GAINESVILLE — For all the changes Florida and Georgia have made over the past 13 years, there has been one constant in their annual showdown in Jacksonville.
It worked for Meyer and Muschamp and McElwain. It was true in back-and-forth battles and in blowouts. It has been a fixture at TIAA Bank Field, just like a split-down-the-middle crowd and parking-lot bacchanalia.
But if Dan Mullen is going to get his first win over No. 8 Georgia and seize control of the SEC East, he’ll need to throw history out the bus window as he crosses the Hart Bridge.
No. 6 Florida’s path to victory isn’t on the ground. It’s through the air.
Despite Mullen’s reputation as a quarterbacks guru, his offenses rely on balance. Last year’s Gators were a near perfect split: 2,776 passing yards and 2,771 rushing yards.
This year’s Gators aren’t close. They can’t be, not when the team’s biggest weakness is a mediocre offensive line.
Despite having an NFL-caliber running back (Lamical Perine), UF enters the weekend tied for 90th with 3.8 yards per rush against Division I-A teams. Instead of a 50-50 split, the Gators have almost twice as many passing yards (2,218) as rushing yards (1,139). Even without veteran starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, Mullen is on pace to have the second-most lopsided offense of his career.
Mullen doesn’t see it that way. He prefers to look at two other stats.
UF’s 271 pass attempts and 265 rushing attempts are almost perfectly even. And Mullen believes his commitment to the run game has resulted in a school-record three rushes of more than 75 yards.
“Our most explosive plays on the season have been in the run game,” Mullen said. “That’s kind of a tribute to staying balanced.
“If we can get some explosive runs, we’ll take it.”
Of course they would. But that’s not likely to happen against Georgia.
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are the only team in the country that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown; every other school has given up at least two. Only Iowa and Utah have surrendered fewer rushes of at least 20 yards than Georgia (three).
“When you can control the run game, it allows you to do other things with the rest of your defense,” Smart said.
It’s hard to see the Gators finding a way to control the run game themselves, which means they’ll have to abandon precedent and rely on passing.
Georgia’s pass defense is putting up great numbers, but they’re artificially inflated by strong performances against one of the 10 worst passing attacks in the nation (Vanderbilt) a third-string quarterback (South Carolina) and a third-string quarterback in a downpour (Kentucky).
Tennessee had a pair of 100-yard receivers against Georgia, so the Bulldogs’ secondary is beatable. And Florida has the roster to do it.
Four different Gators have posted 90-yard games — the first time UF can say that since 2007. Kyle Trask has proven he can distribute the ball to one of the best receiving corps outside of Tuscaloosa; his 14 touchdown passes have been spread among seven different receivers.
UF’s makeup isn’t that different from the last time Mullen had an offense that was this pass-happy. In 2015, his Mississippi State team used an accurate quarterback (Dak Prescott) with a veteran group of receivers to mask an inexperienced offensive line and finish with nine wins.
“The worst thing you can do as a coach is to say, ‘We have a system and we’re only going to run our system. Even if we stink we’re going to run our system,’” Mullen said. “To me, as a coach, our job is to put our guys in positions to be successful.”
Even if it means bucking 13 years of history in the biggest game of the season.