Perhaps the big question is this – what teams will show up to play? Will it be the Georgia team that showed up in Knoxville or Nashville? Will it be the Florida team that lost to Tennessee or beat LSU?
What we have seen with both of these teams this season are bad cases of multiple playing personalities.
Georgia comes in with one loss against a very good LSU team. The Dawgs went to Baton Rouge and played a tough, hard fought game. They had their chances to beat the Bayou Bengals but left too many points on the field. And credit has to go to LSU for making the plays when they had too. But over the past two weekends, Georgia has not performed up to their high standards against Vanderbilt and UAB. In fact, they have not played like a top-five team but they have found a way to win. Good teams find ways to win when things aren't going their way. And along the way, the Bulldogs have sustained some serious injuries.
On the other hand, the Gators blew a 23-point lead against Miami, looked lack-luster in a loss to Tennessee and blew another fourth-quarter lead against Ole Miss. All of a sudden, Florida looks ordinary at home at the vaunted Swamp. Fans were calling for Ron Zook's head. But to his credit and his staff's credit, Florida did what no one in the college football world thought they would do, they won on the road against the Tigers and Razorbacks. Zook rallied the team for two big road upsets in two tough venues. And they did it with a freshman quarterback running the show.
Georgia limps into Jacksonville with some big injuries. Lost for the season are (DT) Kedric Golston, (QB) D.J. Shockley, Decorey Bryant (CB), Tony Milton (RB), Will Thompson (DE), Kentrell Curry (S), and Michael Turner (C). All were Georgia starters except Shockley and Turner. Defensive tackle Ray Gant (leg) and fullback Jamario Smith (back) are doubtful while wide receiver Fred Gibson (knee), offensive guard Josh Brock (shoulder), offensive guard Bartley Miller (shoulder), linebacker Tony Taylor (ankle), linebacker Arnold Harrison (ankle), defensive end David Pollack (knee and toe), defensive end Marquis Elmore (ankle) and fullback Jeremy Thomas (concussion) are probable. So in essence, UGA has five starters that are out and another seven starters that are banged up.
The injuries are obvious. Georgia Head Coach Mark Rict and his Dawgs will be OK. Just look at the pre-season. Everyone knew the Dawgs would be good but not this good. Look at what they lost last season. Their entire offensive line from a year ago has graduated. They also lost defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan, wide receiver Terrence Edwards, and linebackers Boss Bailey, Tony Gilbert, and Chris Clemmons. They now start four sophomores on the offensive line and one red-shirt freshman. Their backups are all freshmen and sophomores. The injury bug has hit the Dawgs but they still win.
Defensively, Georgia has been outstanding. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder has quietly built quite a reputation. In fact, he may be the best DC in the league and he may be the most underrated coordinator in the country. This guy can flat out coach. Despite the player turnover and all the injuries, they are currently ranked No. 1 in the country in yards per game allowed (243 yards) and have only given up 11 touchdowns in eight games (11.5 points allowed per game).
When Coach Richt took over in Athens and brought in his assistants, everyone questioned some of his hires. But what we have all learned is this, he assembled a great staff and this is a very well coached team in every phase of the game.
For Florida, coach Ron Zook and the Gators have been on quite a roller coaster ride this season. Because they are playing so many young players and new players, the expectations were not that high coming into the season. The Gators were not supposed to play for the conference title or even be in the thick of the race. They start a true freshman at quarterback and 13 other freshmen find themselves in the Florida two deep rotation. Over 40 Florida players are playing SEC ball for the first time in the careers.
But the Gators showed in Coral Gables in week two that this team would be better than the expectations by taking the heavily favored Hurricanes the distance. They could have won that game but Miami made the plays when they had to and the Gators didn't have an answer in the fourth quarter. Against the Vols, the Gators once again had their chances but couldn't convert. And in hindsight, Zook's quarterback rotation finally came back to hurt the Gators, as they waited one too many games before going with one guy.
Florida found themselves trailing Kentucky on the road as they entered the fourth quarter the following week. Zook went with the true freshman Chris Leak and Leak and the defense led them to a come from behind victory against the Wildcats. One would have thought this would be a turning point for the Gators but they stumbled at home the following week against the Rebels.
A players only meeting ensued and the seniors and the Gator coaching staff rallied the team for improbable wins against LSU and Arkansas in back to back weeks.
This leads us to this Saturday in Jacksonville for the Dawgs and Gators. What teams will show up? Will the real Georgia team stand up? Will it be the same Dawgs that came to Knoxville that dominated the Vols with so much fire or intensity or the Georgia teams of the past two weeks that slept walked their ways to two tough wins. What Gator team will show up? The mistake riddled Florida team against the Rebels and Vols or the confident, playing making Gators that upset the Tigers and Hogs?
