Friday, October 27, 2006

"So you're sayin' there's a chance..."

My Dawgs are 14-point ‘dogs going into this weekend’s game with Florida.

At times the team has sucked out loud.


In the past decade-and-a-half in the series we’ve won so few times Django Rhinhart could count our wins on one hand. Hell, until 2004 you couldn’t even say “wins”, plural.

And yet…there’s a tiny little spark of confidence—well, maybe not confidence.

Hope, maybe?

An inkling of potential karmic retribution?

A thought that maybe, just maybe, we don’t get soundly thrashed on a nation CBS game? That even more than just maybe we don’t get whipped, we win?

Well, here’s why (and feel free to penalize me for this awkward segue, but it’s cold and rainy out, and I’m well aware that is likely neither cold nor rainy in Jacksonville, and that far too many people I know haven’t had to work this Friday, so you’re getting an awkward segue.)

For starters, let’s just throw out the “since 1990 UGA is 2-14 against Florida” stat. Gator fans seem to pretend the pre-Spurrier years didn’t happen, especially because it’s convenient for them (and, were I in their jean shorts, I’d forget the days of Galen Hall too) but are more than happen to allow records from two previous UGA coaches.

Let’s face facts: Ray Goff vs. Steve Spurrier in the early 90s was a sick mismatch, like pitting Nicole Ritchie in a doughnut-eating contest with Phil Fulmer. Take away the amazing work of Wayne McDuffie and the really great 1992 season and you’ve got a pretty bleak stretch of years post-Dooley.

The Donnan-Spurrier match up was a little closer (I still have fond memories of the 1997 upset, in which incidentally the Dawgs were bigger underdogs than this Saturday’s game), so let’s equate it to one of the Olsen twins battling Gary Busey in a coke-sniffing contest. Sure they both know what they’re doing, but one’s been doing it for far longer than the other. And I think Mary Kate’s a yo-yo champ too.

But it basically boiled down to this: the greatest coach in Florida football history (an easy call given that he’s the ONLY coach in Florida history to win them an SEC title) vs. two good-to-poor coaches that were often excellent recruiters but poor game-day tacticians and often were only as good as their assistants (UGA offense post-McDuffie was poorer, as was the post-Scelfo-era with Donnan—and don’t get me started on Jim’s defensive coordinator choices), but the point is all those guys are, and have been gone. So let’s limit things to 2001-2005 going into 2006.

I know the Florida fans will hate the mentioning of Ron Zook here, but t.s. I say. Last year was JT3 getting practically a spot-start duty against a rested and angry Florida team…that still didn’t score that many points.

So let’s review.

UGA vs. Florida since 2001: 1-4.

Average score: UF 19.6-UGA 15.4.

Average score in the four losses: UF 18.5-UGA 11.5.

So for all the talk of Florida “dominance” that word may be a bit of a misnomer in the recent series history. The overall average score is less than a TD, and more importantly, the losses average only a TD. Take out Richt’s first year, when he was faced with Spurrier’s best offensive team since Wuerful, and none of the losses have exceeded 7 points. In fact Florida broke 20 points only twice since that 2001 meeting—in 2002 and 2004—and were aided to 20 in 2002 by a pick-six.

UGA just hasn’t played great ball against Florida, and Florida generally hasn’t screwed up in any major way. And more importantly, UGA becomes Field Goal U far too often. 13 points were the most UGA scored in a loss (twice). Many field goals were attempted and sometimes made. Not many TDs. So here’s part of the optimism. It was one game, and it was Mississippi State, but UGA scored TDs, not FGs against them.

And, as Kyle points out, UGA isn’t that far off the “mighty” gators as far as points scored in SEC play overall this year. If (and yes, it’s a large if), Stafford can cut down on the turnovers and the WRs can hold onto the ball after the catch, and the RBs hold on to the ball as well, this is potentially a strong offense. Strong enough to score far more than 10-13 points.

The part that makes it tricky: UF’s strength is their Defense. Auburn, who statistically has performed similarly to UGA’s offense of late, didn’t score a single TD against Florida. They’re exceptional in the red zone and really strong against the run, and worse, seem to have a knack for interceptions (and worse, scoring from them, and getting them in the 4th quarter of tight games). But, a fairly average offense in Bama’s was able to give them a scare, and if they don’t get multiple turnovers against LSU, that’s a whole new game. They’re fast and they get pressure, but some of their numbers might be inflated by some very well-timed (and in the case of things like Russel’s fumble in the LSU game downright lucky) turnovers.

