Spurrier: SEC East winner ‘Will have to earn it'

Florida coach <b>Steve Spurrier</b> has had a long extra week to look at the new "1'' under his team's loss column in the Southeastern Conference standings.

Given a bye week after the Gators' 23-20 loss at Auburn on Oct. 13, a loss that dropped Florida from the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll, Spurrier says his team no longer should be viewed as the heavy favorite in the SEC East.

As No. 6 Florida prepares to play No. 15 Georgia Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Jacksonville, Fla., Spurrier says his team may have the most difficult second-half schedule of the four teams in the East left with just one conference loss.

Spurrier's belief is based on the fact that only Florida (5-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) has not played any of the other teams in the tight pack — South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

"Whoever is going to win the Eastern Division is going to have to earn it,'' Spurrier said in a telephone interview.

"Every game is going to be a dogfight. Right now we're 0-1 in close games.''

Oddsmakers who favor Florida by 18 points do not expect Saturday's game to be close.

"I think we realize we certainly can get beat,'' Spurrier said. "(Auburn) just beat us. We're not as mighty as I guess the media wanted to make us think we were.''

Added Spurrier: "Hopefully we all learned a lot from the last game. You've got to give (Auburn) credit. They kicked our tails.''

It was only Spurrier's second loss to an unranked team in his 12 years at Florida, leaving him 77-2 in those games.

Spurrier is 10-1 against Georgia (5-1 overall, 4-1 SEC), losing only in 1997. He has outlasted the Ray Goff and Jim Donnan eras. For the first time Spurrier will face new Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who as the former Florida State offensive coordinator prepared mostly successful schemes against Spurrier's defenses every year.

"(Richt) has done an excellent job,'' Spurrier said. "Their team is playing very hard. They know what they're doing. They have a lot of enthusiasm. They're sky-high right now.''

Said Spurrier of Georgia's play under Richt: "The one thing I've noticed is they're really playing very hard, really hustling.''

Asked if this was the best Georgia team he has seen in his time as Florida's head coach, Spurrier said: "I would say they're close to the best. I don't know when the best was. ... They have a lot of momentum. They believe they can win. ... (Richt) has done an excellent job.''

Florida ranks first in the nation in total yards and passing yards and fourth in scoring (44 points per game), but the Gators also rank in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense (third at 11.3 points allowed per game), rushing defense and total defense.

A glaring trouble spot for Florida is its minus-six turnover ratio — worse than all SEC teams except Mississippi State.

Against Auburn, Florida was minus-three in turnovers. After six games last year, the Gators were among the top teams in the nation with a plus-13 turnover margin.

Another key for Florida is the net rushing battle. Florida has been outrushed in all but two of Spurrier's 26 losses in 12 years, including the Auburn game.

"We had decent balance (on offense) up until the last game,'' Spurrier said. "Actually, the yards per carry (4.1) on the whole season, we're not all that bad.''

Florida ranks 11th in the SEC with its average of 112 yards rushing per game, including a net loss of 36 yards against Auburn.

Georgia is seventh in the league with 148.3 yards rushing per game, and even without top rusher Musa Smith won the ground game in last Saturday's 43-29 win over Kentucky.

Florida was without its top running back, Earnest Graham, against Auburn, but Spurrier says Graham is "full go'' for this week.

"We need to run the ball,'' Spurrier said. "We can't be one-dimensional.''

Even so, the most glaring statistical mismatch when Florida has the ball is in the passing game. While Florida leads the nation in passing, Georgia ranks 101st in pass defense.

Charles Odum can be reached at CEOdum@aol.com.

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