It’s funny the things people choose to worry about. I could go down a variety of paths with this–especially during an election year with all of the crap being slung by all sides–but I’ll stick to the important one: college football.
What was once known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Florida Gators annual contest against the Georgia Bulldogs is no longer named that. In 2006, the schools and the SEC asked that it no longer be referred to as a cocktail party. I can understand their reasoning, but it will always be met with a “lighten up” thought springing into my head. Again, there are a number of paths this discussion could go down as well, but let’s stay with college football. This weekend is the rivalry; the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has returned.
Florida-Georgia has a mystique to it with few equals. If you spent your formative football years in the Steve Spurrier era, as I did, the rivalry with the Bulldogs wasn’t much of one at all. In fact, for 14 years from 1990 to 2003, the Gators were 13-1 against the Dawgs. Incidentally, that one loss came during my freshman year at the University of Florida. I’ve mentioned being a jinx of sorts before and there’s just one more example for you.
Since that time, Florida is 5-3 against Georgia and the rivalry’s fire has been reignited. But that’s still new to many of us who were too young to truly remember Georgia’s dominance through the 1970s or 1980s, and were definitely not around when Florida ruled the 1950s and early 1960s. Through it all, we learned though. We learned to hate our neighbors to the north as much as they looked down upon those to the south. It was a mutual hatred fueled by years of growing up knowing who your true rivals were regardless of how many times you had beaten them or lost to them recently.
Here we are in another season with another Cocktail Party on the schedule. In recent seasons, it hasn’t seemed as important to the landscape of college football. Florida fans never let go of the power of the game–neither did Georgia fans–but when one team is having an off season, it doesn’t jump out to you as much as it can. This, though, is one of those seasons where the entire nation will be watching.
The Florida Gators come into the game as the nation’s No. 2 team. At 7-0 (6-0 SEC), the Gators have surprised many and even themselves. Not far behind them is a Georgia team looking to rebound from a tough defeat at the hands of South Carolina and a less-than-desirable outing against Kentucky. Still, at 6-1 (4-1 SEC), the Bulldogs hold the No. 10 spot in the BCS rankings. Florida wants to continue what is quickly becoming an incomprehensible dream season, while Georgia wants to prove it’s the SEC East’s rightful Atlanta representative.
The 2012 version of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party features two teams looking to prove themselves. For the Gators, that’s easy, prove your the nation’s No. 2 team. The ranking is there, but not many believe it. For the Bulldogs, it’s to prove you belong and are a true contender in college football’s best conference. Only one team can accomplish their goal on Saturday, while the other will find themselves taking a step back in the SEC race. Florida can actually clinch the SEC East with a victory, while Georgia needs to win and keep winning.
Winning the division would be an enormous step in the right direction for the Gators. During Urban Meyer’s last season with the Gators, Florida went 4-4 in SEC play, which was actually good for second place in the division. It wasn’t just a down year for the Gators, as the SEC East’s representative–South Carolina–finished the regular season with three conference losses. One season later–during Will Muschamp’s first year as Florida’s new head coach–the Gators fell to third in the divisional standings with a 3-5 SEC record. This time around, Florida is one conference win away from matching their total from 2010 and 2011 combined. Think about that for a second. This was a team with more than enough talent to think they were on the rise, but it wasn’t supposed to happen all together in 2012; we were still a season away. But no, the Gators went out and got all sorts of impatient and are instead fighting for a trip to Atlanta on only October 27. Yes, we’ll take it.
The game itself has one of those feelings about it that anything could happen. The last I checked, the Gators were favored by almost a touchdown. Based on that alone, it could be a close game, but spreads mean nothing in many cases. Florida beat South Carolina by 33 just one week ago. Guess what? The Gators weren’t favored by close to that many points. We could see a seven-point Florida win; we could see a seven-point Gators loss. Odds are we’ll see the continued improbabilities we’ve seen so far this season from the orange and blue. If that’s the case, the guess is that Florida wins 56-10 while managing just 42 yards of total offense and amassing 178 penalty yards. Yes, I exaggerated those numbers greatly, but at the same time I might not have.
