Expect The Worst, Prepare For The Best

My, my, my. The SEC East is suddenly attainable for the Florida Gators, now that D.J. Shockley will likely miss the Florida game and be less than fully effective a few weeks later against Auburn.

But Georgia's newfound vulnerability must not allow Urban Meyer's team --- in this upcoming week of preparation --- be either overly excited or overly cautious. Cocktail Party Week must witness a Gator team that expects the worst, but prepares to play its best.

Here's an explanation:

Given the nature of SEC football this year, the absence of Shockley from the Georgia lineup makes this a contest that's likely to become another old-timey Southern fistfight straight from yesteryear. Just as Alabama and Tennessee turned back the clock at least half a century in a 6-3 game this past Saturday, it also stands that the Gators and Dogs could play a game whose score doesn't leave single digits. As a matter of cold analysis, one has to expect and prepare for an ugly, minimalist game of incredibly frustrating proportions. One shouldn't expect the Gators' offense to have a glorious coming-out party on the banks of the St. John's River.

There's no denying the reality that with Shockley out, Georgia will rely that much more --- both strategically and emotionally --- on Willie Martinez' defense and a two-headed kicking game featuring punter Gordon Ely-Kelso and placekicker Brandon Coutu (how these two players perform, matched up against UF's Eric Wilbur and Chris Hetland, will have more than a little to do with the outcome of this very significant Party). This adjustment in UGA's emotional and tactical profile must be taken into account by every Gator player and coach. The very real possibility of an ugly game and tough sledding on offense needs to be accounted for.

The worst must be expected --- not in any defeatist kind of way, but in the sense that success won't come prettily or easily. The blue-shirted Gators (they'll be the designated home team in this year's Cocktail Party) must sell out, sacrifice, hit, and absorb hits for 60 minutes --- perhaps even more --- if this all-important victory is to be secured. Meyer, Dan Mullen, and Charlie Strong --- along with the rest of this coaching staff --- must ensure that early-game setbacks don't drag down the team at all, because in a game that figures to be close and low-scoring, just one breakdown, one tiny moment of distraction, one slight lapse in concentration, could mean seven points and a loss. The worst, most arduous and most supremely painful path has to be expected by the Gators if they're to summon up the mental toughness needed to win this game.

And yet...

And yet, while expecting the worst and bracing for vicious mortal combat within the framework of an ugly and close affair, it's also true that Florida --- particularly on offense --- must play to win and win big.

Yes, it's tempting for the Gators --- given that Joe Tereshinski and not Shockley is opposing Chris Leak --- to want to play it safe and assume they can pull it out in the fourth quarter, given an edge at quarterback. But while there's merit to a safe strategy, Florida can't equate total cautiousness with full wisdom. Whenever the Gators have a great scoring opportunity or a chance to ring up big yards by baiting UGA's defense, the Meyer-Mullen braintrust needs to go for the jugular-selectively, of course, but no less surely. While it's essential to manage the game with smarts and a recognition of the limitations that now exist for UGA's offense, Meyer and Mullen will also need to energize their players by being aggressive when the moment demands it. Players respond to a smart game plan, but they also respond to an aggressive game plan. While expecting a hard, tough slog against Georgia's defense, the Gators and their coaches need to prepare to be at their best in this season-making game which, combined with an Auburn win in Athens two weeks later, would deliver the East to Gainesville for the first time in five years.

The prize is out there again, and surprisingly so. But in order to claim it, the Gators need to live in a place halfway between giddiness and sober realism. The excitement needs to be there, but the discipline needed to win a four-quarter 6-3 ballgame must also exist for Florida. Intelligence and restraint must characterize much of the Gators' game plan in the Cocktail Party, but that shouldn't prevent Meyer and Mullen from taking shots on a few opportune occasions. If Florida plays its cards right, the Gators now stand a better than even-money chance of winning this game. But it's only by doing the deed that the Gators will change the trajectory of this season for the better.

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