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Quarterback play a major factor in Florida-Georgia showdown

Florida vs. Georgia could hinge on whether Greyson Lambert -- who might be replaced -- can bounce from his recent struggles and whether Florida's Treon Harris can continue improving as a passer. Getty Images

No. 11 Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC) and Georgia (5-2, 3-2) will renew their annual rivalry in Jacksonville on Saturday in a game with major SEC East implications.

With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group, let’s take a look at some key factors in Gators coach Jim McElwain’s first game against Mark Richt’s Bulldogs:

UGA quarterback quandary: Many of the questions at Richt’s Tuesday news conference concerned Georgia’s underwhelming quarterback play and whether Richt and first-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer handled the competition at the position correctly.

Quarterback is traditionally a position of strength at Georgia with starters such as David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray leading Richt-coached offenses with steady hands. It has been a different story lately, as starter Greyson Lambert has struggled.

The Virginia transfer led the SEC in completion percentage (76.5) and Total Quarterback Rating (88.8) through four games -- all of which were Georgia wins -- but Lambert has been a mess in recent weeks. Lambert’s completion percentage dipped to 54.5 percent and his QBR tumbled to a below-average 49.5 in the last three games, a stretch when Georgia went 1-2. Plus, he’s been awful on third down throughout, ranking 115th out of 125 FBS quarterbacks in third-down QBR.

Georgia has other options at the position, though Richt and Schottenheimer have been hesitant to use them much – at least until now. Reports out of Athens have dual-threat junior Faton Bauta starting Saturday over Lambert and backup Brice Ramsey. Bauta has yet to attempt a pass this season and is 4-for-5 for 48 yards, plus 10 rushing attempts for 46 yards and two touchdowns, in his career.

It remains to be seen what Bauta’s role will be, but coming off a bye week, perhaps Georgia’s coaches believed that reshuffling the deck at quarterback would be the best way to shake up a stagnant offense.

Florida’s improved passing attack: The driving force in Florida’s upset win against Georgia last season was its 418 rushing yards -- the second-most yards on the ground ever allowed by a Bulldogs defense. But McElwain’s most obvious upgrade to the 2015 Florida offense has come in the passing game.

Overall, Florida is averaging 249.6 passing yards per game, up from 179.9 last season, and the passing game accounts for 66 percent of the Gators’ total offensive production, up from 49 percent in 2014.

Even without suspended starter Will Grier, the Gators continued to perform well in the passing game against LSU with sophomore Treon Harris under center. Harris completed 17 of 32 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns against the Tigers and also rushed for 20 of Florida’s 55 yards against a stout LSU run defense.

Of note is how much Harris has improved while passing against the blitz. Last year he completed just 51.2 percent of his passes when opponents sent five or more rushers. But this season, he is completing 80 percent of such throws (including three touchdowns and no interceptions) and boasts the best QBR against the blitz of any SEC quarterback with at least 10 attempts (97.6).

Jeremy Pruitt’s young Georgia defense is surrendering 187 passing yards per game, which ranks second in the SEC, so this could be a strength-versus-strength matchup on Saturday.

One thing to keep an eye on as kickoff approaches: Florida’s star freshman receiver and kick returner Antonio Callaway (16 catches, 308 yards, 2 TD) reportedly injured his foot in practice this week. Assuming he still plays, the Gators might have to lean more heavily on receivers Demarcus Robinson (36-371, 2 TD) and Brandon Powell (20-294, 3 TD) or tight end Jake McGee (23-200, 3 TD) if Callaway is not at 100 percent.

What’s at stake: The winner of this game will be in control of the SEC East race. In fact, Florida will all but clinch the division title if it wins on Saturday.

The Gators would have a two-game lead over every Eastern Division team if it beats Georgia and would be able to clinch the title with a win against Vanderbilt (3-4, 1-3) at the Swamp the following weekend. However, the winner of the Florida-Georgia game has prevented the loser from winning the East in two of the last three seasons.

Nonetheless, Richt’s series and personal history do not favor the Bulldogs. Although last year’s loss snapped a three-game Georgia winning streak, the Bulldogs have traditionally struggled against the Gators in Jacksonville under Richt (they’re 5-9). Plus, Georgia is 5-14 against top-15 teams since 2009, losing by an average of 7.1 points per game.