Graham Mertz and Florida will find out if they’ve hit their stride Saturday when the Gators and No. 1 Georgia square off in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mertz has the attention of the Bulldogs after posting huge numbers in each of the past two games to climb to third in the nation in completion percentage at 76.2 percent.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said no quarterback in the country is playing better than Mertz over the past two games. He’s had extra time to prep for Florida, and the Gators, also coming off a bye last week, largely know what they’re getting with the two-time defending champions.
“They’re physical up front. They’re fast. You see that on tape. They fly around, make plays,” Mertz said. “Across the board, they play a brand of football on defense that you can see when you’re watching film.”
Mertz makes his 40th career start Saturday but first in the rivalry after joining Florida as a transfer from Wisconsin. With the Badgers, Mertz played in annual rivalry games and said there’s always a special element to the dates on the schedule that mean the most to the fanbase.
“I think that’s one thing that once you spend some time in college, you have an appreciation for ‘em,” Mertz said. “I think anytime you go into a game that’s a rivalry game, you have to appreciate that, enjoy that process, whether it’s the whole week of seeing all the stuff on the TVs or all that. I mean, there’s countless different things you do during a rivalry week. We’re excited for it.”
Georgia has a 24-game winning streak and a quarterback making his first start in the ballyhooed rivalry. But Carson Beck has the luxury of playing a de facto home game. The Jacksonville native returns to Florida in a huge spot with a queue of “big games” stacked behind, including next week against No. 16 Missouri.
“Welcome to the SEC,” Smart said. “Every game is gonna be a rivalry game in the SEC. They’re all tough games. This one is unique because of where it’s played. It’ll be a new experience for some of our guys. I think you forget about that after the whistle blows and you kick it off and you get out there and go play.”
Beck and the Bulldogs are operating without All-American tight end Brock Bowers. He had ankle surgery and might return in November. Without him, Georgia is absent its top playmaker and leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns this season.
Smart said Georgia counts on Oscar Delp, who learned under Darnell Washington and Bowers, rising to the occasion.
“His growth has been good. I don’t know that if he didn’t have those two he would be where he is, because those two demanded that he do things right in order to get on the field,” Smart said. “He had to earn the right to play. He has earned that by how he’s practiced and played.”
Mertz and Florida have been slowed when they allow pressure to impact the pocket. But Georgia has been atypically below-average generating a pass rush with just 12 sacks this season.
Smart knows the Florida scheme well. He served as an assistant at Alabama on the same coaching staff as Gators coach Billy Napier for four seasons.
And Smart said without pressure, Mertz has been able to consistently make the right decisions and avoid self-inflicted wounds.
“He does a great job within Billy’s system of knowing when to take the shot, the check down, when to put him in the right play,” Smart said. “If you’re just in the right play more often, you tend to have more success. He’s done a really good job of that for them.”