If No. 5 Georgia is going to keep its perch atop the SEC East by beating No. 8 Florida, the pivotal figure might not be Kirby Smart, Dan Mullen or Kyle Trask.
It will be a first-year Bulldogs assistant who was fired from his last two jobs and is under scrutiny from his new fan base: former Bucs assistant Todd Monken.
Although Georgia has an elite defense, the Bulldogs are depleted with injuries. The Gators probably won’t put up monster numbers Saturday, but their prolific offense should score more than the 17 they mustered last year in Jacksonville. That means Georgia’s hopes of a fourth consecutive win in the rivalry will likely depend on the performance of Monken’s offense.
Bucs fans should be able to remember what he can do.
When he joined Tampa Bay in 2016, receiver Mike Evans was limiting his production by leading the league in drops. Monken worked closely with him as the team’s receivers coach to refine Evans' mental game as well as his physical one. By the end of Year 1, Evans was finally a Pro Bowler.
Monken built up enough trust in his first two years that head coach Dirk Koetter took play-calling duties away from himself to give them to his assistant. The Bucs set a franchise record with 48 points in the first NFL game Monken ever called and finished the year with 396 points and 6,648 yards — also team records.
When Koetter lost his job that offseason, Monken was gone, too. The 54-year-old spent last season with the Browns before Smart hired him in January.
The job has been tougher than he could have imagined, and not just because of the coronavirus shutdown that cost him a spring of offense installation.
Georgia lost its three-year starter at quarterback, Jake Fromm, to the NFL. Then Fromm’s expected replacement, Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman, opted out in September. Monken’s next-most-talented option, five-star USC transfer JT Daniels, is recovering from a knee injury and hasn’t yet played.
But Monken has still made clear improvements. The Bulldogs are averaging 29.2 points per game in this all-SEC schedule. That’s up from the 23.6 points they averaged in conference games last season. Georgia’s yards per play are up (from 5.39 to 5.52), and so is its passing efficiency (from 123 to 125.1).
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All with a limited passer (Stetson Bennett) who, three months ago, looked like Georgia’s fourth stringer.
The Gators' defense sees subtle shifts under Monken. With creative motions, they’re running the ball well while adding play-action shots downfield.
“I think he’s done a really good job of trying to get their playmakers the ball in space, trying to create one-on-one matchups in the pass game while still being functional and physical in the run game," UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
There are other minor changes, too, that are only obvious in Athens. Because the offense is so young, Monken has simplified game-planning and shrunk the weekly playbook to make it easier for his players.
“There’s only so many plays in a game,” Smart said.
And Monken’s offense might have a chance to make some big ones Saturday.
The Gators' defense was playing at historically bad levels through three games before locking down Missouri last week. UF will be without starting defensive lineman Zachary Carter for the first half because of his fighting ejection, and it’s still unclear whether starters Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner will be able to return.
Which means Georgia’s path to the SEC title game could hinge on whether Monken can string together drives and pile on points.
Just like he did with the Bucs.
No. 8 Florida (3-1) vs. No. 5 Georgia (4-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jacksonville