Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson admitted that before his first start in his career last year in the match against the national team of Georgia, he felt nervous.
It showed on the field. Facing a Georgia defense that will take five players in the first round of the NFL draft, Richardson turned the ball over three times in the final 2:30 of the first half — losing a fumble and throwing two interceptions. Three miscues led to three Georgia touchdowns, turning a 3-0 run into a 24-0 halftime deficit that was too much for the Gators to overcome in an eventual 34-7 loss.
“I didn’t really showcase what I wanted to showcase,” Richardson said. “It kind of created a narrative that I wasn’t ready for.”
Here’s how Florida wins:Five ways Florida underdog can beat Georgia and stun the world | Wheatley
What are the stories? Florida football: 5 stories ahead of Saturday’s matchup with No. 1 Georgia
Is this really a string? Are the #1 Georgia Bulldogs really a 22-point favorite against the Florida Gators?
Richardson’s chance at redemption comes Saturday when the Gators (4-3, 1-3 SEC) take on No. 1 Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) in Jacksonville (3:30 p.m., CBS). If Richardson could somehow lead Florida to its first win over an AP No. 1 team since beating Alabama in the 2008 SEC title game, it would change the narrative for both him and UF’s first season under head coach Billy Napier .
As of Thursday, the Gators were 22.5-point underdogs.
“It would mean a lot to even win,” Richardson said. “Every victory is a big victory for us. It’s an SEC game, so an SEC win would be great for us.”
Get comfortable as a starter
The buzz surrounding Richardson, a Gainesville native and Eastside High standout, reached epic heights when he led the Gators to a 29-26 rout of then-No. 8 Utah in UF’s Sept. 3 season opener. He passed for 168 yards and rushed for 106 yards and 3 TDs to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Since then, there has been an increasing effort in the execution of Napier’s attack. The following week, Richardson went 14-of-35 with 2 interceptions in a 26-16 home opener against No. 20 Kentucky, including a critical second-half pick-6 that turned the game around.
Richardson has made progress over his last four starts, starting with a career-high 453 yards passing at Tennessee. Through Richardson’s first three games, he has an 89.0 passer rating with 0 TDs and 4 interceptions and is averaging 141 yards per game. In Richardson’s last four starts, he has posted a 161.0 passer rating, averaging 236 yards with 6 TDs and 3 interceptions.
“It continues to grow,” Napier said. “Definitely the comfort level with all the things that make the quarterback play, not only in our system, but what the other side of the ball does, being able to speak that language. Just a ton of growth as far as where he’s at and the level he’s handling.”
Richardson hit his share of home runs — including touchdown passes of 75 and 51 yards to receiver Justin Shorter and an 81-yard TD run against LSU. His athletic ability at 6-foot-5, 232 pounds makes him an intriguing NFL prospect, which is why NFL scouts from various teams are flocking to games at The Swamp this season.
But Richardson’s accuracy remains an issue. His 56.5 completion percentage remains the worst among SEC starting quarterbacks. Richardson said he spent his bye week watching extra film and staying in sync with UF’s receivers.
“Just chemistry and just understanding what we both want,” Richardson said. “These guys want the ball. I want to get them the ball.”
Teammates say Richardson has grown into a leader on offense. He will make his ninth career start – and eighth this season – against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
“He was a guy who was vocal, trying to make us right,” Florida right tackle Austin Barber said. “I feel like his week-to-week growth is going to keep us going and I feel like he’s at a point where he can lead this team and get a win.”
Richardson said he still gets jitters before games but knows better how to deal with them.
“You always want to perform as well as you can, so I feel like everyone is rooting for them,” Richardson said. “But I try to limit them as much as possible, just stay out of my own head.”
A high-profile performance in front of 100,000 fans at Neyland Stadium against Tennessee showed that Richardson can handle a hostile SEC atmosphere. Attendance at matches in Georgia will be split 50-50.
“It prepared me for it,” Richardson said.
Georgia’s defense remains dominant even after the 2021 team won five games in the first round of the draft. The Bulldogs are ranked second nationally in scoring defense (9.1 ppg), fourth in total defense (247.0 ppg allowed) and fourth in pass defense (163.7 ppg allowed).
“Not much has changed,” Richardson said. “Georgia, they’re great at recruiting. They know how to grab guys and put them in the right spots. Their coach believes they’re in the right place, so just looking at the film, there’s not much of a difference.”
It’s up to Richardson and the rest of Florida to move the chains against Georgia’s stingy defense. Although Richardson struggled in that first career start, he said it helped shape him into the player he is today.
“I’ve made improvements as a player, as a person, so I’m grateful that I even got a chance to start in this game,” Richardson said. “It was fun just being on that field with my teammates. It was certainly a great happiness. I was grateful for that.”