No. 1 Georgia, Florida introduce QBs to SEC rivalry

No. 1 Georgia and SEC rival Florida need no introductions, but their quarterbacks are getting their first taste of the annual neutral-site clash in Jacksonville, Fla.

“We did a little work last week. Our guys will be excited to play in Jacksonville, incredible stadium and atmosphere,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on Monday.

Carson Beck passed multiple tests to get the Bulldogs to Jacksonville at 7-0 and in the driver’s seat for a game that will be played four days before the first College Football Playoff rankings are released for the first time this season.

If Beck feels right at home, don’t be surprised. He’s a Jacksonville native who might not feel out of place in one of the spotlight games of the week.

“Obviously, it’s super cool,” Beck said. “The last time I played there I was 11 years old, for the city championship. Going back there, to play in my hometown, to play in the Georgia-Florida game, a huge rivalry, is going to be fun.”

While Georgia quarterbacks playing Florida for the first time are 1-9 in their past 10 opportunities, Smart’s team has won 34 consecutive regular-season games and two in a row over Florida.

Smart said the bye week wasn’t all “rest and recovery.” He encouraged each player to ask, “How can I get better?” while ignoring any outside assessments of where Georgia stands or could possibly wind up.

The Bulldogs are more than familiar with wearing the target in the SEC, but Georgia coaches fiipped the focus of the bye week to, “It’s about us.”

There’s already some familiarity between the coaches, Smart and Florida’s Billy Napier, who were assistants at Alabama from 2013-15.

“A lot of respect for Billy,” Smart said. “Always have liked Billy a lot, admire him and the way he goes about things.

“It’ll be a physical game. It always is, I know our kids will be looking forward to it.”

Smart agrees with Napier’s assessment that Florida is “growing up,” pointing directly to quarterback Graham Mertz as a primary reason.

The Wisconsin transfer has completed 76.2 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. In wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina the past two weeks, the Gators quarterback is 60 of 84 passing for 677 yards with six TDs and zero picks.

“They’ve played their best football the past two weeks or so,” Smart said. “You look at the statistics on their quarterback, he’s probably the No. 1 quarterback in the country for two games. In terms of the way he’s played, you can tell he’s got a lot of confidence in their system. … He’s done a really good job of not putting them in harm’s way in his decision-making process.”

If Florida has a fear surrounding Mertz, it’s pass protection. He has been sacked 19 times this season, including at least three times in four consecutive games. Georgia is 105th in the nation with 12 sacks in 2023.

Smart said the challenge getting home against Mertz is his wisdom and experience of knowing when to take his deep shots and when to play it safe. One outlet Mertz connected with quickly is Ricky Pearsall, who leads the team with 44 catches and averages 88.4 receiving yards per game.

“He’s been available. He’s been healthy and very consistent for them,” Smart said. “He’s been very consistent. Explosive playmaker. They move him around a lot. He makes a lot of plays.”

Beck won’t have his favored passing game security blanket. Tight end Brock Bowers had surgery on his ankle and won’t likely play for at least three weeks. Bowers leads Georgia with 41 receptions for 567 yards and four touchdowns in 2023.

“I’m not going to focus on that right now,” Smart said Monday, declining to confirm Bowers is walking without crutches. “Most important thing right now is our guys and getting prepared with Florida.”

–Field Level Media