Thursday, October 30
Why so serious, Urban?: the Florida preview.
Hometown: Gainesville, Fla.
Last season: Had the nation's third-ranked scoring offense with 42.5 points per game, but a 99th-ranked pass defense sent them to a 5-3 SEC record, third behind Tennessee and Georgia in the East Division. Closed out the season by serving as Lloyd Carr's final victim, getting shredded by Michigan 41-35 in the Capital One Bowl; exited the season ranked 13th in the sportswriters' poll and 16th in the coaches'.
The season thus far: Other than an inexplicable 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss -- memo to Urban Meyer, the rest of the conference has come to expect the ol' Tebow-up-the-middle on fourth and short -- the Gators have been blazing, winning their other six games by a minimum of 23 points and currently sharing the SEC East lead with the Bulldogs at 4-1 in conference play. Presently ranked fifth by the sportswriters, seventh by the coaches, and eighth in the BCS standings.
Hate index, 1 being "30 Rock" (new season starts tonight!!1!!1), 10 being those Toyota "Saved By Zero" ads: Ten. I might've softened my stance on this issue due to a genuine admiration for Tim Tebow -- I'll fess up to that one in a subsequent post -- but then Urban Meyer had to go and get his culottes in a self-righteous wad (in print, no less) over last year's end-zone celebration by the Dawgs. Sorry, but that kind of pouting over hurt fee-fees has no place in college football, certainly not the SEC.
Associated hottie: I have been specifically instructed not to mention current UF student and Miss October 2008 Kelly Carrington (née Hemberger) in this space -- uh, whoops -- so instead I'll go with every red-blooded male's favorite sideline reporter: ESPN correspondent and ex-Florida Dazzler Erin Andrews (incidentally a girlfriend-approved #4 on my laminated list).
Celebrity preview: Tom Cruise pumps up the '08 Gators with his special brand of crazy here.
What excites me: Florida's defense has certainly improved by leaps and bounds over last year's — they're #13 nationally in yards allowed — but they're not impregnable. And off the teams they've faced so far this year, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and LSU are the only ones whose offenses I would rate as having a pulse to begin with. LSU didn't accomplish much against the Gators, but that was due at least in part to the Tigers getting socked in the mouth early and having to spend the entire second half going pass-wacky to make up multiple-touchdown deficits. Arkansas only scored 7 points against the Gators but moved the ball pretty effectively between the 20s, with wee tailback Michael Smith rolling up 133 yards on only 20 carries — and Ole Miss, of course, laid 31 points on the Gators in their own house and won. I don't think any of those teams carry quite the menagerie of offensive weapons that Georgia does, particularly in the receiving corps, where the Dawgs will be fielding A.J. Green, Mohamed Massaquoi, tight end Aron White (who debuted against LSU by catching a 48-yard pass from Stafford), and Knowshon Moreno and Brannan Southerland, both talented receiving threats out of the backfield.
On the other side of the ball, even after getting tenderized by Charles Scott in Baton Rouge last week, Georgia's run defense maintained a #6 ranking in Division I-A, allowing only 77 yards per game. Which is obviously beneficial considering that not only can Tim Tebow run, the Gators are fielding an honest-to-God backfield rushing threat for the first time in Urban Meyer's regime. And this is where we have to get into . . .
Do you wanna know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the . . . little . . . emotions.
What worries me: I think that whole “heel injury” from which Percy Harvin was supposedly recovering all summer was just a cover for Urban Meyer taking DNA samples from various parts of Harvin's body and using them to create clones in his secret mad-scientist lab far beneath Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Now, in addition to Harvin (hereafter known as “Subject Zero”), Meyer has Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey (with some DNA evidently being saved for RB/KR Brandon James). All are relatively short in stature, all are well under 200 pounds, and all are a threat to not only score every time they touch the ball but to break the sound barrier in the process.
These gentlemen are the reason why the dropoff in Tim Tebow's stats this year is completely meaningless: Teebs isn't running and passing all over the place this season because he's finally got other guys to do it for him. Unlike last year, when the key to containing Florida's offense was simply tackle Tebow, tackle Harvin, lather, rinse, repeat, opposing defenses now have to account for pretty much every offensive skill player on the field on every play. Florida may be averaging “only” 410 total yards per game this year, a 47-yard dropoff from '07, but they're putting up the same number of points.
