Georgia has arrived at the Florida game as a ball of contradictions. On the one hand, the Dawgs are 6-1, ranked #10 in the BCS rankings, and with a win on Saturday, they will position themselves to win the East for the second straight year. On the other hand, Georgia got blown out by South Carolina, they eked by Kentucky, and they have generally performed in a disappointing fashion. The offensive line is in a strange funk and the defense is a disappointing 49th in yards per play allowed, one spot behind Ole Miss, so disappointing in fact that Shawn Williams went public with his frustrations about his teammates, thus giving sports radio hosts in this city days of fodder in lieu of talking about the actual game. This season is shaping up to be a Mark Richt special: a campaign that looks good when one looks at the record, but feels like a wasted opportunity that ends in Orlando or Tampa.
The best way from me to explain my perspective going into the 2012 Cocktail Party is to lay out a series of principles:
1. Florida is overrated.
I think in terms of historical analogies and the first one to come to mind this week was 1985, when Florida came into Jacksonville ranked #1 in the country and left with their scaly tails between their legs as 24-3 losers. Florida comes into this game at #2 in the BCS, but the Gators are eminently beatable. Their defense is outstanding, but the offense leaves a lot to be desired. The Gators are 82nd in the country in yards per play on offense. To put that into context, Indiana is 82nd in yards per play on defense. Would Georgia fans worry about moving the ball on Indiana? No, so should they worry about stopping the Florida offense? Put it this way: the Florida defense and Georgia offense are both elite units, but in terms of weak sides, I’d much rather have the Georgia defense than the Florida offense.
Florida wins games by playing great defense, winning the special teams and turnover battles, and then just running Mike Gillislee over and over again. Will Muschamp has hit on the right formula, given the situation in which he finds himself, and I expect Florida to be a lot better on offense in coming years as the team matures and Brent Pease has time to put his offense into place. However, this formula can be beaten. If Georgia simply avoids turnovers and special teams disasters, they will have an advantage in the game.
2. Florida’s mental edge over Georgia is overrated.
I wrote about this last year, but if you look at Georgia’s dark ages against Florida (the period from 1990 forward), there are really only three seasons out of 22 where Georgia came to Jacksonville with a superior team and lost: 1992, 2002, and 2003. Conversely, Florida can point to two seasons – 1997 and 2007 – where the Gators had a slightly better team and lost. In the end, the Dawgs’ terrible record against the Gators comes down to Florida having better teams for most of the past two decades and change. There is nothing magical about crossing the border to play Florida, nor is there anything mental about playing against those orange and blue uniforms.
I made the point last year that Georgia was a better team and should win the game. They were and they did. This year, Georgia is a better team in terms of yardage differential; Georgia’s yards-per-play margin is 1.93, whereas Florida’s is 1.25. However, Florida has played a significantly tougher schedule, which should color the way we view that stat. The rankings that use strength-of-schedule and scoring margin instead of yardage say that Florida is a significantly better team. The Sagarin Predictor would have the Gators as a two-touchdown favorite; SRS would have the margin at eleven points. Thus, Georgia has been in the yardage department, but Florida has been better at converting yardage into points. The question is whether the factors that have given Florida an edge in the latter department are replicable. Put another way, can we expect Georgia to hand a game over like South Carolina did?
3. This is the kind of game that Georgia usually loses.
It’s fun to think back to 1985, but Georgia’s recent history against ranked teams is not a cause for optimism. This season, Florida has played three teams that were ranked at the time of the game and won all three. Georgia has played one ranked opponent and lost the game by four touchdowns. This is part of a pattern. Since the 2008 season, Georgia is 1-9 against top ten opponents, with the only win coming at Grant Field in 2009 against Georgia Tech. No one has questioned Mark Richt’s ability to beat the Jackets, but outside of playing an in-state rival that has several major disadvantages as a program relative to Georgia, he has not done well against exactly the sort of opponent that Georgia will face on Saturday.
Moreover, the games against top ten opponents have not been close. Here is the complete list of the nine losses, in chronological order:
Alabama 41 Georgia 30
Florida 49 Georgia 10
Oklahoma State 24 Georgia 10
LSU 20 Georgia 13
Florida 41 Georgia 17
Auburn 49 Georgia 31
Boise State 35 Georgia 21
LSU 42 Georgia 10
South Carolina 35 Georgia 7
What bad fact do we want to consider? The fact that in these nine games, Georgia has lost by an average of three touchdowns per game? Even if you add in the win over Georgia Tech, the average score of a game between Georgia and a top ten opponent since 2008 has been 36-18. Do we want to worry more about that defensive record where opponents are regularly scoring in the 30s and 40s or the fact that Mike Bobo’s offense has only broken 17 points thanks to garbage time scores against Alabama and Boise State, along with one game against a Ted Roof defense?
With the caveat that this discussion, like most college football discussions, suffers from a small sample size, Mark Richt is going to have to break a pattern to win on Saturday.
4. The Georgia defense must break its pattern.
Doesn’t it feel like déjà vu that we are asking ourselves whether a Georgia unit can come out of its funk and play up to its talent level? The fact that Georgia fans find themselves posing this same question to themselves, again and again, illustrates Mark Richt’s success as a recruiter and his failure at getting a team to play up to its potential. Look at how Bill Connelly describes the game:
If Georgia IS able to put some points on the board and force the Florida offense to keep up, things get interesting. Thus far, Florida has responded when it has needed to, typically via the ground; quarterback Jeff Driskel averaged just 3.5 yards per pass attempt in a 31-17 win over Vanderbilt but rushed for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Challenged by Tennessee on the road, Driskel passed for 219 yards (11.0 per attempt) and rushed for 81 (10.1 per carry), and the Gators pulled away. But you can get to Driskel if your pass rush is decent, and you can keep Gillislee in check if you can avoid those one or two big drives -- since rushing for 146 yards versus LSU, Gillislee has gained just 104 yards in 36 carries (2.9 per carry). Can a Georgia defense with a one-man pass rush (Jones has 5.5 sacks in five games, the rest of the team has 5.5 in seven, and the Dawgs rank a horrific 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate) and sketchy run defense (66th in Rushing S&P+) raise its game in its biggest game of the year?
How does a Georgia defense with this amount of talent suffer so much to stop the run or pressure the quarterback? Georgia fans are left wishing for an October Surprise along the lines of what the Dawgs delivered in 2007 when they turned their season around in the Florida game. That reversal of fortune was an anomaly, but Dawg fans are forced to keep waiting for it again.