Thursday, October 30, 2008

Party Preview

The Florida-Georgia game is always important, but this year's Cocktail Party is regarded as the most important in recent memory. The winner will occupy a commanding position in the SEC East race and probably elevate itself to the top of the list of one-loss teams hoping to sneak into a national championship game.

If you've been paying attention, of course, you know that Saturday's game is more than just a premier SEC showdown. SEC fans have long memories; Steve Spurrier ran up the score against Georgia in the early-90's because UGA did the same thing to the Gators and head coach Ray Graves in 1968. Everyone knows what the motivational video in the Florida weight room is this week:

I don't quite share the prevailing opinion in Gator Nation that this was the worst idea to come out of Athens since the invasion of Sicily. I do think it was a potentially dangerous stunt, and I lost some respect for Georgia head coach Mark Richt, especially considering the spectacle he made of castigating his team the previous week for taunting Vanderbilt after a close win. The SEC cravenly refused to discipline Richt, an inexcusable abdication of responsibility.

But Mark Richt's job isn't to win my respect, it's to win games without violating NCAA rules. If taking 30 yards of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties is the way to do that, so be it. Georgia won last year's game, and not because of the stunt; Urban Meyer rallied the troops after Knowshon Moreno's first TD and the Gators answered right back with a tying touchdown.

No, Georgia won that game because Moreno repeatedly gashed a battered, inexperienced defensive line and because Tim Tebow's shoulder was hurt just enough to throw Florida's offense slightly off its game. The Gators scored 23 offensive points (Wondy Pierre-Louis scored a touchdown after intercepting Matthew Stafford on a hilariously stupid throw) and picked up 343 yards, but Tebow was sacked six times.

Both teams are better this year; Stafford is finally playing up to his billing, while Florida features a more well-rounded offense and dramatically superior defense. The Gators have rebounded from the Ole Miss debacle with three straight blowout wins, including a 51-21 evisceration of LSU. The Bulldogs have held it together following an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Alabama between the hedges.

This should be the best kind of Cocktail Party: a shootout. I say this even though Florida ranks 13th in the country in total defense and Georgia clocks in at 21st. Stafford finally has a dynamic receiver in freshman AJ Green, and heretofore butterfingered receiver Mohamed Massaquoi has taken a step up. (Though I don't know if any Bulldog fan is truly comfortable with the idea of Massaquoi running across the middle on 3rd and eight in the fourth quarter) UF has managed to paper over the holes in its secondary with the addition of true freshman cornerback Janoris Jenkins and improvement from Joe Haden, Major Wright and the strong safety position. (Ahmad Black is making my skepticism look unwarranted, though Meyer is working freshman phenom Will Hill into the rotation) But this is still not a great coverage team; Haden still scuffles a little in that area and Wright has occasional brain farts.

Every quarterback looks brilliant, every receiver dynamic, every cornerback incompetent when a defense fails to pressure the quarterback. The Gators didn't do that last year, and they're only ranked 33rd in the nation in sacks per game this season. If Jermaine Cunningham, Carlos Dunlap and Lawrence Marsh can't make Stafford panic and shuffle his feet, he'll carve up Florida's secondary. And I haven't seen a lot of reason to suspect the Gators will generate intense pressure.

But they're not bringing a butter knife to a tank battle. Despite Georgia's stout run defense (6th in the country), I expect to see the Gators employ a run-heavy attack. You want to attack the other guy's weakness (the Bulldogs are 77th in the nation against the pass) and avoid his strength, but you also want to exploit your own strengths. And right now Florida's strength is on the ground with Tebow, Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Percy Harvin. UF's passing game isn't awful, really, but it is from time-to-time a little dysfunctional. Considering how easily Georgia ruptured a pretty solid UF offensive line last year, I fully expect to see Meyer ride those four runners (and, perhaps, Emmanuel Moody) all game.

You'll probably see some of the gadget plays Meyer's largely kept in reserve all year; reverses, receiver passes, two QBs on the field, etc. That's not an off-the-wall prediction. I do, however, have one Crazy Ass Prediction(TM): I think Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen break out I-formation plays with Tebow under center, a fullback, hell, maybe even two tight ends. Florida fans, desperate to dislike the spread, have been obsessed with the idea of Tebow stepping under center and running plays from pro formations. Meyer does occasionally use a stacked-I set in goal line situations, but only for two or three plays a game. I expect on Saturday to see (relatively) extensive use of such formations as change-ups to Florida's traditional shotgun sets. The first few such plays will likely be simple interior runs, maybe utilizing Moody in the role for which he's best suited. Eventually, Meyer and Mullen can use that I-formation to slip dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez deep into the secondary and hit him on a play action pass.

That's just speculation, of course, as are any guesses pertaining to Florida's retribution for last year's celebration. Personally, I favor the excessive politeness tactic: after the first touchdown, Tebow shakes hands with every member of the offense, breaks out a tea set hidden on the field and elaborately bows to Richt on the sideline. The official's call on that would be fun. "After the play, personal foul, offense, excessive courtesy, 15 yards, enforced on the kick-off."

I haven't even mentioned special teams, where Florida will undoubtedly place emphasis on blocking kicks and springing Brandon James for big returns.

No predictions here; this game's a true tossup. It has the potential to be one of the series' classic games, though I'll certainly accept a 55-0 Florida victory.

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