Early November will bring resolution to the year's most important contest: Who will win the SEC East -- Georgia or Florida?
As part of our ongoing coverage of this battle over the future of our conference, Team Speed Kills organized a debate between the Mayor of the blogosphere, Dawg Sports' Kyle King, and our resident Florida-cheering contributor, Year 2. All pictures and snarky captions are mine. (The Team Speed Kills preview of all this week's action is here.)
This is almost certainly the battle between the top two quarterbacks in the SEC. Why is Tim Tebow a better signal-caller than Matt Stafford?
Year 2: Let me first say that my respect for Matt Stafford has grown a lot based on what he's done this year, and it's probably higher than what most Gator fans have. I expect to see him in the NFL for many years. I mean, if Doug Johnson could hang around for a while, Stafford certainly can.
That said, he's no Tim Tebow when it comes to the college game. You can pretty much throw out the records as a starter because Stafford has always had a good defense and a credible running game to support him. As a starter, Tebow has had the former only this year and the latter for about three games now.
Stafford is a good quarterback, but Tebow is a force of nature. He carried the Gators last year to a 9-3 regular season record that should have been worse given the state of the defense. If the Gator D was as good last season as it is this season, Florida goes 11-1 and meets a hungry LSU team looking for revenge for a midseason loss in Atlanta. Those records he set were legit, and he definitely earned his bronze stiff arm trophy.
This season he's been more of a ringleader than the guy taming the lions. The more he's gotten used to this year's flavor of the Gator offense, the better things have gone. He's making throws he never would have made last year, and his decision making, when given time, has improved.
No one in America energizes his fans, teammates, and coaches more than Tebow does. No one else shoulders the burden of being both the quarterback of a complex offense and the critical short-yardage back. He's a special player, and it's not likely we'll see another one quite like him again.
Dawg Sports: There's no question that Tim Tebow is an outstanding player and, by all accounts, a fine person. He had a great year in 2007; arguably, the greatest year any college quarterback has ever had. As a Georgia fan, I'm annoyed that an underclassman won the Heisman Trophy -- if underclassmen are eligible, the 1980 award needs to be put in a box in Columbia, S.C., and shipped to Athens, Ga., where it belongs -- but I agree with Year 2 that he earned it.
The reason Year 2 is wrong, though, is the verb tense of the question. Brandon's not asking who was the better quarterback, but who is the better quarterback, and, right now, the answer is the Lone Star State gunslinger lining up under center for the Red and Black.
As recently noted at Team Speed Kills, Matthew Stafford has taken his game to a new level, starting with last year's performance in Jacksonville. Prior to the 2007 Cocktail Party, Stafford's career touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio was dead even at 17 apiece, his completion percentage was below 55 percent, and he was averaging under seven yards per attempt.
In his last 14 games -- 13 of which the Bulldogs have won, by the way -- Stafford has thrown 21 touchdown passes to just 11 interceptions, is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, and is averaging almost eight and a half yards per attempt. During that stretch, his efficiency rating has ballooned from 115.00 to 143.12.
Meanwhile, Tebow's numbers are down across the board from 2007 to 2008, in some cases precipitously. From last year to this, the Gator quarterback has seen declines in his passing yards per game (from 252.8 to 202.1), rushing yards per game (from 68.9 to 32.4), touchdown passes (from 32 to 12), and rushing touchdowns (from 23 to 5).
Granted, some of that decline is due to the fact that the Saurians now have more weapons in their arsenal, so the offense is no longer solely on Tebow's sometimes sore shoulders, but the addition of extra standout performers to lighten the load does not explain why Tebow has seen drops in both his rushing yards per carry (from 4.3 to 2.8) and his passing yards per attempt (from 9.4 to 8.6). If it's true that Tebow is "making throws he never would have made last year," then it must also be true that he's missing throws he did make last year, because his completion percentage has fallen from 66.9 percent to 63.4 percent.
Tim Tebow is still an outstanding player, obviously, but one quarterback's star is falling while the other's is rising. A year ago, a neutral observer who was given the choice of putting the ball in Tebow's hands or lining up Stafford under center for a critical fourth-quarter drive would have chosen the Gator signal-caller. That isn't the choice that impartial evaluator would make today ... particularly if that individual happened to be an NFL scout.
Which of Georgia's injuries most concerns you going in this game, and how will that missing player change how Georgia approaches Florida?
