SEC FOOTBALL: Gators Should Be Pulling For UT

It's rather hard to believe that, based on available online chats, there is anything less than 100 percent support for the Tennessee Volunteers this Saturday against Georgia.

Yes, among the citizens of Gator Nation who have made their opinions public, there is a slight but hardly overwhelming preference for the Children of the Checkerboard as they tackle Georgia in this Saturday's SEC East clash, the second of the three biggies in the division (with the Cocktail Party being the third). One has to wonder why this isn't a point of unanimous agreement in Gainesville.

Has anything been learned from the Alabama game --- not in terms of strategy or coaching, but in terms of expectations for this year's Gator team and projections of the SEC East race? Seriously --- should anyone have been expecting an 11-0 romp through the regular season on the road to Atlanta? Getting to the Georgia Dome would be a huge achievement for this team, which might have all the talent in the world, but which still has had to deal with the necessary growing pains that go with making substantial adjustments to a new coach, system, ethos, attitudinal framework, and overall culture. This means that if Atlanta is to be gained --- and the Bama blowout should have affirmed this reality for anyone who was overly, naively optimistic beforehand --- it will be gained with blood. That means two SEC losses, in all likelihood.

When Urban Meyer gets his spread option fully rolling, and Florida conclusively demonstrates that it can consistently bring the point-scoring hammer to the SEC's elite (not Kentucky), THEN we can talk about expecting undefeated SEC regular seasons. But in 2005, it's clear that UF will not develop that level of proficiency, smoothness and well-oiled excellence. That's not a criticism of Meyer or quarterback Chris Leak, just a reflection of the larger circumstances that characterize this team. It's not an expression of doubt in the ability of this team to win, merely an acknowledgment of the time it takes to instill not just a new system, but an attitude that promotes total comfort with said system.

As the famous Southern football truism says, "You are what you are." This team could still be worthy of Atlanta, but only as a bloodied, bruised survivor that will remain standing only by virtue of an ability to grind out aesthetically unpleasing lunch-pail victories. If Florida gets to Atlanta, it will likely get there in a crowded East race that produces three two-loss teams, with the Gators owning head-to-head tiebreaks over the boys from Athens and Knoxville.

This is what brings us back to Georgia-Tennessee.

Simply put, if the Dogs win in Knoxville, their chances of losing two SEC games (not just the Cocktail Party) become slim. Florida's ideal scenario for winning the East would be wiped away.

Auburn has had a history of doing extremely well Between the Hedges, but don't bank on Brandon Cox going into Georgia and winning. Not this year. If Georgia beats UT, Florida's margin of error for Atlanta is nil. UF would either have to run the table (this includes a date in Baton Rouge on Oct. 15), or --- in the event of a loss at LSU --- beat Georgia and have the Dogs lose against Tommy Tuberville's team at home in November. If Georgia wins in Neyland Stadium this weekend, everything will have to break just right for UF from here on out for Atlanta to still materialize at the end of the season.

Tennessee, on the other hand, has to deal with the same nasty environment in Tuscaloosa that the Gators faced this past weekend, only with more hatred and venom given the recent soap operas enveloping the Vols and Tide off the field. If Bama plays even remotely close to the way it did against the Gators, the Vols will have their second SEC loss and thereby fall out of contention. You can think of the SEC East equation this way: you need to weigh the likelihood of an Auburn win at Georgia versus the probability of an Alabama victory over Tennessee. If you think an Auburn win in Athens is more likely than a Tide triumph in Tuscaloosa, well, go ahead and root for Georgia this Saturday on the banks of the Tennessee River.

That takes this discussion full circle: has anything really been learned from this past weekend's Florida-Alabama game? First, it should indicate to sensible, levelheaded football people that Florida will not romp through the league, thereby suggesting that a 6-2 SEC record is in the offing for this year's Gator team. Second, the Tide's 31-3 dusting of Florida suggests that Mike Shula's club should, if nothing else, be favored to take down Tennessee later in October. Bama beating the Vols is a better percentage bet than the prospect of Auburn ambushing Georgia on the road in November.

Perform the logic, everyone. Put those expectations in a sensible place. Know that more blood will be spilled before the East is claimed (if it is claimed at all) by the Orange and Blue. Respect Bama against Tennessee. Don't think Brandon Cox is the second coming. Realize how freakin' fast LSU is on defense. Play the percentages.

Root for Tennessee to beat Georgia on Saturday.

Forget how much you hate Phil Fulmer or love to sing "Rocky Flop, Second in the SEC." If the Gators are to make Atlanta, you need the Vols to win. So don't sit on the sidelines, pretend to be neutral, or worse, BE neutral. And worse than all of these options, don't root for Georgia.

Steve Spurrier's great teams of the 1990s didn't need any help to get to Legion Field or the Georgia Dome when they raped, pillaged and plundered the SEC. But 2005 doesn't feature that kind of SEC anymore. It's an even cutthroat fistfight for a wide-open league title. You do what it takes to win your division and get to Atlanta, and if you need a certain kind of help, it stands that you ought to want that help pretty badly. Religious folks might call this "making your prayers relevant." Florida football fans should call this "rooting for Tennessee against Georgia."

It shouldn't have to be explained, but apparently, it does. At 3:30 on Saturday when Verne and Todd come into your living room, 100 percent of the Gator Nation should be siding with the Big Orange. It's not the case now; maybe opinion --- and logic --- will shift in the appropriate direction before kickoff time.

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