Jim McElwain will be baptized in the Florida-Georgia rivalry Saturday, and by the end of the night, UF’s first-year coach could be partying with the orange-and-blue faithful at The Landing.
The No. 11 Gators (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) are in the driver’s seat for a trip to Atlanta for the first time since 2009.
Although a win over the archival Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2) wouldn’t officially clinch the Eastern Division title, it would give the Gators a virtually insurmountable lead with two conference games remaining.
But a loss could spoil all those SEC Championship Game aspirations.
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Just like in 2012, Florida and Georgia are playing for all the marbles alongside the St. Johns River in EverBank Field.
“We certainly didn’t start this journey not to be in this position,” said McElwain, dismissing the prevailing notion that UF has exceeded expectations in 2015. “We’ve put ourselves in a position to where what we do is relevant. That’s kind of a neat thing.
“But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of what we need to do [in practice].”
Both teams are coming off an idle date, but Florida is healthy, confident and excited to bury a reeling rival and continue a potential playoff push.
“It feels great,” senior offensive guard Trip Thurman said. “If we do what we’re supposed to, we have a pretty good shot.”
Although the Gators have played the role of underdogs in several marquee games this season (Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU), they’re favored by three points against a banged-up Bulldogs team without star running back Nick Chubb.
Statistically, Georgia actually holds advantages in several major categories (scoring, total offense, total defense, yards per play), but Florida is significantly better in turnover margin (plus eight), sacks and red-zone efficiency (70 percent clip scoring touchdowns).
The Bulldogs’ psyche is also in question.
They were blown out by Alabama, lost their All-American tailback to a nasty injury and blew a three-touchdown lead against Tennessee.
Although they will rely on dynamic sophomore tailback Sony Michel, a former Plantation American Heritage standout, their offense hasn’t been the same without Chubb. Georgia is also reportedly starting junior quarterback Faton Bauta, who could make his first-career start against UF’s tenacious defense.
Still, Florida isn’t taking anything for granted and is geared for a dogfight.
A year ago, Georgia was ranked 11th in the country and controlled its destiny to Atlanta. But an angry Gators team ambushed the Bulldogs, briefly saving Will Muschamp’s job with a stunning 38-20 upset.
”They’re definitely looking for some revenge because I think we embarrassed them last year,” sophomore cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “They’re going to be on point.”
Florida needs to be, too, if it wants to keep all its goals — Atlanta and beyond — intact.
“We’re not ignorant to where we’re at right now,” junior receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. “We understand what’s going on. We control our destiny. But our destiny and our next stop is Georgia.
“We don’t get to Atlanta unless we play Georgia first, so that’s what we’re focusing on.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Georgia coach Mark Richt is 5-9 against Florida in 15 seasons, coaching against four different coaches (Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Muschamp).
▪ The Bulldogs are represented by a number of South Florida natives including Michel, Bauta, wideout Isaiah McKenzie, kicker Marshall Morgan and cornerback Deandre Baker.
▪ UF announced that dental student Neil MacInnes will serve as the backup kicker.
Saturday: No. 11 Florida vs. Georgia
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; EverBank Field, Jacksonville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 2.
Records: Florida 6-1 (4-1 SEC); Georgia 5-2 (3-2 SEC).
Series: Georgia leads 49-41-2.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR Antonio Callaway (foot); DL Khairi Clark (undisclosed). Out — LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); K Jorge Powell (undisclosed).
Georgia injuries: Questionable — WR Isaiah McKenzie (hamstring); CB Reggie Wilkerson (undisclosed); WR Shakenneth Williams (undisclosed). Out — RB Nick Chubb (knee); LB Reggie Carter (shoulder); FB Christian Payne (fibula); WR Justin Scott-Wesley (knee).