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4 random thoughts on Florida Gators vs. No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville

Gators quarterback Graham Mertz shouldn’t be fazed by the stage, and a Tampa native is an X factor.
 
The Florida Gators face No. 1 Georgia on Saturday in one of the SEC's biggest rivalry matchups.
The Florida Gators face No. 1 Georgia on Saturday in one of the SEC's biggest rivalry matchups.
Published Oct. 23, 2023

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators earned their first rivalry win under Billy Napier last month against Tennessee. They’ll go for their second Saturday against No. 1 Georgia.

“This is one of those games that you as a competitor look forward to being a part of,” Napier said. “Obviously a ton of history and tradition here.”

Here are four random thoughts before their 91st meeting in Jacksonville:

Brock Bowers’ absence looms large

Brock Bowers is expected to miss the Florida game after having ankle surgery last week.
Brock Bowers is expected to miss the Florida game after having ankle surgery last week. [ JASON GETZ | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ]

Georgia’s star tight end is expected to miss the next month or two after undergoing ankle surgery last week. Napier raved about him Monday, calling him “one of the best players of all time” because of the matchup mismatches he created. Bowers had six catches for 192 yards and a touchdown in his two games against Florida.

“They were handing the guy the ball,” Napier said. “He’s a terrific blocker. He’s tough. He’s got a really good set of fundamentals. Made him really hard to defend.”

The matchups will change with Bowers out. Even a top-100 prospect like Oscar Delp cannot replace Bowers’ versatility, though Napier said the open date probably helped Georgia to regroup. The Gators don’t expect to get much of a break, however, because the Bulldogs remain one of the deepest teams in the country.

“They’re not lacking for skill players,” Napier said. “They’ve got ‘em, (at) all positions.”

Tampa’s Eugene Wilson is an X factor

Gaither High alumnus Eugene Wilson is Florida's most exciting player.
Gaither High alumnus Eugene Wilson is Florida's most exciting player. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The four-star freshman from Gaither High has become one of the Gators’ top playmakers. In five games, Wilson has 299 yards off 30 touches while getting looks in the backfield or spread wide at receiver.

His emergence is important on its own because it gives the Gators another weapon, which they lacked last season. But his development should also open up more opportunities for top receiver Ricky Pearsall.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are very versatile, can strike at any moment,” Pearsall said. “Just having guys by your side that can do that, the ability to do that, just makes us a scary offense, more explosive offense. Defense has no choice but to respect it.”

Graham Mertz shouldn’t be fazed

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz shouldn't be fazed by playing a great Georgia defense.
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz shouldn't be fazed by playing a great Georgia defense. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]
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Mertz was, at best, a question mark when he transferred from Wisconsin. The fact that his completion percentage decreased every year with the Badgers warranted skepticism about a turnaround.

But, to the credit of Mertz and the Gators’ staff, he has outplayed expectations with the nation’s third-highest completion percentage (76.2).

“I think what we’ve learned is 15 is a very capable player,” Napier said. “I think when given the opportunity, if we can protect him, if we can create separation, if we can win individual matchups, we’ve got a good designed play, he can get it to the right guy, right?”

Mertz praised the Georgia defense he’ll be facing but said he has faced other good ones, too, like Michigan’s 2021 playoff team. Mertz completed 8 of his 15 passes against those Wolverines for 115 yards and a touchdown in a 38-17 loss that was competitive for three quarters.

Napier’s Sun Belt experience adds an interesting wrinkle

Billy Napier often coached on weekdays when he was at Louisiana.
Billy Napier often coached on weekdays when he was at Louisiana. [ BRIAN BLANCO | AP (2019) ]

In the weird world of coaching, the open date let the Gators get a day ahead in their schedule, so Monday was treated like a normal Tuesday.

Napier grew accustomed to odd scheduling in the Sun Belt Conference; his final regular season at Louisiana featured eight games on Saturday, three on Thursday and one on Tuesday. He was able to draw back on that experience for a specific blueprint for this week’s preparation — something he hadn’t done before at Florida.

Week 10 TV, kickoffs announced

Kyle Morlock and the No. 4 Seminoles will play at Pitt in an afternoon game next week.
Kyle Morlock and the No. 4 Seminoles will play at Pitt in an afternoon game next week. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Start times and TV designations for the Nov. 4 games were announced Monday:

Arkansas at Florida: Noon, ESPN2

Florida State at Pitt: Noon or 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN

USF at Memphis: 3 p.m., ESPN+

UCF at Cincinnati: 3:30 p.m., FS1

Miami at North Carolina State: 8 p.m., ACC Network

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