Coach Kirby Smart on Georgia's 21-0 win over Kentucky in Athens. (Video by Chip Towers/AJC)

Analysis: Georgia, Florida approaching hyped matchup differently

With their 21-0 victory Saturday over Kentucky, the No. 10-ranked Bulldogs (6-1, 3-1 SEC) get their second open date of the 2019 season. On the other side of it awaits No. 9 Florida (7-1, 4-1), which also gets the weekend off before the annual clash at what’s now called TIAA Bank Field. Thanks to Missouri’s loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, it appears that the SEC East once again will be decided amid what was called the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party.”

Georgia leads the series 52-43-2 after beating Florida by the combined score of 78-24 in the last two games. But the intensity in the already-volatile rivalry has increased since Dan Mullen took over as the Gators’ coach before last season.

» STEVE HUMMER: Bulldogs quiet unrest 

Mullen has lost several high-profile, head-to-head recruiting battles with the Bulldogs the last two years. Interestingly enough, he has responded with a troll campaign against Georgia.

Mullen has mocked UGA’s non-conference scheduling, made fun of the length of time since the Bulldogs’ last national championship (Jan. 1, 1981) and vigorously pursued the transfer of outside linebacker Brenton Cox when he left Georgia in August while awaiting a one-game suspension for an off-season marijuana bust.

With an extra week to prepare, the two coaches are taking decidedly different approaches to the already building hype surrounding the much-anticipated matchup. Smart is downplaying it, while Mullen is fanning the flames.

“I’m really focused right now on getting our guys healthy,” Smart said Saturday when asked about yet another crucial game against the Gators. “We’re going to have a walk-through on Monday, then continue to work on Tuesday on Florida and other teams who do things differently. Then we’ll get tied down on them on Wednesday or Thursday.”

Conversely, Mullen spoke excitedly Saturday about facing the Bulldogs when asked about them after the Gators’ 38-27 win over South Carolina. “It’s going to be a big one,” Mullen said. “It feels great. I love it. You want to head into November in control of your own destiny. That’s where we want to be and that’s where we expect to be at Florida.”

Mullen’s players are following his lead.

“Georgia’s finally here,” defensive end Zachary Carter told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re always thinking about Georgia; they’re always in the back of our minds.”

Smart’s are, of course, following his.

“I don’t get into the rankings or the standings or who we’re playing,” safety Richard LeCounte said. “I just come out there and play some ball. Every game is the best game ‘cause it’s the next game, that’s how I feel about it.”

Some things for the Bulldogs to consider between now and then:

Ready for the rain

A tropical depression that started in the Gulf of Mexico sat over Sanford Stadium for the entirety of Saturday’s game and drenched one of the smallest home crowds in recent memory. Smart said Georgia was neither surprised nor alarmed about the conditions or the outcome. He said they were aware of the possibility of extremely wet weather last Tuesday and planned accordingly.

“We knew we weren’t just going to walk out there in those conditions and score on people,” he said. “I told the team we would have to be patient and continue to chop wood throughout the game. I was proud of the way our guys fought in what was a tough environment to play in.”

Georgia fans ended up booing the offense for the better part of the first half and into the second. The Bulldogs were finally able to sooth the restless crowd with two scores in the last half of the third quarter.

Smart raved about how his team handled the challenge.

“I love the fact that they compete,” he said. “They block the outside noise. They go work really hard. We’ve had good, physical practices. There’s no way to simulate what we were going to play in tonight, but the guys embraced the challenge. They’ve not shied away from any work we’ve given them. They come to work every day. We’ve got good leaders on this team. Those guys buy in and do a great job.”

Video: Georgia's offense sputtered early but QB Jake Fromm was happy with how the unit played overall in a 21-0 win. Video by Chip Towers.

Holding onto football

Georgia doubled its season total for turnovers with four in the Oct. 12 loss to South Carolina. One week later, the Bulldogs had zero turnovers in monsoon conditions against Kentucky.

