Woeful defense has Florida as 3-TD underdog vs No. 1 Georgia

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson was surprised, maybe even shocked, to learn the Gators were three-touchdown underdogs against rival and top-ranked Georgia.

“That’s crazy,” Richardson said.

It has little, if anything, to do with Richardson.

Florida’s dreadful defense, which is on pace to be one of the worst in school history, is a big reason the 21 1/2-point betting line on FanDuel Sportsbook so heavily leans toward the defending national champion Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference).

The Gators (4-3, 1-3) are tied for 108th in the country and rank 12th in the SEC in total defense. They’re giving up 429.3 yards a game, mostly because they can’t stop the run, can’t get consistent pressure on quarterbacks and can’t get off the field often enough on third downs.

“There’s nobody that’s ignoring the problem,” coach Billy Napier said. “We’ve got a group of people that really care about doing their job better, and that’s what they’re going to try to do.”

Napier declined to provide specifics about any potential scheme or personnel changes Florida made during its bye week in preparation to face Georgia in nearby Jacksonville on Saturday. Napier offered staunch support for 32-year-old defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, who is making $1 million a year in his first job at a Power Five program. He joined Napier at Louisiana-Lafayette after two seasons at UTSA, one at Sam Houston State and three at Southeastern Louisiana.

Critics argue Toney is in over his head, especially considering Florida’s defense has some NFL talent in defensive tackle Gervon Dexter, edge rusher Brenton Cox and cornerback Jason Marshall. But the unit hasn’t done much since Amari Burney’s diving interception in the end zone with seconds remaining to seal a win over then-No. 7 Utah in the season opener.

The Gators have given up at least 150 yards rushing in six of seven games and rank next to last (out of 131 teams) in the country on the so-called “money down.” LSU was 9 of 10 on third down, an alarming rate for Napier and his staff.

Offenses are converting a staggering 52.6% on third down against the Gators. The school’s statistically worst defenses, in 2007 and 2020, each allowed opponents to convert around 41%.

“I feel like we’re a very, very talented defense,” defensive tackle Tyreak Sapp said. “We just have to bring it all together, and we all understand that it’s going to take work and it’s going to take time. But at this point, it’s a matter of time, and that time is coming up and time is ticking.”

There would be no better time for a defensive resurgence than against Georgia, which ranks second in the country in total offense (526.6 yards a game) and eighth in scoring (41.7 points).

Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett, a fifth-year senior, has completed 71% of his passes for 2,033 yards, with seven touchdowns and an interception. He also has five of the team’s 24 rushing TDs, which are the most in the league.

Bennett cautioned against taking Florida lightly.

“I can tell you that it is hard to get a feel for how much the players care and feel about the rivalry until you play in it,” Bennett said. “You can throw records or whatever you want to out of the window, more so than any other game on our schedule when we go down there and play Florida.”

Oddsmakers disagree. This is the third time Florida has been at least a 20-point underdog in the last three decades, maybe longer.

The Gators were 24-point dogs against top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama in the 2016 SEC title game. They were 28½-point dogs against undefeated and eventual national champion Florida State in Gainesville in 2013. They lost both games by lopsided margins.

“It gets you,” Sapp said about the latest spread. “It riles you up because you feel like it’s kind of disrespect because we both put on our cleats the same. We understand that, yes, this team is a high combatant. But we got a chance, too. We always have a fighter’s punch. There’s always a fighter’s punch in these games.”

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