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Special teams underperforming

ATHENS, Ga. -- One team had been solid on special teams all season until two fumbled punts cost them their last game. The other has experienced regular issues in the kicking game and nearly blew a big lead in its last outing by imploding on special teams.

Both Florida and Georgia had an open date before this weekend's head-to-head matchup, giving them time to sort out what went wrong the last time they were on the field.

"Teams have exploited us in the last couple weeks, but lucky for us it hasn't cost us a game yet," Georgia punter Drew Butler said, "so just being able to have that bye week and really shore up those areas and fix the problems we've had is going to be an advantage to us."

Butler had a punt blocked in the closing seconds of a 33-28 win against Vanderbilt but made a touchdown-saving tackle that preserved the victory.

"I think we all appreciated the time we got and the work the coaches put in to make sure those problems don't happen again," he said.

The Bulldogs also surrendered a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Commodores, adding to their consistent issues in covering kicks and trick plays on special teams. They fell victim to a fake punt on a touchdown drive for Vanderbilt, while a few weeks earlier South Carolina took a fake punt 68 yards for a touchdown in the Gamecocks' 45-42 win.

Although Butler leads the SEC and is eighth nationally at 46.1 yards per punt, the Bulldogs' coverage woes drop them to last in the SEC and 101st in the nation in net punting at 34.2 yards per attempt. They have allowed more return yards (235) than any other team in the conference, and only four FBS teams -- Memphis, Idaho, Kent State and New Mexico State -- have allowed more.

Now Georgia prepares to face a Florida team that has blocked three punts.

"We know we have to get better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I think a lot of it has to do with challenging those units to do exactly what the coaches tell them to do. That's been at least 50 percent of the issue."

But the special teams struggles are correctable, Georgia kicker Blair Walsh said, which is why the senior believes they aren't a long-term concern for a team that has been stable on special teams for most of Walsh and Butler's four years.

"I'm not necessarily concerned," Walsh said. "It doesn't bother me, but we need to get it back to how it was. I think teams are starting to gun for us because we know we're a good special teams unit all around, but teams are starting to put more focus on it and we just need to perform better."

Florida's recent issues came as a much greater surprise, but they were a direct contributor in the Gators' 17-6 loss to Auburn -- Florida's third loss in a row.

Veteran return man Chris Rainey fumbled a punt that Auburn recovered at the Gators' 32-yard line, setting up the Tigers' first touchdown. Later, Robert Clark muffed another punt -- this time at Florida's 47-yard line -- and Auburn was able to drive for the field goal that cemented its victory with 35 seconds left to play.

"Turnovers kill us," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett also threw an interception against Auburn. "These three turnovers lead to 10 points and really cost you the football game."

The bright side for both teams is that Florida's Caleb Sturgis has been one of the SEC's most consistent kickers and Walsh might be emerging from the slump that affected much of the first half of his season.

Sturgis is the SEC's top scorer at 9.1 points per game and also the conference's most accurate, having hit 94 percent of his field goals. Georgia is last in the league in field-goal percentage, as Walsh has hit just 12 of 20 attempts. But he hopes he finally found a rhythm against Vanderbilt.

Against the Commodores, Walsh supplied 15 key points and matched a school record by attempting six field goals. He hit four, including his last three in a row.

"Being able to get in that kind of game rhythm is definitely a huge help and I think Blair's game against Vanderbilt was a huge help to him, as well," Butler said. "Just getting those kicks, seeing them go through the uprights is always great. I think he was really appreciative of the chances he got."

That was the one sign of positivity that Georgia took away from an otherwise disastrous showing on special teams against Vanderbilt.

Unlike Florida, the lapses in the last game were not a direct contributor to a defeat, but it came awfully close. The Bulldogs realize they must find answers to their mistakes, or they might not be so fortunate next time.

"Especially for the Vanderbilt game, that punt simply cannot have been blocked and it was, and that was the most irritating part. It almost cost us the game," Butler said. "We wouldn't be talking about the things that we're talking about today if they would have won that game. We're extremely fortunate that it didn't cost us the game and we're going to make sure that it doesn't happen in the future."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.