It’s been a crazy year in the SEC. You could field a pretty potent all-star team with players who are out for the season or are missing multiple games with injuries. Actually, you could do it just with the injured players from Georgia and Florida.
And so it is that two teams that were expected to be among the nation’s best limp into their annual grudge match at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, where only one will emerge with even an outside chance of being a contender in the SEC East.
Shorthand on this game goes like this: Georgia is bad on defense (ranking 58th nationally in total defense, 101st in scoring defense) but Florida is even worse on offense (outside the Top 100 in total offense, scoring offense and red zone scoring percentage). Meanwhile, Georgia used to be really good on offense, before injuries took out a bunch of its key playmakers, but the Dogs expect to get two of those playmakers back for this game. They’ll be going up against a defense that, even after losing star defensive lineman Dominique Easley for the season to a knee injury, is one of the nation’s five best, though it didn’t do so well last game against Missouri (something else the two teams have in common).
Florida, which has lost its starting quarterback, running back and a couple of starters off an offensive line that’s been giving up a lot of sacks and quarterback hurries lately, will have a backup QB with a lingering shoulder injury (Tyler Murphy) and a recently promoted freshman as starting tailback (Kelvin Taylor) going up against a young Georgia defense that, despite its dismal numbers and tendency to give up big plays, has improved incrementally this season, getting good pressure on quarterbacks and doing a decent job against the run.
No wonder beleaguered Gators coach (and erstwhile Bulldog) Will Muschamp called his staff in off the recruiting trail during the bye week to concentrate on getting things fixed. “We’re inept offensively right now,” he said on his weekly TV show, “and we need to make some changes as we move forward.”
For Georgia’s offense, the return of Todd Gurley and the running game should be big for the Bulldogs, whose decimated receiving corps (even with Michael Bennett returning) will be challenged by the Gators’ close-marking, opportunistic secondary, led by remarkable freshman Vernon Hargreaves. As Mark Richt noted this week, “Florida’s cover guys are ones that can stick with anybody when it comes to speed, agility and change of direction. For us, it will be a tremendous challenge to find a way to create a little space and some separation from those guys. They’re not afraid to try to lock you down man-to-man. … We’ve got to find a way to get open or make the tough catch in tight coverage.”
Still, after his boss and everyone else in the Bulldog Nation called him out for his overly conservative playcalling against Vanderbilt, where Georgia never tried to utilize its vertical passing game, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has told QB Aaron Murray this week to “let it rip” in the passing game. It’ll help that, with Gurley toting the rock, the Gators will have to devote more attention up front rather than sitting back in lockdown coverage like the Commodores did much of the time against the Dogs.
So here are the keys to the game for Georgia, in my view:
1. Gurley and Bennett, especially Gurley. If they’re at anything approaching full-strength, I feel pretty good about the offense, even against one of the nation’s best defenses. Still, we may need to see Murray utilizing the tight ends and backs more in the passing game.
2. Third down. Georgia’s had problems with making them and stopping them, but especially the latter. With the Gators being more of a one-dimensional offense, the key is going to be putting them in third-and-long situations and then not giving up the big play. This is the aspect of the game that worries me the most after …
3. Special teams. The key here for Georgia is basically not screwing up and giving Florida cheap points off blocked punts and the like.
4. Turnovers. This is where the Dogs have won the game the past couple of years. Last year, a Georgia defense that had been labeled “soft” by one of its own kicked it up several notches and got six takeaways, which made up for Murray’s own problems maintaining possession in the first half. It’s pretty safe to say that whoever wins the turnover battle Saturday probably wins the game.
5. Motivation. Florida may have the edge here, as they’ve lost the past two years and Gators defensive end Dante Fowler said the score of last year’s game is posted in the weight room as a reminder. But Georgia has a chance to take back control of this rivalry as well as salvage a season that once looked so promising. Let’s face it, even if they don’t win the SEC East, having wins over South Carolina, LSU and Florida in the same year would be pretty great.
That’s my take on this year’s Cocktail Party. Feel free to share your own.
And now, let’s get to some Junkyard Mail. …
OkieDawg writes: Hi Bill, The “Dream Team” have reached their junior year. Did you ever think the Dream Team would lose to Vandy in their 3rd year? The Dream Team are the leaders of this team. I know, Sanders, Seay, Harrow, Marshall, Crowell etc. are gone. But they were replaced by quality players. How do you grade this heralded team? What should we expect next year? Why did this team not meet our expectations … coaching, player development, talent evaluation or something else? I’m a true Dawg … but I am confused as to how we lose to Vandy and I have no confidence in our ability to win again … even as I head to the WLOCP.
The recruiting class known as the Dream Team had its busts, no doubt, with several besides Isaiah Crowell dismissed because of disciplinary problems (including the obviously very talented Nick Marshall, who was set to be a defensive star at UGA and now is the quarterback of the suddenly revived Auburn Tigers). And Lonnie Outlaw and Kent Turene were unable to qualify. But that class also produced very productive players like Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley, David Andrews, Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson and Justin Scott-Wesley (though several have had injury problems) and a few other players that have slowly developed into solid performers (Ray Drew, Chris Mayes, Sterling Bailey and Jay Rome) or have had highs and lows (Damian Swann). And for some, like Corey Moore, Devin Bowman and Christian LeMay, the lightbulb just hasn’t seemed to flick on yet. Overall, aside from the rash of dismissals, it probably shakes out about like most classes. Maybe not a Dream Team, but not a nightmare, either.