But I know the truth: there's no going back. You've changed things . . . forever.
And now we might as well get into that somewhat controversial business from last year, known as “The Celebration.” I don't care what Meyer or any of his players say, they've got the Celebration on their minds this week just as they've had it on their minds all year long, and while there are any number of ways psychologists could interpret the impact of that on the Gators' mindset this week, I think it can be argued that Georgia is about to face the most motivated team Florida has sent to Jacksonville in decades. I mean, think about it: For nearly 20 years the Gators had been able to look upon a win over Georgia with the same kind of certainty typically applied to death and taxes, and then all of a sudden some red-and-black-clad interlopers rush in and eat their lunch right in front of them. If there was any complacency on the part of the Gators before — and I suspect there was at least a little — last year's emergence of Evil Richt likely shocked it right out of them. How that will ultimately affect the outcome of this game, of course, is anyone's guess, but nobody on Georgia's side of the field should have any doubt that they're in for an all-out war.
Player who needs to step up: FS Reshad Jones. After a string of games in which Jones made some nice defensive plays, he displayed a number of symptoms of Greg Blue Syndrome last week against LSU — to wit, rocketing toward an opposing ball carrier at pulverizing speed while not actually wrapping said ball carrier enough to make the tackle. Think that's going to work against Subject Zero? Yeah, me neither, and really, our entire defense could stand to work on those tackling fundamentals a little. But Jones is going to carry one of the biggest burdens of accounting for all of the Gators' open-field speed demons at once, and he's got to not only make good decisions but play to the whistle and take his target all the way to the ground for Georgia to be able to keep this one manageable.
What I think will happen: I've alluded to the possibility, of course, that last year's in-your-face end-zone celebration might so enrage the Gators that they take it out on the Dawgs in Jacksonville and play one of the best games of their lives. But there's a second possibility, and that is that Urban Meyer and his team have been so fixated on the Celebration that it's become a distraction. I mean, look, Urban Meyer mentioned the Celebration in his book; Tebow says there's a still photo of the end-zone party posted in the Gators' locker room. This is something that's been weighing on their minds for a long time, and that may or may not be a good thing. Not that I've ever played football in any sort of competitive context, but I'd imagine that channeling one's visceral emotions into effective performance on the field has to be one of the hardest things about being a player, and if the Gators go into Alltel Stadium fixated more on getting back at the Dawgs for an end-zone party than on scoring points and winning the game, then that's going to make for a very interesting afternoon — and perhaps a very pleasant one for Georgia fans.
I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say that the Celebration was nothing personal, you know that I'm telling the truth.
Georgia, on the other hand, comes into this game with the very rare (for us, at least) sensation of actually having the upper hand. But that, too, could be a double-edged sword. After more than a decade of seeing firsthand how Georgia does when they come into this game uptight and desperate — here's a hint: We haven't done well — I'd much rather see them relaxed and having fun. But there's such a thing as being too relaxed (see Georgia-Tennessee, 2007), and if our players come into this game thinking that the Celebration singlehandedly ended 17 years of the Gator Curse and that equilibrium in the series can just be magically restored without them having to give 100 percent on the field, then we deserve to lose.
Obviously, I think Richt is too good a coach to allow that to happen, and at the risk of going too intangible-happy and psychoanalytical here, I think a complete reversal of the usual Florida-relaxed, Georgia-uptight situation is a net plus for us. At least, I hope the Gators are a little uptight coming into this one, because they certainly don't lack for talent or coaching anywhere, and the tangibles of this game are causing me a bigger bleeding ulcer than any Georgia game I've geared up for in quite a while. The advantages we had over Florida last year — a sievelike UF defense, a hobbled QB, an entirely Tebow-centric offense — are gone, and in their place are perhaps the three fastest human beings in the SEC right now. I'm thanking my lucky stars I'm not Willie Martinez, because I don't know how the hell you defend against all three of those guys at once.