In the Bulldogs, the Gators will face their most complete opposing quarterback to-date. Aaron Murray is just another college player that could have ended up a Gator. In fact, Murray once favored Florida. He wound up at the rival to the north and it wasn’t an awful decision for him. He’s improved over the course of career and comes into this game with some of his best numbers so far. Murray is having a career year with highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and efficiency rating. But in the loss to South Carolina, Murray looked awful. Move ahead one week to the win over Kentucky and he had one of the best games of his career. Kentucky’s defense isn’t even on the same planet as Florida’s, but it’s still something to mention.
Murray could be the difference for the Dawgs. Him playing well doesn’t guarantee a Georgia win, but when he plays poorly a loss is expected. His worst game of the season–by far–was the loss to South Carolina. It could be out of his system, but that was also the best defense the Bulldogs have gone up against. It doesn’t work this way in sports every time (or really any time), but South Carolina beat Georgia by 28 and Florida beat South Carolina by 33. If that were a proven method of predicting outcomes, we would be looking at a poor performance by Murray and a BIG Gators win.
In addition to Murray, the Gators have to be prepared for the dynamic duo (and I’m not going to use the nickname every college football announcer can’t get enough of) of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The freshmen running backs are doing work and doing it well. Marshall averages 7.0 yards per carry, while Gurley puts up a paltry 6.7 (it’s not paltry at all; it’s extremely impressive). They’re exactly what recruiting analysts expected them to be, but there is a silver lining for the Gators. Well, two really. First, Florida has the best defense Georgia will have faced. You could argue that South Carolina has to be mentioned there as well and that’s fine; remember, the Gamecocks held the Bulldogs to seven points. And second, Gurley and Marshall have come out flat the last two weeks with neither exceeding 47 yards on the ground or 3.9 yards per carry. That could mean they are poised for a breakout game, or it could mean the toll of a college football schedule is wearing on the freshmen.
Then there’s the Georgia defense. Through their first three games, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 21 points. That’s not off-the-charts horrible, but when your opponents are Buffalo, Missouri, and FAU, it’s far from acceptable. Those teams are now a combined 5-16. Georgia rebounded against Vanderbilt, allowing only three points. Since then, 44 to Tennessee, the 35 to South Carolina we discussed, and 24 to Kentucky. Against four common opponents, the Dawgs have allowed an average of 26.5 points. Conversely, the Gators have allowed 12. Florida has allowed 20 points once; Georgia has allowed 20 or more in six of the seven games they’ve played. Advantage: Gators.
Or is it? The Gators offense has been up and down and against South Carolina was pedestrian at best (and that’s only when you look at the second half as the first was forgettable from an offensive standpoint). But then again, we’re really only talking yards in that case. The Gators capitalized when they needed to. So what if Jeff Driskel only had 15 passing yards at the half? He had three touchdowns to go along with it. So what if the Gators were out-gained and couldn’t even get to 200 total yards? They scored 44 points. Georgia has been known to put opponents on the scoreboard this season and Florida shouldn’t have much trouble finding the end-zone. As offensive coordinator Brent Pease said earlier this week, the number one goal for the Gators is to win games. Style points are a thing of the past. It’s all about one mantra and one mantra only–JUST WIN.
Signs would point to the good guys taking this one. Signs would also point away from the probability of the Gators being 7-0 (6-0 SEC) at this point with only 60 minutes between them and a spot in Atlanta. It’s been an oddly satisfying, but unnerving season so far. Unnerving because we still aren’t sure exactly what Florida brings to the table as an entire package. The defense is great and the special teams seem to be there as well. However, there’s also an offense that is relatively mistake free, but far from consistent in terms of efficiency. Asking “what in the world is going on here?” is what many of us our doing. Happily asking, but asking all the same.
A prediction? Normally I don’t do that; there’s that whole jinx thing in the air. But did that change last week? Asked to make a prediction for WACH Fox in Columbia, SC, I went with the Gators 24-20. My four-point victory prediction became a 33-point thrashing. Was it all thanks to me? I’d like to think so, but that’s definitely not the case. This season, 24-20 seems like a reasonable score for any game the Gators play. Let’s stick with it. 24-20. To Hell with Georgia! Go Gators!
*1985 Florida-Georgia program image courtesy Historic Football Posters.