“This is one of those games that you as a competitor look forward to being a part of,” Napier said.
But Napier wasn’t hired to be a part of this rivalry. He was hired to win it.
Though it’s unrealistic to demand an upset at EverBank Stadium, Napier and his Gators can show they’re headed in the right direction by hanging with the nation’s top program. Survey the situation around both teams, and there’s no reason why the Gators shouldn’t clear that relatively low bar.
Yes, Kirby Smart has dominated the series, outscoring Florida 206-112 over the last six meetings (and winning five of them). But these Bulldogs are different. Their No. 1 ranking says more about the aura from their back-to-back national titles than their 2023 resume.
The results reflect that. Vanderbilt scored 20 points on Georgia for the first time in a decade. South Carolina led the Bulldogs by 11 at halftime, and Auburn led late into the third quarter. Those three teams are a combined 7-15. If they hung with the Bulldogs, Florida can, too — especially considering Georgia’s injury situation.
The Bulldogs are expected to be without injured tight end Brock Bowers, a transcendent talent Napier called “one of the best players of all time” because of his versatility. Though the Bulldogs’ star-studded recruiting classes leave plenty of talent on the roster, they don’t have another Bowers because one does not exist. His absence is an undeniable advantage for Florida.
Though Georgia’s relative dips are encouraging for the Gators, Florida should have grown enough by now to play four competitive quarters against anyone. Napier has had almost 23 months to build the foundation of a championship program; it’s reasonable to expect tangible results in a measuring-stick game.
The roster isn’t elite yet, but Napier has had enough time to turn much of it over and replace Dan Mullen recruits with his own hand-picked players, either from high schools or the transfer portal. It’s fair to think they should be good enough to challenge this Georgia team.
Other factors also seem set up for Florida success. Starting center Kingsley Eguakun is off the injury list and back on the depth chart; he’ll be a huge boost to an offensive line that needs it.
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The bye week allowed the Gators to adjust their schedule, the way Napier did when he coached in weeknight games at Louisiana. Napier said Wednesday that his team was “a little bit ahead to be as prepared as possible.” Being ahead on Wednesday won’t matter if his team is behind on Saturday.
For the first time since 2020, you can see a tough but feasible path toward a Florida victory. Some combination of turnover luck, a run game that finds its rhythm against a rushing defense that’s merely good and the exploitation of an inexperienced quarterback could make this dicey for the Bulldogs. Stranger things have happened in this series.
But Florida is 2-11 in its last 13 games as underdogs of at least 14 points, according to the database from the betting site Odds Shark. And the Bulldogs are still good enough to win a national title, even if they’re not as dominant as they were in 2021-22.
Eventually, Napier’s Gators will be expected to win big games like this. Rebuilding processes aren’t immediate, but they can’t be interminable, either.
For now, however, it’s fair to expect Florida to challenge Georgia for the better part of 60 minutes in Jacksonville. That won’t be good enough forever, but it’ll be good enough for now to make you think the Gators are getting closer to where they expect to be.
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