Dawg Sports: There's no question in my mind that it's defensive tackle Jeff Owens. The ability to contain and get pressure on the quarterback is never more necessary than it is when facing an athlete with the ability of Tim Tebow. After Tebow was used only as a situational quarterback in 2006, many of us derided him as "the best fullback in the Southeastern Conference." Obviously, he proved in 2007 that he's the real deal. If the Bulldogs can't get in Tebow's face, he can make the Red and Black pay on the ground and through the air like no other player in the college game. (I'm not altogether sure the word "college" really needed to be in that last sentence.)
That said, I don't know that Georgia's approach will change that much. One of the reasons this rivalry is evolving into the 21st-century equivalent of what the Florida State-Miami game was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is the fact that both Mark Richt and Urban Meyer have recruited boatloads of talent to their respective schools. The Bulldogs' injuries have caused the Red and Black to field less experienced players, not less talented ones.
Willie Martinez will still do what Willie Martinez does. He'll blitz less than the fans would like but more often (and more creatively) than we realize, he'll substitute frequently to keep the players fresh, and he'll try to pressure the quarterback and stuff the run. The scheme won't change; it's just a question of execution.
Year 2: If I could pick one injury from the whole season that UGA has had that would make the most impact, I'd pick FB Brannan Southerland. People give offensive line coach Stacy Searels a ton of credit for shoring up the banged up O-line, but almost no one gives credit to Southerland. CBS made a graphic last weekend showing that UGA's offensive production was down without him as compared to with him, and while I don't remember the numbers off hand, the difference was striking.
The reason I bring that up is because I'm actually going to agree with the Mayor on this question. Searels and Southerland have made up for the highly-publicized offensive line injuries well enough, but the defensive line play of Georgia will be crucial on Saturday.
The teams that had the most success defensively against Florida this season -- Miami and Ole Miss -- both had very disruptive defensive lines that were in the backfield most of the game. Florida's offensive line has gotten much better as the year has gone on, so the loss of Jeff Owens is even more important heading into this weekend.
The most impressive game for either of these teams has been the 50-point offensive performance against LSU. The only other common opponent has been Tennessee, which both more or less handled pretty easily. Why does Florida have the advantage going into this weekend?
Year 2: If you look at last year's game, Georgia won it in large part due to Knowshon Moreno running wild all over the field. His rushing opened up the passing game for big plays, and he prevented the Gators from getting critical stops. The 42 points the Bulldogs scored were the most anyone put up on UF the whole season, and yet it was still just 35-30 for most of the fourth quarter.
Moreno is still Moreno, Stafford is a bit better, and A.J. Green is an upgrade for sure. The Georgia defense was good then and is good now, though the nearly 500 yards they gave up to LSU is troubling. Georgia missed a few tackles in that game, and if you miss a tackle on guys like Harvin, Rainey, or Demps, they're off to the endzone.
Flip to the other side. Florida has a real running game now. They have a real defense now. The special teams are a terror to all who face them. Nearly every facet of the guys in orange and blue is clearly better than it was last year and those that aren't, well, how exactly do you improve on Tebow and the Gator receiving corps?
The 2001 Gators were the last Florida team to win three SEC games by 30 points or more. This year's squad has already done that with three conference games to go. Not only do they have the humiliating win over LSU, but they have the complete and utter demolition of Kentucky. Georgia has yet to win any game by such a magnitude.
Not only do you have the fact that Florida wasn't that far off from winning last year and has improved greatly, but you also have the incredible roll that the Gators are on right now. Toss in the motivation of revenge for last year's events, and UF has a lot on its side right now.
Dawg Sports: Year 2's description of last year's Cocktail Party is a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, Knowshon Rockwell Moreno carried the ball eight times in the Bulldogs' nine-play opening drive, but Georgia's first possession started at the Florida 39 and Moreno had only one run longer than eight yards on that drive. That's hardly "running wild all over the field." After the Orange and Blue tied the game on their next possession, Moreno began the ensuing Georgia drive with a two-yard loss on his first carry. That, we are led to believe, is what enabled Matthew Stafford to complete an 84-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi on the very next play?
Beyond that, I'm not convinced that winning blowouts prepares you for the tougher teams on your schedule more so than winning nailbiters. The 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers won a lot of blowouts. So did the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners. So did the 1995 Florida Gators. Does anyone remember how those teams fared against Miami, LSU, and Nebraska with national titles on the line?
Learning how to win close games is part of becoming a champion, as any partisan of either of these teams ought to know. Georgia's 1980 national championship team claimed six of its 12 wins by a touchdown or less. Florida's 2006 national championship team captured four of its seven regular season conference victories by seven or fewer points.
Winning laughers simply doesn't prepare a team to cope with adversity in the fourth quarter and the Gators don't get extra credit for the fact that Urban Meyer inexplicably runs the risk of letting key players be injured by leaving his starters in long after the outcome has ceased to be in doubt. Bad judgment and poor sportsmanship do not earn checks in the "pro" column.
In any case, it isn't as though Georgia's victories have been less impressive than Florida's. In the question, it was mentioned that both teams had faced Tennessee. Let's compare those two games. The Volunteers outgained the Gators (258-243), matched the Saurians in first downs (16-16), and held a slight edge in time of possession. The ‘Dawgs, by contrast, dominated the Big Orange, holding huge advantages in yards (458-209), first downs (29-10), and time of possession (42:04-17:56).
The difference in the score was turnovers: Tennessee lost a pair of fumbles and threw an interception against the Gators, who did not give the ball away in Knoxville. The Orange and Blue turned those Volunteer miscues into six points. Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions against the Vols, who did not surrender the pigskin in Athens. Those picks produced both UT scoring drives.
Let's assume that those turnovers didn't prevent points from being scored by the team that coughed up the ball. (That's not a safe assumption, by the way. Two of Tennessee's three giveaways against Florida were inside the Gators' five yard line and both of Stafford's interceptions were inside the UT 20.) Take the points produced by turnovers off the board and what do you get? Florida beats Tennessee 24-6 and Georgia beats Tennessee 26-0. When you set that alongside the yardage, first down, and time of possession totals, it's clear which team claimed the better victory over the Vols, and it ain't the guys from Gainesville.
The question, though, asked why Florida had the advantage heading into Jacksonville, and, certainly, there is a good argument to make for the Saurians. After struggling in the early going of most of their first few games, the Gators unquestionably have hit their stride, playing their most complete game of the campaign against injury-riddled Kentucky in The Swamp following Florida's open date.
Consider this, though: Florida has shown us its best game, which is very, very good, indeed ... but, while Georgia has shown flashes of what might have been had a few key players not been lost to injury along the way, the Bulldogs have not yet had the breakout game that the Gators have had. Might that breakout game come by the St. John's River?
Certainly, it wouldn't be the way to bet, but, then again, that was the case last year, too, after the ‘Dawgs were beaten down by Tennessee and needed an eleventh-hour comeback to beat Vanderbilt. Nevertheless, it happened, as it always does under Mark Richt (think Georgia Tech '02, Tennessee '03, LSU '04 and '05, Auburn '06, and Florida '07). The Gators have played their best game. The Red and Black haven't ... yet.
Urban Meyer has told us that Urban Meyer is going to "handle" the post-touchdown celebration from last year's game and that it's going to be "a big deal." Are you worried about whatever Meyer might have up his sleeve, either on the field or as a motivational tool?
Dawg Sports: Worried about it? I'm hoping he has something planned! Let me ask you this: should Vanderbilt be worried that Georgia is planning an end zone celebration when the Bulldogs score their first touchdown in Nashville next year? I don't think the Commodores should be worried about that possibility, and, if the Red and Black do such a thing, I believe the Commies should take it as a compliment. It will mean that, after upsetting Georgia in 2006, playing the ‘Dawgs close in 2007, and hanging around with the Red and Black this year, the ‘Dores have arrived as a legitimate rival. You don't pull that sort of thing against a team you own, right?
Well, guess what? In the last 18 series meetings, Georgia is 15-3 against Vanderbilt. In the last 18 series meetings, Florida is 15-3 against Georgia. If Urban Meyer retaliates, it's an admission that the Steve Spurrier era is over, the domination is done, and the relevant record isn't 15-3 in the last 18 years, it's 2-2 in the last four years. It's a rivalry again.
Beyond that, motivation only lasts so long. The Bulldogs' blackout game against Auburn last year was a motivational masterstroke which led to a fun night in Athens and a big victory over a hated rival. This year's blackout in Athens was a distraction. While we in Bulldog Nation were trusting in the magic of the black jerseys, Alabama's coaches and players were getting ready for a football game. Every second Urban Meyer and Urban Meyer's team spend thinking about last year's celebration is a second they aren't spending thinking about this year's game. I believe squandering those seconds in such a manner would be a major mistake.
Year 2: Both the UF players and coaches have said not to expect any stunts or displays, so everyone can put that out of their minds right now. One of Urban Meyer's talking points this season is about how much this year's team is more mature that last year's and how the guys take a professional approach to the game.
Unless you focus on "professionals" like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, making some sort of scene would go completely against that line of thought. As anyone who has followed Meyer for any period of time knows, he sticks to his talking points tighter than most seasoned politicians. I would be shocked if he undermined himself in that way.
I find it very appropriate though that Kyle brought up the success of Spurrier in his response to this question. Steve loved to run up the score on Georgia because he hated Georgia going back to his playing days. It was the biggest game of every year to him, and his 11-1 record versus the Bulldogs speaks to that fact.
When Urban Meyer came to UF, he did everything possible to embrace the school. He instituted the Gator Walk, started having the players sing the alma mater and fight song with the band after games, and even began referring to FSU solely as "The School out West." He tried his best to talk the talk and walk the walk.
However, he hadn't fully lived the Gator experience in the way that Spurrier did or any of the fans do. How could he? He spent all of his life in the upper Midwest except for brief coaching stints at Colorado State and Utah. He heard that Tennessee, Georgia, and FSU were the big rivals so he talked about them and prepared for them as such. But did they have extra meaning? Probably some as time went on, but likely not to a significant degree.
The celebration last season changed that. Meyer now has a reason to hate Georgia like Spurrier did. Whether he can parlay that into an amazing streak of success is anyone's guess, but anecdotal reports from people who say they know players indicate that he's not just been his normal intense self at practice this week. He's angry, and that could make all the difference.
Obviously, this game is back to being the de facto SEC East Championship Game, and the winner will (barring a major upset) face Alabama in Atlanta the first weekend of December. Why would Florida have a better chance of beating the Tide than Georgia?
Year 2: Well, we've already seen Georgia give the Tide a try this year (at home with a blackout no less) and we all know how that went. It was 41-17 until UGA got two vanity touchdowns in the final three minutes of the game.
Florida has enough skill position weapons to put continuous pressure on the Alabama defense. Though UF has shown the ability to get off to hot starts just like Alabama has, unlike the Tide the Gators have been scary good in the fourth quarter of every game they needed to be except against Ole Miss. Even then though they got two touchdowns in the final frame; it was a disastrous third quarter that doomed UF on that day.
The much-improved Florida secondary would probably be able to pick off a pass or two from John Parker Wilson. The run defense shut down LSU's Charles Scott, a similar player to Alabama's great backs. 'Bama has a better offensive line, but the task is not that different.
The Tide wins games by winning the trenches, but Florida has gotten a lot better about that as the season has gone on. The Gators match up well in most places, have distinct advantages in others, and would not under any realistic circumstances get blown out. From what I've heard, Vegas would probably even favor Florida to win right now (for whatever that is worth).
Dawg Sports: I'm confused ... or maybe Year 2 is. Didn't he just say "the motivation of revenge for last year's events" (which occurred at the beginning of the game and provoked Urban Meyer to start gesticulating wildly on the sidelines to get his team fired up; one wonders why revenge wasn't motivation enough for the Gators in the final three quarters a year ago) would be a factor in this Saturday's game? Does he think retribution and redemption wouldn't factor into the Bulldogs' performance in a rematch with Alabama?
Did those factors have an impact when Florida got a second shot at Florida State at the end of the 1996 season? I seem to recall seeing a lot of "52-20: Sweet Revenge" T-shirts in Jacksonville in 1997. "Alabama has already beaten Georgia" is a reason why the ‘Dawgs would be the tougher out for the Tide in Atlanta. Yeah, Alabama has already beaten Georgia. They managed to beat Ole Miss at home, too.
Even leaving aside the influence of the obvious emotional factors, there is the fact that Georgia has improved considerably since that loss between the hedges. Since that time, the patchwork offensive line has stabilized and solidified, allowing Stafford and the rest of the offense to find their feet. The ‘Bama loss has been followed by two statistically dominant performances over Tennessee and Vanderbilt, followed by a victory over LSU that wasn't as close as the score indicated. (I believe the term Year 2 used was "vanity touchdowns." That's as good a description as any for the scoring the Bayou Bengals did after Moreno's 68-yard touchdown run put Georgia up 38-17 in Death Valley.)
