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Thursday, October 30, 2008

10 Questions: Georgia vs. Florida

Some food for thought heading into the biggest game of the year for the Bulldogs...

1.) Does Tim Tebow take a big hit?

LSU's Ricky Jean-Francois said before the Tigers' matchup with Florida that it was hit goal to get a nice hit on Mr. Tebow to remind him who the reigning national champs were. Then Jean-Francois got hurt, didn't play, and Florida rolled. Not that it probably would have made much difference anyway.

While I have no doubt that any number of Georgia defenders would like to bury Tebow if they get the chance, the real question is whether that opportunity will arise. After running the ball 210 times last year, Tebow has carried just 82 times this season. Florida has more playmakers than it had in the past and hasn't relied as much on putting its QB into harm's way. If Georgia manages to thwart the Gators' new-look offense for the first two quarters, however, you have to wonder if Coach Meyers gets a little frustrated and sends the greatest player of our era into the line of fire.

(NOTE: Before anyone calls me an idiot, I'm misspelling Urban Meyer's name on purpose. That's how Richt refers to him, so that's how I'm referring to him.)

2.) Will Georgia's O line take another step forward?

No one was thrilled to see Vince Vance go down with a season-ending knee injury in the first half against Tennessee, but the truth is, since his departure, the line has really come together.

Clint Boling doesn't particularly like playing left tackle, but he's doing a heck of a job with it. Justin Anderson made a bone-headed play getting flagged for a personal foul in the second half against LSU last week that put Georgia in a first-and-25 deep in their own territory, but beyond that, he has played about as well as you could expect a redshirt freshman to handle the position. Ben Jones has been strong and Cordy Glenn has shown marked improvement since the South Carolina game. And then there's Chris Davis, who despite a painful hip injury that has had him hobbling off the field after each game, has managed to be both a successful blocker and a leader on the line.

"Chris Davis has definitively been the leaeder of that group," Mark Richt said. "And of all those guys, he is the one that is banged up the most."

Despite the youth and injuries, Georgia's line has been playing like old pros. They've allowed just one sack in the past three games -- and that was a coverage sack in which Matthew Stafford simply couldn't get outside the pocket in time to avoid the rush. Meanwhile, Knowshon Moreno has topped 100 yards in each of his past three games, including a 172 against Vandy and 163 against LSU.

"I think we finally got a line we're able to stick with," Boling said. "Nobody's switching positions as much, which is one thing, and that's helping us all out. We're getting used to playing with each other."

Florida has 16 sacks this season, led by Carlos Dunlap's four, and is third in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing just a shade over 100 yards per game on the ground. The Gators are likely to test Georgia's offensive line early, but Richt thinks the group is up to the task.

"There is a lot of youth and inexperience and a lot of guys that don't even know they aren't supposed to play good, I guess," Richt said. "Maybe that is good for us right now."

3.) How much will Knowshon run?

On Georgia's infamous first drive against Florida last year, the Bulldogs started out with nine straight running plays -- eight by Knowshon, who finished the drive with a 1-yard TD run. Moreno went on to carry the ball 33 times in the game for 188 yards -- a career high. But that was last year.

This season, Mike Bobo has seemed much more enthusiastic about going to the pass, particularly early in the game, to try to loosen things up for Georgia's ground attack. The Bulldogs have thrown on the first play of the game in four of their past five games -- the lone exception coming last week against LSU when Stafford went for the home-run pass to Mohamed Massaquoi on second down instead. Bobo and Stafford have shown a propensity to go for quick strikes early and often, and given Florida's questionable secondary, that's probably not a bad idea.

Still, the best weapon the Bulldogs may have in stopping Florida's powerful offense is keeping it off the field, and the way to do that is to sustain long drives behind Knowshon. The problem with that plan, however, is that while Knowshon's final numbers have been great the past few weeks, his runs have been more of a combination of 2- and 3-yard carries mixed with 20- and 30-yard hauls. To sustain long drives, Georgia's going to need Knowshon to pick up a bunch of 5-yard chunks at a time rather than running into a wall time and time again before breaking the long one. In his past three games, Moreno has ran the ball 71 times. On 35 of those runs, he has picked up 3 yards or fewer. On 18, he has picked up 10 yards or more. That's the same number of runs (18) he has had that gained between 4 and 9 yards. Of those mid-range runs, too, the vast majority have been at 4 or 5 yards and none have been longer than six.

I'm not complaining about the work Moreno has done the past three weeks, just saying that those mid-range runs are what keep drives going. The others either put you in second- or third-and-long or set you up for quick scores. Georgia will happily take the scores, but if the object is to dominate time of possession, Moreno hasn't shown a propensity for doing it the past few weeks.

4.) Can Brian Mimbs save the day?

Forget Tim Tebow. The scariest player Florida might have is actually Brandon James. He's one of three players in the country to return two punts for touchdowns and is a danger to take one to the house every time he touches the ball. Florida is fifth in the country in punt return average, picking up 20.2 yards per return this season. Meanwhile, freshman Jeff Demps blocked a punt last week against Kentucky, and the Gators are a threat to do it again this week against Georgia.

So how does Georgia handle Florida's dynamic punt-return game?

"There's two ways," Richt said. "You either kick it away or you kick high. If it's high enough to cover and keep it in play or you kick it out of play and hope you didn't shank it and you got it off. When he's in the pocket, the safest place to be is in the middle of the pocket. If he starts turning (left) or (right) to kick, he's basically stepping into a place that's not quite as safe. It also takes a little bit more time to turn and angle kick which is also a protection issue. You also have a chance of shanking. But we practice it. And when you put it in play, you give a great player a chance to return it for a touchdown. There's really not an easy answer."

It's going to be up to Mimbs -- who averaged more than 50 yards per punt last week -- to have another great game and shut down one of Florida's best weapons. Well, that or the offense could simply play so well that Georgia doesn't need to punt. Yeah, that'd work, too.

5.) Can Georgia match Florida's speed?

This year's Florida offense is chock full of speed, and the Gators are as happy to burn you with yards after the catch over the middle as they are going deep. It's not a vertical attack -- it's an offense that thrives on getting into space and making you miss, and few are better at it than Percy Harvin and Chris Rainey.

Guess what Georgia's biggest problem was last week against LSU? Allowing receivers to get into open space then badly missing tackles.

Sound like a recipe for disaster?

Well, maybe. But at the same time, last week's game also served as a good eye opener, and the Bulldogs know exactly what they're in for this week.

"It puts that much more emphasis on you to just have great alignment and take great angles to the ball," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "They can be fast, but if you take good angles it takes away some of their speed. Where you're aligned at, you can kind of cheat over if you know where they like to run the ball and that gives you an advantage on their speed."

The other key for Georgia to eliminate Florida's speed advantage? Hit 'em, hit 'em again, and make them not want to get back up.

"As a defense you always want to go into the game especially like this just being the more physical team and setting the tempo from the beginning," Curran said. "We feel like if we can continue to hit them, it's going to slow them down."

6.) Can Matthew Stafford beat the aggressive Florida secondary?

Here's the good news for Florida's pass defense: They are tied for fourth in the SEC with 10 interceptions and are fifth in pass defense. Sounds lovely given that the secondary was supposed to be a weakness for the Gators.

But let's look closer. Here are the quarterbacks the Gators have faced so far and where their respective passing offenses rank nationally this season:

HAWAII - Greg Alexander (52)
MIAMI - Robert Marve (92)
TENN - Jonathan Crompton (98)
OLE MISS - Jevan Snead (60)
ARK - Casey Dick (45)
LSU - Jarrett Lee (41)
KENTUCKY - Randall Cobb/Mike Hartline (84)

That's right, LSU has the best passing attack of any offense Florida has played thus far. On average, Georgia has thrown for 26 more yards per game than the next best team Florida has played -- and that sort of undersells what the Bulldogs have done considering they also have Knowshon in the backfield and have been ahead in all but one game in the second half.

The Gators' interceptions, meanwhile, have come as a result of aggressive coverages -- something Stafford and company can exploit for big plays. The fact is, Florida hasn't seen anything like what Georgia can do through the air, and Stafford, Massaquoi and A.J. Green have been lighting up better secondaries than theirs all season.

7.) Who's playing middle linebacker?