This game has so many huge implications. A Georgia win on Saturday assures the Dawgs of their second consecutive trip to the Dome and the SEC Championship game. If the Gators win on Saturday and win out in conference, they will finish 6-2. If Georgia loses to Florida on Saturday and wins out in conference, they will finish 6-2 in conference play. If Tennessee wins out in conference play, they will finish 6-2. All three teams lost to a team in the West and all three teams beat each other (Tennessee beat Florida, Florida beat Georgia and Georgia beat Tennessee). Of all things, it could come down to a vote of SEC Athletic Directors.
There is a lot of football to be played before we really should go down this road. First things first and lets see what happens this Saturday. Both teams will be ready and fired up. We will not see a Georgia let down. We will see a Georgia team play with the same fire and intensity that we saw in Baton Rouge and Knoxville. Florida is rested and they have confidence and momentum.
They say Florida has the psychological advantage because of the success they have had over the past dozen years against Georgia. But Georgia is the team that is the defending SEC champions and Georgia is the team that if they can win out, could be playing for a national championship at the end of the season.
What are the keys to the game? First of foremost is running the football. When they commit themselves to run, both teams have been successful this season. What team will commit to the run on Saturday?
The quarterbacks. The quarterback play will be huge. Greene is a veteran and one of the best in the country. Leak is a true freshman that has played like a seasoned veteran over the past two games for the Gators.
Picking up the blitz. This hasn't exactly been a strong suit of either offense this season. You know both teams will be coming after the quarterback. LSU showed the SEC a great blue print for disrupting Greene and the Georgia passing game by blitzing and attacking Greene. For Florida, Leak is only getting his fifth start. He has limited experience but plays with a ton of poise.
Getting out to a good start. For Georgia, this could play big. As stated above, people say that UF has a psyche advantage over UGA because of their past success against the Dawgs. I don't necessarily agree with that because to me, this Georgia teams knows how to win. But if there is any truth to that, Georgia must have a good first quarter in the football game. For Florida, they need Leak to have a good start to keep his confidence high.
Injuries and replacements. Georgia is loaded with injuries. Losing cornerback Decorey Bryant is a big loss for the Dawgs. Tim Jennings, his replacement, has to step up and play big. He has shown the knack for making big plays. I rather have an injured David Pollack than no Pollack at all. He is a warrior in every sense of the word. Pollack needs to make a few big plays in this game. When he does make those big plays, Georgia feeds off of him and his emotion.
Who steps up? The strength of this Georgia defense is linebacker Odell Thurman and safeties Sean Jones and Thomas Davis. No disrespect to David Pollack and Eli Manning, but Davis is the best player in the conference, while Jones is not too far behind him. All these two do is make big play after big play. Davis is everywhere and Florida must identify where he is on every play. Thurman is an outstanding linebacker for the Dawgs that's very physical and boy can he run. For Florida, they are a different team with Channing Crowder playing. They are a very good defense with him in there and average when he is not. Crowder is one of the nation's best young linebackers and he's all over the field. In fact, he plays a lot like Georgia's Thurman. Crowder, from Roswell, Georgia, has emerged as the best player on the Florida squad.
Offensively, which one of Georgia's receivers is ready to step up and make big plays? Even if Fred Gibson plays, how effective will he be? The Dawgs needs another Michael Johnson performance (against Auburn last season) from someone. For Florida, they may have found their go to back in Ciatrick Fason, not Deshawn Wynn. Fason had two great games against LSU and Arkansas and he needs to run the ball effectively against that great Georgia defense. Fason, from Jacksonville, gets to play in front of his hometown so you know he will be ready. Wynn could be a factor as well.
While one Gator wide receiver may not have a dominant game, Georgia must make sure that Gator tight end Ben Troupe must be accounted for on every play. Troupe is the nation's second best TE behind Miami's Kellen Winslow. He is so dangerous with the ball in his hands. So that begs these questions – can Georgia cover him and will Florida go to him? Florida will spread the field. If they can also run the ball, Troupe could have a monster game. But again, how Georgia defends him and how Florida game plans to get him the ball will play huge factors.
The Dawgs are the best team in the conference and Georgia comes in as a slight favorite. Despite the injuries, Georgia is still a very good football team. They are very well coached, have terrific team speed, have a great quarterback and an even better defense. Florida played like a young team early on but grew up on the road against two top ten SEC teams. The Gators have momentum, confidence, are well rested and relatively healthy after a bye week. With all that being said, this is one of college football's great rivalries. It should be a great game and shapes up to be another classic. May the best team win and let the chips fall where they may.