Rick Page writes: Bill, Love your blog; very honest commentary on the state of the Dawgs. I have been a loyal Dawg fan since my freshman year in 1970. Maybe my memory fails me, but I don’t remember our special teams failing so frequently and with such disastrous results. I also can’t remember ever having less confidence in a Dawg defense being able to make a stop at a critical juncture. Most times they seem lost, particularly in pass coverage on 3rd and 4th down and rarely pressure the quarterback. I watched FSU demolish Clemson in Death Valley, Alabama do the same to Tennessee, Texas A&M offense move at will against the same Vandy defense that shut us down and, finally, South Carolina coming alive in the 4th quarter and overtime to beat Missouri. Do we really hang our hats on injuries being the only reason we are unable to post similar results? Please help me understand, as I am a confused but loyal Dawg in Hawaii!
I tend to let the periods when the Dogs have been awful recede into the mists of the past, but off the top of my head I can’t recall a time when I was more concerned every time Georgia punts the ball or receives a punt. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure just designating a special teams coordinator would solve the problem. I think Richt and his staff need to rethink their entire approach to special teams play and how they prepare and practice for it. As for the defense, I think we’ve seen some progress this season, particularly up front, but the inability of Georgia’s defenders to get off the field on third down has been every bit as much a problem as the injuries, though those injuries (particularly to Tray Matthews) are a factor. But as for coming back late in the game, the Dogs did that several times this season, including against South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee. So they’re certainly capable of it. Their failure to do so against Missouri and Vandy is, I think directly a result of the loss of so many key players on offense.
Chris McAndrew writes: Hi Bill, Call me a homer, or call me insane, but I think Georgia will still win the SEC East this year and get a shot a Bama for SEC Champion. I don’t think this feeling is too crazy. For one thing, if Gurley was healthy for all the Clemson game, I think Georgia wins that game. If he was healthy for all of the season so far, then I don’t think Georgia would have lost a game yet. He’s healthy again, so Georgia should be able to win out, especially with some other players getting healthy as well. Of course, winning out doesn’t get Georgia to the game without some help. I think they’ll get that help. … I could easily see Mizzou losing two more games this year. What are your thoughts? Are you as confident as I am that Georgia will be back at the Dome in December?
Chris, I’m not as confident as you are that Mizzou will lose twice more. But I’m certainly rooting for it (with apologies to my Missouri grad friends). Where it gets really crazy is if they lose just once more and Georgia and South Carolina both win out. Figuring out the tiebreaker in that case could give you a headache, but Mark Bradley did a good job earlier this week of explaining it. Check his column out.
Chad writes: Our Dawgs have been dealt a tough hand this year and, despite all that, we very easily could have been 7-0 going into the Florida game this weekend. Seriously, sit down and count how few plays would have been the difference in the games we’ve won and lost. … Our Dawgs need us to be behind them 110% for the rest of the season. I’m sure the players and coaches hear all the negative and I’m just as sure our unwavering support could give them the boost they need to “finish the drill” and end the season the way we all want them to. So I plead to all “REAL” Dawg fans out there to show our team what they mean to us and be the 12th man that they can count on in good times and bad, it just might make the difference. God Bless, Go Dawgs !
Fan support certainly is a big factor, Chad. It’s just too bad that a quirk of the schedule has Georgia traveling to Auburn again this year instead of playing host to the Tigers at home (though, come to think of it, the visiting team often triumphs in that series). Still, the Dawgs need a lot more than fan support to win out this season. Improved execution in all aspects of the game (but especially special teams and third-down offense and defense) would go a long way toward getting Georgia back on track. And a bit of good luck wouldn’t hurt, either.
Keith Miller writes: Bill, I hate to be this guy, but when you look at the body of work that (Todd Grantham) has had while at UGA, it isn’t very impressive to say the least. I watched closely other games and you see a much more disciplined defense and more constant in year in and out. I know the defense is young and the game has changed from when (Brian Van Gorder) was here, but the points allowed has changed as well! Also if the game is changing why is Bama is a time warp then? Do they really get the best defensive players on Earth and are there only 85 players that are the top level in the nation? Look at Ellis Johnson, everywhere he goes the defense is improved, look around other guys have that same record of coaching them up. The game always changes and the players, but tackling and getting after the ball never change. Someone has the ball and someone has to bring them down and try to take the ball away! Some things you can’t coach, some players are just better, but tackling shouldn’t be one of them. Also knowing where you should be and your role, should never require a time out. When I see guys moving slow on defense and not playing with aggression, I hate to see anyone wearing red try and say GATA!!
I agree that there’ve been times this season when Georgia’s defense has looked not only tentative and confused, but has shown poor fundamentals, especially in tackling. Whether that’s a product of the players currently on the team or is a chronic problem indicative of some flaw in Grantham’s approach is tough to say. But I’m beginning to lean toward the latter.
That’s it for this week.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg