Florida-Georgia: A Report from the Ground

JACKSONVILLE FL - OCTOBER 30: A.J. Green #8 of the Georgia Bulldogs attempts to catch a pass against Ahmad Black #35 of the Florida Gators during the game at EverBank Field on October 30 2010 in Jacksonville Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

ATMOSPHERE RATING: MOON-LIKE

The word that best describes this particular edition of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is this one: subdued. It was the first time since the pre-Herschel Walker days that both teams were unranked, so that was to be expected. Still, it was a bit surreal in Jacksonville.

My father, who's been to a ton of these games, couldn't stop remarking about how dead the fans seemed to be. I heard a remarkably small amount of barking from Georgia fans around the tailgating area. The fan fest outside the stadium had pretty much nothing to do unless you were under 12 years old or like to play Rock Band, so no one did anything but watch Tennessee and South Carolina on the video screens and TVs. The stadium wasn't completely full until about 30 seconds before kickoff. 

After the game, there wasn't even much trash talking. Georgia fans were understandably crushed, so they just kept their heads down. The Florida fans I saw weren't making noise as they usually do after wins because they were more relieved than anything. It had been five weeks since Florida won a game, after all.

If you've ever been to one of these things, you know how strange this all sounds, If you haven't, just take my word for it that it was a most unusual Cocktail Party.

FLORIDA DIDN'T MAKE LOTS OF CHANGES ON OFFENSE.  IT MADE TWO.

I expected to see something really different out of the Gator offense, but that was not to be. The plays and strategy of the offense were basically the same as what we saw in the second half of Florida's loss to Mississippi State. The stats even bear that out: Florida gained 218 yards in the second half against MSU; the Gators gained 247 in the first half and 203 in the second half and overtime against Georgia.

Really, Florida only made two changes. The first was to implement a hurry up offense based largely on the uptempo offense that receivers coach Zach Azzanni helped teach at his last job, Central Michigan. It seemed to cause Georgia some problems, as one time I can remember Florida snapping the ball right as Georgia's defensive line was shifting. It also resulted in a rash of false starts throughout the first half, muting the benefit of the change a bit.

The second change was to have John Brantley motion from being lined up at receiver back to quarterback. He's been lining up at receiver on a lot of Trey Burton's runs to keep the defense from being able to substitute a heavy run package whenever they see him leave the game. Having Brantley motion to quarterback was a nice wrinkle, but I highly doubt its effectiveness. He only did that when lining up in the slot; when Brantley went far out wide, he never motioned back to quarterback. I can't imagine it took too long for Georgia's defense to recognize the pattern.

Chris Rainey didn't make a big difference as a player, except in that he was a healthy player. Florida hasn't had a healthy running back since around the Alabama blowout, and it makes a difference. Jeffery Demps was still hobbled, while Emmanuel Moody and Mike Gillislee sat the game out. Rainey didn't really do anything that the other backs couldn't do if healthy, but simply being 100% was a huge boost.

IF IT WASN'T FOR BAD LUCK, GEORGIA WOULD HAVE NO LUCK AT ALL

To paraphrase Dandy Don Meredith, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Happy Halloween for Georgia?

If Aaron Murray hadn't picked this game to look like a freshman, Georgia wins. If Murray had played in the first half as he did in the second, Georgia wins. If Murray had been able to get the ball to Orson Charles, who went largely uncovered all day, before UGA was down 21-7, Georgia probably wins. If the Bulldogs don't lose the turnover battle four to one, Georgia wins. If Georgia scoops up Burton's first half fumble, it's a much different game at the least.

Of course as much as all that was bad luck, it was also Georgia shooting itself in the foot. For as well as Georgia's defense has been playing, and it did come away with three sacks and four other tackles for loss along with an interception, it looked out of sorts at times. Perhaps most critically, the defensive front allowed Florida to actually get positive yarage on the Gators' parade of dive plays. The main way teams have been getting the UF offense into trouble is by stonewalling first down plunges up the middle, but the Gators seldom faced second-and-long without an incompletion or a penalty. For a team in the bottom quartile of the nation in yards per play like Florida is, there's a big difference between second-and-ten and second-and-six or seven.