Conversely, a week after not producing a takeaway, Georgia’s J.R. Reed caused a fumble deep in Wildcats’ territory with a hard hit on Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden. That set up the Bulldogs’ second touchdown in the third quarter.

It’s safe to both were heavily-emphasized initiatives for Georgia coming into the game.

“Win the turnover battle; that’s the No. 1 stat in football, right?” Smart said. “In this game, we knew it would probably be the most critical.”

The plus-1 turnover ratio got the Bulldogs back to plus-1 on the year. Georgia has now scored 30 points off nine turnovers this season. Opponents have score 21 points off the Bulldogs’ miscues.

Unfettered end zone

Georgia’s shutout of Kentucky was its second of the season and fourth under Smart. The Bulldogs also shutout Arkansas State (55-0) this year. It was their first shutout of an SEC opponent since blanking Tennessee 41-0 in Knoxville in 2017.

UGA already led the SEC and was ranked six nationally in scoring defense. The points-allowed average now drops to 10.6 per game.

Kentucky was playing with a converted wide receiver at quarterback because its first three are injured. With Lynn Bowden mostly running the ball from the position, the Wildcats managed just 171 total yards, all but 17 of those coming on the ground.

Most impressive, Georgia’s streak of holding opponents without a rushing touchdown now reached seven games. Kentucky had a good shot of breaking that streak when it had a first-and-goal at the Georgia 9 at the end of the third quarter. But the Wildcats managed just one more yard before turning over the ball on downs 18 seconds into the fourth quarter.

“We definitely stand up any time the ball gets in the red zone, that’s what great defenses do,” LeCounte said. “We’re playing together, we practice for things like that and we came out today and displayed excellence and played hard.”

Another slow start

Another game, another slow start for Georgia’s offense.

For the third time in the last four games, the Bulldogs failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter and they were shutout in the opening frame for the second time this year. Georgia also didn’t score in the opening quarter against Notre Dame. The Bulldogs are averaging just 6.7 points in both first and third quarters this season.

Of course, inclement conditions had a lot to do with both teams’ struggles Saturday as they played to a 0-0 tie over the first 44 minutes. The Bulldogs finally broke the dead-lock with 6:20 remaining in the third quarter on D'Andre Swift’s 39-yard TD run.

Once Georgia finally got going, it moved the ball pretty well. But the Bulldogs finished with only 270 total yards, 235 of that coming on the ground. The 35 yards passing was UGA’s fewest since throwing for 29 in a win over South Carolina in 2016.

“I think we’re fast and physical, we’ve just got to start off better,” said Swift, who posted the second-highest rush total of his career with 179 yards and two touchdowns. “We can play with the best teams in the country. We ARE one of the best teams in the country. We’ve just got to keep getting better every week.”

No go on fourth down

Georgia boasts in its game notes about fielding the biggest offensive line in school history with a group that averages 6-feet, 5-inches and 328.6 pounds. But that hasn’t served the Bulldogs particularly well on fourth-and-short situations.

Georgia failed again in a fourth-and-inches situation when it went for it at the 50 midway through the second quarter. Using a “jumbo package” that included 6-6, 318-pound sophomore Cade Mayes in the backfield, quarterback Jake Fromm was unable to get the half-yard and the Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs.

“They’ve got massive people too if you didn’t notice,” Smart said. “They’ve got a 380 (pounds) guy. I don’t know what he weighs, but they get low, they get under you, and they make it hard. They did a good job.”

Equally frustrating for fans, who booed lustily throughout the first half, was Smart not electing to go for on fourth-and-inches at Georgia’s own 37 on the opening possession of the game.

It’s not as easy as it looks, the Bulldogs insist.

“You’ve got jumpers in the middle and we’re trying to get Fromm to come up, there’s just nothing you can do to prevent that,” 6-foot-6, 335-pound guard Ben Cleveland said. “We’ve got 9,000 pounds of us trying to move guys off the ball and somebody comes over and hits him on the head, you can’t do anything to stop that.”

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