If Stafford prepares well, and doesn’t freak out when a new blitz look (or even better, Lumpkin, Ware or Southerland pick up the blitz and Stafford burns them on it) UGA has a chance to move the ball. The defense is good but not impenetrable. Kentucky moved the ball for a while and they had no semblance of a run game. If (drinking game for this column, take a shot every time you see “if”—don’t drive, and don’t try it at work) UGA can get off to a decent start offensively; say scoring a TD on the first or second offensive series and not turning the ball over, and Stafford’s confidence goes up, that’s a good sign.

The offense is averaging almost as many points per game as Florida and hasn’t come close to playing to its potential. (Three quick examples to back this up: 1. When the WRs decided they were going to catch the ball, there were three scoring drives in the first half against UT. 2. Tons of yards in the first half vs. Vandy, but the drives didn’t end in TDs. 3. Take away even 3 turnovers last weekend and no one at all is talking about the “close win” against a MSU team that Auburn struggled slightly moving the ball against.)

The semi-magic number here is 28. Florida hasn’t topped 28 points in a conference game since last year. Yes, the Georgia D has struggled lately, and in no way should we compare them to Auburn or LSU’s D, but, are we worse than Kentucky on defense?

I want to say “no.”

If the Dawgs can get four TDs, they should be in this. Heck, given the recent history (and if I kill enough brain cells with whiskey this evening to wipe some of the D’s recent play from my memory) breaking 20 points should be a good sign. So the first key for optimism is the offense hasn’t totally sucked out loud, points wise, and there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement if the ball is held onto and Stafford continues to progress.

The second is the mentality going into the game. The main media message seems to be focused on how UGA has no shot, and for once, the recent record isn’t getting constant coverage. The Dawgs were given no shot last year, but were in the game the whole time, even after some costly mistakes. The more important thing was Coach Richt’s message to them after the MSU game: “if we cut out the mistakes, how good can you be?”

The Dawgs have yet to even play 3/4s a game of consistent football, and they’re 6-2. It’s not like we gave up 50+ to UT and lost to Vandy playing mistake-free football. They know their best has yet to show up on the field for 60 minutes, and that hopefully will motivate them. The press and Vegas may not agree, but the Dawgs should think they’ve got a shot. If they’re in the game in the 4th, they’ll know they have a shot.

And now, the bad news, and the reason I have only the sliver of confidence.

The D has been an unpleasant surprise since the UT game (and really the dating back to the first half against Colorado). Slow to adjust and often times just plain slow in the linebacking corp, the D has brought back painful flashbacks to the Kevin Ramsey days (especially giving up almost 100 points in the past three games.)

But, there’s still some reason for optimism here too. Yes, offensively inept MSU moved the ball at will through the air at times. But, part of that was picking on (and completing passes against) freshman DB Bryan Evans. Bruce Thornton got burned a lot at first too. And Evans isn’t starting against Florida. Big passes aside, the front seven that gave Erik Ainge so much time his uncle got worried about the 30-second shot clock, remembered how to pressure the QB. If the linebackers tackle, and the D forces some turnovers…it might be a game worth watching after all.

Because damn it, it’s time UGA won a game we shouldn’t (the most recent could arguably be last year’s SEC championship game, but it’s really been since 2001 in Knoxville) so we’re due.

Plus, Florida’s been getting the breaks, they should be due for a bonehead pick or two. While Chris Leak has not thrown a pick in the series, Florida Coach Urban Meyer—hereafter referred acronymically as CUM—has stated they want to get Cro-Magnon QB Tim Teebow involved more in the game, which means he’ll have to do more than run it on 3rd & 1 or 2. (Note: I call him Cro-Magnon QB because of the post-LSU game photo really has him in a slumped, Cro-Magnon stance, but it’s a tricky sobriquet, as tentative research indicates that Teebow comes from the kind of background that’s 100% for things like Jesus Camp, and they likely don’t believe in the existence of Cro-Magnon men.)

So it all boils down to this last series of “if”s (and if your playing at home, you will need a new liver): If UGA can avoid costly turnovers on offense, while potentially creating one or two on D, if the Dawgs can gain some momentum early in the game, if the D can tackle with intensity and consistency, if they believe they can win, and maybe even win big, the Dawgs could have a happy trip to Jacksonville.

And I’ll kick myself for not going.

Unless I win the lotto tonight.

Which is a pretty big “if.”

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