No. 15-ranked Georgia has enjoyed more success than many expected. The Bulldogs (5-1 over-all; 4-1 Southeastern Conference) took their fourth consecutive victory last Saturday with a hard-fought 43-29 decision over Kentucky. The win kept Georgia tied with the Gators for second place (behind South Carolina) in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. The Bulldogs have also recorded victories over Arkansas State, Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Their lone loss was to South Carolina.
No. 6-ranked Florida has looked invincible for most of the season, although it should be noted that the Gators' (5-1 over-all; 3-1 SEC) schedule has not been nearly as tough as Georgia's. Florida has wins over Marshall, Louisiana-Monroe, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Louisiana State. The Gators were idle last Saturday after having been upset at unranked Auburn (24-21) the week before. Georgia has played two teams-South Carolina and Tennessee-who are better than any team Florida has faced.
The Bulldogs have a rookie head coach in Mark Richt who may be as familiar with Florida as the Gators are themselves. As an assistant coach at Florida State, Richt was part of teams that compiled an 8-4-1 record against Coach Steve Spurrier's Gators.
Although Georgia owns a huge 45-32-2 series lead, the Bulldogs have beaten the Gators only once-a 37-17 upset in 1997-in the last eleven years. Most of those games weren't close, with Florida winning ten times by an average margin of 24.3 points. However, this year's game appears more marquee than in previous seasons. The outcome could decide who wins the Eastern Division championship, while the loser is likely eliminated from contention.
Continue reading to find out what the keys to a Georgia victory include.
*Running the ball effectively.
It's a well-known fact that both teams pass the ball well. The winner of this game will probably be the team that runs it best. History shows that the best way to beat Spurrier's Florida teams is to outrush the Gators. In 24 of the 26 games Florida has lost since Spurrier became the Gators chieftain eleven years ago, the Gators rushed for fewer yards than their opponent.
Georgia moved the ball effectively on the ground against the Gators last year until former coach Jim Donnan inexplicably junked the running game for a passing attack that was successful at times but not when the Bulldogs needed it the most. Georgia needs to keep pounding away at the Gators via the run. Even if the Bulldogs are not successful doing so early in the game, they eventually should be if Richt will stick with a running attack. The loss of Musa Smith will hurt. Smith, the SEC's third-leading rusher with 89.4 yards per game, probably won't play against Florida because of a nagging groin injury. However, if Verron Hayes can step up and have a great game, the Bulldogs should have a productive day moving the ball on the ground.
*Play great defense.
Florida has the nation's top-rated offense in scoring (44.0 ppg.), total offense (551.0 ypg.) and passing offense (439 ypg), so Georgia Defensive Coordinator Brian Van Gorder's unit needs to play its best ball of the season. Georgia must blitz, but will have to mix and match a lot of things defensively. The Bulldogs must constantly harass Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, the nation's top-ranked passer (185.3 rating). Georgia has surrendered more than 400 yards in each of the last three games. If Georgia's defense gives up 400 or more yards to Florida, the Gators may win in a rout. Applying pressure and forcing turnovers haven't been among Georgia's strengths this year. The Bulldogs have an SEC-low five sacks and have forced only eight turnovers, which ranks tenth in the conference. Georgia needs to force a couple turnovers and not commit any to have a legitimate chance to win. The Bulldogs' secondary players will have to perform exceptionally well.
*Control the time of possession.
This is a near-must for the Bulldogs. The best way to beat Florida is to keep the Gators' offense off the field. No team has consistently stopped Georgia's offense this year, so the Bulldogs should be able to move the ball on Florida even though the Gators have the nation's seventh-ranked total defense (268.2 yards per game) and third-ranked scoring defense (11.3 ppg). Richt has installed a big-play offense that was his trademark the past several years as Florida State's offensive coordinator. The Bulldogs are averaging 31.2 points per game and rank ninth nationally with an average of 457. 5 yards per outing. Fred Gibson has emerged as one of the nation's best players at his position: a tall, sure-handed, gutsy and fast wide receiver. And, Georgia redshirt freshman quarterback David Greene continues to display uncanny poise, accuracy and savvy. Greene may eventually be an All-American. He's that good.
*Staying within a certain number of points of the Gators.
Georgia has proven it can play catch-up this season. The Bulldogs came from behind to win against Tennessee and Kentucky. However, they have not played a team the caliber of Florida. On the other hand, the Gators have not played a team as good as Georgia either. The Bulldogs must not get behind Florida by more than ten points (ideally seven) at any time during the game, and need to be within a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter to win. If Georgia can stay close to the Gators, where a key play or two can decide the outcome, the Bulldogs may very well win. Georgia should not be comfortable with any lead it can muster, unless it for sure wraps up a victory. A 20-point cushion against Florida in the fourth quarter is not a safe lead because of the Gators' tremendous offensive explosiveness.
Richt echoed my sentiment with the following quote: "We've got to try to stay within striking because it (the game) could be over before we hardly get started because Florida can score so fast. We can't dig a big hole and expect to get out."
PREDICTION: On paper, Florida may have a better team than Georgia. However, the talent differential is not as wide as you might think. The Bulldogs will somehow, someway, find a way to beat the hated Gators. I've just got that feeling. It will be a real shootout, with Greene outplaying Grossman. The Bulldogs will seal the verdict late in the fourth quarter and roll on to the SEC Eastern Division crown. How 'Bout Them Dawgs! Georgia 39, Florida 34.
Tim can be reached via e-mail.