Win or Lose is all that matters

The saying goes, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." For the 2008 version of the Florida-Georgia game...Fuhgetaboutit. With the slap in the face to the game of football, and how it should be played that Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt and his team executed last season, the game on Saturday could be like a no holds barred WWF match. It's all about winning, any way possible.

We have heard, seen, talked about, replayed, and chastised the "celebration" after the Dawgs' first score last season to no end. The celebration itself was against the rules. The fact that Head Coach Mark Richt and his staff blatantly manipulated his team to break the rules should have been cause for a reprimand. The rule itself wasn't the big deal really, it is more the fact he put the health and welfare of both teams on the line with his team rushing from the sideline and into a mass of players from both teams taunting and waving like a band of hooligans. A huge fight could have broken out.

Oh, maybe we shouldn't blame Richt. He is probably the only Georgia coach in history to have losing records against three Florida coaches. He knew he had to do something different to get his team psyched up for a game that they should have no trouble getting psyched up for and he resorted to purposely breaking the rules and jeopardizing much more in the process.

Did it work? Well, that is debatable. The Gators took only four plays to score after the 'celebration'. It was hardly anything that got under the skin of the Gator offense and staff at the moment. Whether it led to the victory by Georgia, I think that was due more to the many injuries the Gators came into the game with. That, and the paltry defense that lined up to play that day. It was arguably the worst defense the Gators have had in decades last season. And Georgia 'celebrated' scoring against them?

Lost in almost all of it was the poise that the Gators showed by not retaliating. It certainly showed the difference between classy and assy (Is that a word? It is now.)

Nevertheless, it should be a different ball game this year. The Gators are healthy. They are as healthy a team as they have been all season and certainly much more healthy in key areas than they were a year ago.

Georgia comes in with the best offense the Gators will have seen this year. They come in with junior quarterback Matthew Stafford who may have the best arm in college football. They come in with maybe the most electric running back in the country in sophomore Knowshon Moreno. Their top two wide receivers, senior Mohamed Massaquoi and freshman A.J. Green are so much better than last season and a talented pair for sure. The offensive skill positions at Georgia can hurt a defense in more ways than any team the Gators will face.

The offensive line is make shift but plays surprisingly well for their youth. This is helped by a now veteran quarterback and a running back that is as good as anyone at making the first tackler miss. The line starts three freshmen and two sophomores thanks to a few injuries up front, but they are talented and only inexperience gets in their way sometimes when they make mental mistakes.

They have had a rash of injuries at tight end that has the left the position not used as much lately. The fullback doesn't run the ball, but they do use the fullback on screen plays very effectively to attack up field rushes by defenses.

So how do the Gators stop an offense like Georgia?

The first course of business has to be to stop Moreno and the running game. He will get some yards, but they need to keep the big plays down by gang tackling him and getting to the football all day. This was the biggest weakness on a young defense last season and the Gators added depth has helped them tremendously by being able to substitute for someone not playing well or for an injured player. The Gators led the SEC in rush defense for most of last season but it was a misnomer. Because of poor pass defense, the Gators were attacked by the air even more than running the ball. The Gators currently rank third in rush defense in the conference and that has come on the heels of an improved pass defense so teams have to play them a little more honest by using their ground game.

It all starts up front for Florida and although they will likely blitz some, they would love to play a straight up defense and get some penetration from their front four. While the front four has really stoned some good running teams, the penetration hasn't been all that much. Blitzing may come as a young offensive line can be challenged with the confusion that different blitzes bring.

If the Gators can stop the run, they will then need to stop what I believe is Georgia's most dangerous weapon. I have watched four games this season of Stafford and he is no where near the same quarterback he was a year ago. He makes better decisions and he also knows he has better weapons to throw to, especially with the addition of Green who is a superstar in waiting. If he has a flaw it is that he does throw the ball too hard for his receivers on some mid to short routes and it makes it difficult for them to catch, but he is almost always on target.

The difference for the Gators pass defense may even be more of a big change than that of the Georgia passing game. Freshman Janoris Jenkins has been a huge surprise with how well he plays and sophomore Joe Haden is having a great year as well. Both play aggressive press coverage which the Gator staff likes to implore and which they just couldn't do last year with the inexperienced and less confident corners of the 2007 team.

