee Smith has four interceptions on the year, the former West Virginia transfer. It's been a couple of years for him where he's been battling through injuries and stuff like that. He's here and he's ready to play. Leads the team with interceptions with four. One of the top guys in the NCAA with interceptions. He's been a great player in both the pass game and the run game. A couple lapses here and there but definitely a guy to keep an eye on. Javon Bullard, the third of that safety group, has been great too. Defensive MVP in both of Georgia's playoff games last year and you know he's playing that way again now as a safety instead of that STAR role that Tykee’s playing in now. That star role of course being that slot, nickel corner type position, so those three guys have been great. 

Kamari Lassiter, cornerback has been tremendous but then as far as other guys that may break out, Smael Mondon Jr., the linebacker, could definitely be someone that you got to keep an eye on. Really athletic guy, one of the best linebackers probably in this upcoming draft class. He's really talented guy that started the season hurt, but he's been getting healthier and healthier each week currently leads the team in tackles and then Mykel Williams, sophomore defensive end, he’s been quiet a little bit after he got sick, but in the South Carolina game he was absolutely dominant taking on multiple blocks, getting tons of pressure. He's a great player and a pass rusher that I think that if Florida's got to worry about anybody, he might be the one, but there's also a million other names: Nazir Stackhouse, Warren Brinson, Zion Logue so many different dudes that could come at you let alone Chaz Chamblis, Marvin Jones, Jr. There's so many names, and if I keep going, I could name so many guys on this defense that could be impactful or could be talented, so I think I'll cut myself off there have some of the guys that are talented.”

Switching over to the offensive side, besides Beck, who are some guys to watch on offense, especially with the loss of tight end Brock Bowers due to injury?

Warden: “I've talked about a few of these guys, but Daijun Edwards, the running back again has 460 yards on the year, six touchdowns. That's their primary running back. And for a Florida team that struggled a little bit in run stoppage and defending against the run. There's a good chance  Daijun Edwards has himself another game, and he's a big reason why Georgia was able to put away Vanderbilt was his ability on the ground and him taking over that game, especially after Bowers went out. So Daijun, definitely a name to keep an eye out in the running game. A lot of people know the name of Ladd McConkey. McConkey was dealing with a back injury early in the year that's why he's a little bit lower on the board, but he's still seventh in receiving, and he's slowly been working back and you can kind of tell he's starting to get healthy again and without Brock Bowers, you know a guy that's obviously going to take a lot of the targets he had 41 receptions most of the team by a longshot, 10 more than the next guy. So he was a guy that was getting the ball a lot, and I think a lot of those targets are going to start going to Ladd, especially because he's healthy he's back, and he's it's certainly an impactful guy as we've seen in previous years, but ou got plenty of other receivers as well Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, who’s second on the team in receiving yards with 333. He's got two touchdowns himself. Dominic Lovett, the transfer from Missouri is second in receptions with 31. He's at 282 yards, one touchdown himself. He actually got his first one against Vanderbilt, and then Rara Thomas, another incredible player. He transferred from Mississippi State, that's an X that can do so many things, athletically a really talented player, all four of those wide receivers are really really good. 

And again, I got to credit Oscar Delp for his ability to be an effective tight end he was the number two. He was the fifth-leading receiver on the team, and with Bowers gone, I think he's only going to get even more targets. He's still a talented guy, a highly rated four-star similar to Bowers not that I'm comparing them as a player right now because Bowers is otherworldly but you know, Delp is really talented, even though Brock Bowers being gone is going to be difficult for this team to not have just because it's tough losing your number one. Ultimately, I think that there's so much talent in this receiving corps as well, as guys like Daijun Edwards in the backfield and even Georgia's running backs are starting to get healthier. So you're actually starting to get a little bit of a depth chart there. All of that, I think, should alleviate the loss of Brock Bowers. But it's certainly going to affect George's ability to be high-powered, and really get big chunk plays without a guy like Brock.”

How do Florida and Georgia matchup? What could be the deciding factor in this game to give either side the win? 

Warden: “I feel like Georgia just kind of always has the most advantage, at least in the run game kind of against any team they face. Even if the team really has one of the best running backs, like Kentucky does, because Ray Davis is one of those dudes, he's that kind of talent. And ultimately, George's run game itself is really strong. And the only way you can really exploit that is if you have a running quarterback, which Graham Mertz is not he's got what -56 rushing yards of the season or something like that? It's not great. And that's kind of one of the stats I really looked at going to the Kentucky game and why I thought Georgia could stop the run pretty well there. So I think Georgia is definitely going to be able to efficiently stop the run. And I think that you know, Ricky Pearsall is going to give this Georgia secondary some issues for sure. But aside from Ricky and even and even Tre [Wilson], those two guys might give Georgia some trouble. But aside from those two, I think Georgia might be able to hang with Florida's wide receiving group and be able to kind of alleviate and delegate its corners and defensive backs and safeties to do what they need to do to get that win. 

So if anything, I think maybe Florida's maybe got an advantage over Georgia in being able to cover the pass and being able to handle that just because we don't know really who's going to be the number one you know, Bowers went down and then it's a bye week so we haven't seen what George's offense looks like without Brock Bowers for a long, long time, considering he's been here and starting since he was a freshman but we're gonna find that out. We're going to find out who will step up. Under Todd Monken last year, the former offensive coordinator sometimes Brock Bowers just wouldn't be in the game plan. And you know, everyone would be confused about it. But ultimately we saw guys like Ladd McConkey step up and play really good football and guys like Adonai Mitchell the year before, step up and play really good football, and  it'll be curious to see who ends up stepping up for this team when Brock Bowers is at the center of the game plan, let alone in the game plan at all. So if Georgia can find Ladd McConkey some success if they can get there their highly-rated transfers involved in the game they can find a way. But if they can't, Florida’s secondary is definitely going to excel. And I think that's maybe where if Florida's got any advantage at all, it may be in the secondary but I think we'll find that out and have a more accurate knowledge of that in-game rather than right now just because we don't know what this offense looks like just yet.”

Finally, how do you see this game playing out and can you give me a final score prediction?

Warden: “Ultimately, I do think Georgia takes this one just because there's a lot of talent. And again, I'm not counting Florida out at all, I hope that hasn't been the thought of this because Florida is really talented. They've got a lot of fight, and Billy Napier's got them fighting. But I do think just talent-wise, they're still just a step back. Ultimately, I think that Georgia ends up taking this one 32-17, simply for the fact that yeah, I just think I think this is just one of those times where Ladd shows up this year for the first time, that Oscar Delp proves why he was a highly rated recruit for Georgia and what he's learned learning behind a guy like like Brock Bowers, and the defense shows why they're still as dominant as they are. I think this game has helped all the indications of that and I think Georgia does pull away although I still think Florida finds a way into the endzone at least a couple times.”

No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs: 32

Florida Gators: 17

Follow Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes. Follow Owen Warden on Twitter @Owen_Warden_

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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