Darryl Gamble had the game of his life last week against LSU, making 13 tackles, providing pressure on the quarterback and chipping in with an NCAA record two interception returns for touchdowns. But beyond the breakout performance last week, Gamble has been stellar in three games at middle linebacker in place of senior Dannell Ellerbe, and he is second on the team in tackles this season.

Still, Ellerbe was a preseason All-SEC selection and should be ready to return from a knee injury against Florida, which begs the question: Who should be playing?

Best guess is that Gamble will get the start and will handle all Sam LB duties in the game -- although there won't be many against Florida's spread. Even if Ellerbe is healthy enough to make the trip and play, he's not 100 percent, which means he shouldn't be on the field 100 percent of the time. Gamble will sub in at MLB early and often, and by game's end he'll probably have handled the Mike on about 70 percent of the snaps.

Or maybe 100. After all, Ellerbe was supposed to play last week and didn't end up making the trip.

8.) Can Shaun Chapas find the end zone?

This isn't a key to the game by any means -- although any score is a plus -- but now that both Brannan Southerland (who missed five games) and Fred Munzenmaier (who has two career carries) both have scored touchdowns, I think we need to include this question every week.

9.) Does Urban Meyers have a complete breakdown if Georgia wins again?

I think it's absurd to keep talking about the event-which-shall-no-longer-be-named, but it's clear that it is still fresh on the mind of Coach Meyers. Florida and Meyers have had this game circled on their calendars since last season ended, and it's fair to ask if all the hype might have the Gators off their game a little. A quick start is crucial for both teams -- but particularly for the Gators who need to prove they are focused on the task at hand and not what happened last year.

Of course, should Georgia pull out a second straight win over its rival -- and better yet, pull out a win with another galling celebratory display -- it will be even more fun to watch how Meyers handles it this time around. No doubt, he'll have a good excuse (Poor Tebow had a boo-boo on his arm that no one knew about?) and he'll hold a grudge (why does mean old Mark Richt pick on Urban so much?).

10.) What happens to the national title picture?

The good news for the winner of this game is -- barring a complete collapse of historical proportions -- you're playing in the SEC championship game.

The bad news is, that's still no lock for a shot at the national title.

Penn State and Alabama don't have too many more challenges, though this week's winner will likely get a crack at taking the Tide down in the SEC championship game. Then there's Texas and Texas Tech, who play each other this week. Neither have lost, and if Texas wins, there's a good chance the Horns will finish the season undefeated.

Then there's the list of the other one-lossers like Oklahoma and USC.

This game will have a lot of attention, and the winner -- particularly if it's a decisive win -- should have a nice claim for the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the polls (depending on whether Texas wins or not). But looking around the SEC, there are only three teams -- these two and Alabama -- that have shown to be legitimate top-15 teams so far, so winning the conference at the end of the year might not be enough to waltz into the National Championship Game -- particularly if you need to make the case that you belong over an undefeated Penn State team. At the end of the day, it's hard for most voters to look beyond the record, even if Penn State hasn't played anyone. So if you have a tough case to make, you really need to take advantage of all the opportunities to pad your resume -- starting this week.


Phat Wallet said...

I don't see Oklahoma being a factor for the BCS title... they are essentially in our position last year in that not being able to play for their conference championship essentially eliminates them from any national title aspirations. OK would have to win out and Texas would have to lose twice... and the latter is not going to happen, even if they lose to Tech tomorrow.

The ideal scenario (assuming PSU wins out) is this:
-UGA wins out
-Tech beats Texas this Saturday
-Tech finishes the regular season undefeated but looses in the conference championship to Mizzou; or looses once after beating Texas and has an unimpressive win or loss in the title game.
-Bama wins out but gets beat by the Dawgs in the SECCG
-I don't think it matters if USC wins out, unless they beat teams by 40 points every week... Their strength of schedule is getting worse and worse every week... and the computers aren't going to ignore that.

At 12-1, I think UGA jumps USC and every other 1 loss team that did not win their conference title (namely OK and Texas), and plays for the title against PSU. This scenario goes for whoever wins the cocktail party

Phat Wallet said...

Actually, after I thought about it a little more, it basically comes down to this...

We have to win out and the winner of the TTU-Texas game cannot win the Big 12 title if we want a shot at the National Title.