If the Bulldogs manage to claim back-to-back victories over LSU and Florida in venues other than Sanford Stadium -- a tall order, I know, but the Red and Black are halfway there already -- then this Georgia team will have rebounded from the Alabama loss the way last year's Georgia team rebounded from the Tennessee loss. Should the game in Jacksonville go the Bulldogs' way, it will be a reinvigorated Georgia team that rolls into Atlanta and the team the Tide faces in December will be as different from the team Alabama faced in September as the 2003 LSU team the ‘Dawgs met in the SEC championship game was from the Fighting Tiger squad with which the Red and Black tangled in Baton Rouge earlier that year.
Let's say Georgia wins this game and beats Alabama in the SEC Championship Game to get back into the national title picture, but still has to jump over undefeated Penn State for the right to play undefeated Texas. Why should Georgia play for the BCS Championship ahead of the Nittany Lions, and why would the Dawgs' argument be stronger than the Gators' case?
Dawg Sports: If being Ohio State doesn't make you deserving of a national title game berth, why should beating Ohio State get you there? What, you need more than that? Oh, all right.
In your scenario, Georgia will have beaten an improved South Carolina squad, defending national champion Louisiana State, a Florida team that increasingly looks like a genuine national title contender, and a previously unbeaten Alabama club, all in games played in venues other than Sanford Stadium. Throw in home victories over what was then a ranked and division-leading Vanderbilt team and an improved Georgia Tech squad, and, even with Arizona State, Tennessee, and Auburn going into tailspins, you still have a much more difficult schedule than the one Penn State has faced. A 12-1 SEC champion that had to run a gauntlet like that has accomplished more than a 12-0 Big Ten champion that didn't have to go through a conference championship game or play all of the teams in its own league.
If this Saturday's game goes the other way and the Gators emerge victorious from Jacksonville, I believe the Orange and Blue would have much the same argument Georgia would have -- Florida's scalps would be more impressive than the Nittany Lions' would, even with the loss -- but the Bulldogs' ledger stacks up better overall because the Gators will not have a marquee win in a true road game and, most notably, their loss (to mediocre Ole Miss in The Swamp) will be much more damning than the Red and Black's setback versus ‘Bama, particularly if Georgia redeems that loss with a win over the Crimson Tide in Atlanta in much the same way that the Gators redeemed their regular season loss to Florida State with a win over the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl to cap off their 1996 national title run.
Obviously, my argument would be helped by a Yellow Jacket win over Florida State and a Sun Devil triumph over Oregon State this weekend, although I'm not holding my breath while waiting for either of those outcomes.
Year 2: Kyle nailed the argument for having a one-loss SEC team over an unbeaten Penn State, so I don't feel the need to expand on it.
In defense of the Gators' chances though, let's look at it a little closer. We all thought Georgia would clearly have the tougher schedule, but is the gap really that big still? If you look at non-conference games, FSU and GT probably cancel each other out, as do the I-AA opponents. Winning at Arizona State was good, but is that 2-5 team's best win (Stanford) really better than 5-3 WAC team Hawaii's best win (Fresno State)? Central Michigan has been cleaning up in the MAC, but would they be favored over Miami? Probably not.
Georgia's SEC West slate (minus LSU, a common opponent with Florida) of Alabama and Auburn is better than Florida's is with Ole Miss and Arkansas, but you can make the argument that both the Rebels and Razorbacks are better than Auburn right now. Florida losing to Ole Miss by one at home was not good, but neither was Georgia being headed for a 41-17 loss to Alabama before they tacked on a couple vanity touchdowns in the final three minutes.
I'm admittedly reaching a little here, but Florida does have an impressive resume. Georgia has yet to destroy anyone, I-AA competition included, as thoroughly as Florida destroyed Kentucky (and UK is not 63-5 bad this year). That indicates UF's ceiling is probably higher than UGA's this year.
Pepper in some irrational tidbits for the irrational voters (i.e. Florida has two national titles in the last 11 seasons, Georgia hasn't won one since 1980, therefore Florida is the better program and probably team too), let simmer over a month of games, and you've got your recipe for Florida having a good case for playing the national title game.
Thanks to Year 2 and the Mayor for taking part in our debate, and be sure to visit both sites today and tomorrow for last-minute insights leading up to the game.