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.
Of course, a co-worker of mine pointed out the other day that with all the breathless attention paid to playmakers like Harvin, Moreno, and Demps over the past week, the football gods could decide to throw a wrench into the proceedings and turn this game into a 13-7 slugfest. (Being an Auburn fan, he's well-acquainted with those sorts of things this year.) On the one hand, there's a part of me that thinks that kind of game might actually be better for Georgia, since such a low score would mean that we'd become the first team to contain the Percy Harvin Clone Army all season long. The rational part of me, though, knows that Georgia has to score a lot of points in this game to win, and I don't think that'll be any different this year.
In the end, my thoughts on this game mirror my thoughts from LSU week in the sense that my head and heart are once again at odds. My heart says that I shouldn't be so eager to disregard intangibles here, that a Florida team still fuming over the Celebration is a Florida team set up to play tight and make dumb mistakes, that Georgia's offense is loose, clicking on all cylinders at the moment, and poised to unleash the barrage of yards and points we've needed to win this game in the past. My head, on the other hand, couldn't care less about the Celebration and knows that hope and unicorns alone will stop neither Tebow nor the three-headed rushing/receiving monster he's been given as sidekick this year. My head knows that if we tackle against Florida like we did against LSU, it's going to be the other team ending up with 50 points on their side of the scoreboard.
Blutarsky's analysis, as usual, is spot-on: We need to expect some very early aggressive playcalling from Urban Meyer as his “response” to the Celebration (since he isn't imaginative to come up with anything like that on his own), and one of the best ways we can respond to it is by slowing the tempo of the game with some long, grind-it-out drives. As much as Stafford has improved as a passer this season, the Dawgs have been at their best when they've ridden Knowshon Moreno and Caleb King into the end zone on those 10- or 12-play drives that crunch six or seven minutes off the clock; this weekend, a drive like that has the added bonus of keeping the quick-strike offense off the field for an extended period of time. If we can limit their exposure and wear down a defense that hasn't been tested all that much this year, we've got a fighting chance. Mike Bobo, who laid out such a masterful strategy last week in Baton Rouge, surely knows this and is planning accordingly.
This town deserves a better class of criminal . . . and I'm gonna give it to them.
Even so, though — maybe it's just the kind of inferiority complex that can only be acquired by witnessing more than a decade of near-constant futility against a single opponent, but it's hard for me to see Georgia as anything but a decided underdog here, and I'm not talking about anything as simple as a point spread. There are still just enough cracks in our defense to really worry me against an offense like the one we're going to see on Saturday; in previous games this season, we've had great success taking away the run, rendering the opposing offense one-dimensional, and crushing them down the stretch, but the idea of doing that to an offense as complex and multidimensional as Florida's seems a little naïve to me. Sure, we can neutralize Tebow as a rushing threat like we did last year, but we're going to have to also do that to Demps and Rainey for it to make a difference. And even if we somehow manage that, do we end up devoting so many defenders to the run that we leave Subject Zero or Louis Murphy to run wild in the open field? If that happens, are we finally going to figure out how to cover guys one-on-one via something other than a pass-interference penalty?
Wild visions of a 13-7 final score notwithstanding, I see another shootout here — and again, maybe it's just the inferiority complex talking, but nearly every vision I have of this game involves Florida breaking the late play to either pull ahead or ice an existing lead. Obviously, I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but I think whatever road we were traveling to the national title dead-ends in Jacksonville.
Oh, well. I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you . . . stranger.
This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object . . . I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
If you're trash-talking: “Scoreboard, bitch” is probably a good starter, and if the Gator fan in question comes back with the obligatory rejoinder about Florida still having won 15 of the last 18, you should probably remind them that Georgia still leads the series 47-37-2 — meaning that even after nearly two decades of Gator domination in this rivalry, they're still 10 games behind us all-time.
And while I'm thinking about it, print this picture out and keep it in your wallet, just in case you need to whip it out sometime this weekend:
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Because Urban Meyer is a whiny, melodramatic douche who refers to himself in the third person. 'Nuff said.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins. Period. And you know I'm good for it.