The Gators are tops in the conference in pass efficiency defense. This will be tested by the best passing game they have faced all year, but they are light years ahead of last season and look to make the biggest impression on this game that Georgia may not be expecting.

These corners can and will play in the face of Massaquoi and Green and I think that will be the difference in making the Georgia passing game more difficult to produce. It also lends to playing more players in the box and stopping the running game. Georgia already plays more of a traditional pro offense with only two receivers in their offensive formations along with a tight end and a fullback. The Gators haven't faced too much of this in 2008, but I think it plays directly into their hands.

If the Gators are successful in defending this, the Dawgs will have to try and spread the field a little more taking away protection and adding receivers on the outside. It will become a real chess match that Florida is hoping to happen during the game.

So how do the Gators attack the Georgia defense?

The Dawgs are led by their linebackers on defense. Sophomores Rennie Curran and Darryl Gamble lead the team in tackles and as they go, the defense goes for Georgia. They are asked to do a lot of things for this team from coverage of tight ends to blitzing the quarterback.

It is imperative the Gators spread these guys out. As good as the linebackers are, the front four and secondary are not strong points on this team. Spreading the linebackers out will help get the mismatches the Gators need on those guys and they should be able to take advantage of the other positions on the field.

Junior defensive tackle Geno Atkins is their best player up front. Listed with 23 quarterback pressures, I have a hard time buying that, but he is their best at getting off of blocks up front and making plays. Georgia is seventh in the conference in sacks and they blitz linebackers and cornerbacks to actually get the heat on quarterbacks. Their entire defensive line has nine sacks on the season.

Their line is a lot like Florida's in that they don't get a lot of push, but they do stuff the run pretty well. Georgia is second in the SEC in rush defense, but again, they really rely on their linebackers for support in the middle.

Florida is second in the SEC in rushing offense and the Gators have stepped that average up lately against better competition. I believe they can punch the Dawgs in the mouth up front and make a statement early in this game. Last year, that was not the case. This year they need to spread the field, maybe even using the wide splits, getting those linebackers out of the box or at least some space between them. Then run right at the Dawgs like they have done their last few opponents.

Testing the Georgia secondary should come early and often. Georgia is ninth in pass efficiency defense this year and have given up 13 touchdowns through the air. Meanwhile the Gators lead the conference in pass efficiency and trail only LSU who has one more touchdown through the air on the season.

The Dawgs play a lot of man-to-man defense, I think this is indicative of a lack of push and pass rush up front so they have to bring linebackers and corners to get pressure. The Gators want a man to man team and invite that. Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, and the rest of the receivers could have a field day. I think Aaron Hernandez will be a big target for Tim Tebow.

The Georgia pass defense seems to play right into the Gators hands.

One last note on offense. I think this could be a huge Tebow running game. Playing a lot of man defense will mean that the quarterback is really not accounted for outside of the blitzers. Unless Georgia operates a spy at linebacker, they won't have anyone covering Tebow in the running game, and last year this was not an option with his health. This could be the biggest difference in the entire offense from last year in this game, Tebow will finally be able to run the ball when needed.

The skinny on special teams...

Oddly enough, one stat you wouldn't think to see Georgia leading the Gators in is punt returns. The Dawgs actually average one more yard per return than the Gators and Brandon James to lead the SEC. This average is no doubt bolstered by the 92 yard punt return by Prince Miller in the Alabama game but Miller is definitely a talent returning the kicks every time he does. The Gators combat that with the lowest amount of return yards given up by any team in the SEC so far in 2008 (40).

Georgia comes into the game ranked 54th in the country in kickoff coverage, slightly ahead of the Gators. But, the Gators are much better at returning kickoffs and this is a place where the Gators could exploit the Dawgs.

Keys to look for...

Can the Gators keep Moreno from busting a few long plays?

Can the Gators harass receivers Massaquoi and Green out of their routes and make it hard on Stafford to stay on time in the passing game?

Can the Gator offense protect against the blitz?

Can Tim Tebow find the match ups he wants or run for yardage when the Dawgs do blitz?

Can Brandon James pop one on special teams?

I think the Gators can win most of the these battles on Saturday. Unlike last year, when they won almost none of them, this year there are several reasons to believe they will. If they win most of the above battles, they win handily. I think it happens. And they won't celebrate in the face of the Dawgs when it does. They will act like they have been there before...like they have.

Prediction: Gators 38, Dawgs 23


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