Georgia also should have been throwing more to Tavarres King, as he was being covered by true treshman Cody Riggs for most of the game. King's 63-yard touchdown reception in the first half got Florida's starting corner Jeremy Brown benched for Riggs, who has been burn prone thanks to his inexperience. However Murray only tested Riggs with three passes, two of which were caught for a combined 41 yards and a third which was off the mark. Charles was having a great game and it's almost never a bad idea to throw to A.J. Green, but pitching it to King was basically money in the bank. Murray should have tried to make more withdrawals.

IT WAS AN UGLY GAME FOR THE AGES

This year's contest was the first overtime game in this series, and it featured long touchdowns, a huge comeback from Georgia, and overtime redemption for Florida's emergency kicker Chas Henry. Don't confuse the excitement for high quality football though.

My wife remarked after the game that it didn't look like either team was all that good, and that says something. She's a football fan but nowhere near the obsessed freak that I am. She could easily tell that the excitement of the game had a lot more to do with defensive breakdowns than offensive excellence. Urban Meyer said in his postgame press conference that both teams in this game are better than their records, but if that's true, Saturday was not proof of it.

Both teams were desperate. Both teams tried too hard. Both teams pressed. Both teams had fundamental flaws that kept either from really taking control. This match up will probably be a whale of a game next year once the combatants grow up a bit, but this year's game was a sloppy display by two teams still striving for consistency.

SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

Georgia has been a lot closer to Florida in the past ten years than the previous ten, but that's of little solace when the overall record was only marginally better. Ultimately another loss to Florida (while the Gators are down, no less) is a bitter pill for that program to swallow. It's worth remembering that Georgia is in transition this year too, and it's unquestionably clear that the team's defense is in better hands now than it has been the past few years. 

I don't know how things will go this off season. I don't think Mark Richt will be fired, because more transition is not really what the team needs. If anything, this season demonstrates that Richt waited a year too long to make changes with his defensive staff. If Todd Grantham came aboard in 2009 and the defense learned on the job then instead of now, you can make the case that Georgia would have defeated Colorado, Florida, and possibly Arkansas as well. Instead, Georgia's basically looking at needing to beat Georgia Tech to get to the post season. As you know, Tech has a mobile quarterback in its option scheme, and mobile quarterbacks have given Georgia problems this year.

Florida meanwhile still controls its own destiny in the East, despite all the problems it has faced in trying to find an offensive identity. It seems to have found that identity in a quarterback rotation, allowing Brantley to throw the ball while letting Meyer and Steve Addazio use the mobile quarterback-based running system that is in both men's DNA. The defense is not up to the standard of the 2006, 2008, or 2009 units, but you knew it wouldn't be. It hasn't sank to the depths of 2007, settling in comfortably around the level of the 2005 defense. That team, as you may remember, lost to South Carolina and in the process lost the East division crown.

If this Gator team ends up going to Atlanta, it will be a real testament to how down the division really is. Neither the offense nor defense is really championship caliber under normal circumstances. However, it would also be a testament to how the coaching staff and team leaders kept things together in the face of disaster. Meyer, while acknowledging it wasn't his most important, called this game his biggest win in a while. He said the players "have been to hell and back these last three weeks." If the team lost this one in overtime after losing to LSU in the final seconds and to Mississippi State on a missed field goal, he might have lost the team entirely.

Instead, UF can still win the division and looks on track to end up at the Outback Bowl, the place that the 2005 squad ended up at. The next season, Florida's bad luck turned good and the Gators improbably went 13-1 and won a national title. I'm far from calling for that result to repeat itself in 2011, but it would probably be out of the realm of imagination had Florida lost and sunk to its fourth straight defeat.

If you take a step back, this was a toss up game that could have easily gone either way. Both coaching staffs deserve credit: Florida's for finding a new edge with the hurry up offense and Georgia's for rallying the troops down 21-7 at the half and delivering an incredible second half performance. Yet one is feeling the warm glow of redemption while the other if hearing more questions about his job.

It was only one close game, decided by luck as much as anything else. I guess even the most subdued Cocktail Party of the last 30 years still means worlds to these two teams. It just goes to show how great this rivalry really is.

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