Commentary

Dawgs-Gators winner will have inside track to SEC East title

Originally Published: October 30, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

If you adhere to the requests of university presidents, Saturday's game between No. 6 Georgia and No. 8 Florida is no longer the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."

But it might be the closest thing in college football to a bar-room brawl.

And, given the high stakes for both teams, one fan base figures to leave Jacksonville, Fla., with one heck of a hangover.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Icon SMIA win over Florida would put Mark Richt and Georgia in a strong position to win the SEC East.

The SEC East title figures to be on the line when the teams kick off at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on the banks of the St. Johns River.

So is a possible trip to the Dec. 6 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

And, if the final five weeks of the regular season play out anything like last year, national-championship hopes might still be at stake, too.

"The winner of the game has control of the East," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "The loser loses it. That's one of the goals we have -- the most tangible goal we have and the most controllable goal we have. If you win the East, you have a shot at the SEC championship. If you keep winning, you might have a chance for the national championship."

"It's why kids come to Florida," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "To play in games like this one."

Richt changed the dynamics of one of college football's most storied rivalries during the Bulldogs' 42-30 victory over the Gators last season. In a risky decision that has since been hailed as both tacky and tactically brilliant, Richt ordered his team to celebrate until they got a penalty flag.

In what was one of the most bizarre moments in the sport's recent history, Georgia's players danced and stomped in the end zone, while the Gators stood and watched in bewilderment.

Richt said he never intended for his entire team to rush the field, but that's what the Bulldogs ended up doing.

"I'm thinking in my mind, my little pea brain, 11 guys in the game, score a touchdown, 11 guys jump up and down and celebrate until the official throws the flag," Richt told reporters at the SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., in July. "That's my [interpretation] of what I had said."

Said Bulldogs linebacker Rennie Curran: "It definitely brought a lot of confidence back to our program and took away a lot of the intimidation factor Florida had on us. You talk to the guys who played here before, and they say they always felt they had the talent to beat Florida, but they felt intimidation and even fear when they played Florida."

Richt can only hope there won't be hell to pay on Saturday.

Great FLA-UGA Moments

Run, Lindsay, Run!: Facing third-and-11 at Georgia's 7, quarterback Buck Belue threw a short pass to Lindsay Scott. Scott out ran Florida's defense for a 93-yard touchdown with 1:03 left, leading the Bulldogs to a 26-21 win and preserving their unbeaten record during the 1980 national championship season.

Dogs Get Trapped: Florida's Richard Trapp had perhaps the greatest individual play in the rivalry's history, breaking eight tackles en route to a 52-yard touchdown catch late in the 1967 game. The Gators won 17-16 on Wayne Barfield's 31-yard field goal with 34 seconds to play.

Appleby to Washington: The unranked Bulldogs trailed No. 11 Florida 7-3 with about 3 1/2 minutes to play in the 1975 game, when Georgia coach Vince Dooley uncharacteristically called a trick play. Tight end Richard Appleby took a handoff on an end-around, but stopped and fired an 80-yard touchdown pass to Gene Washington. Georgia won the game, 10-7.

Ricky the Rocket: After stopping Georgia on fourth-and-goal in the 1984 game, Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell throws a 96-yard touchdown to Ricky Nattiel. The Gators cruised to a 27-0 victory and finished unbeaten in SEC play.

The Timeout: In a driving rain storm in Jacksonville in 1993, Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier threw a game-tying touchdown with five seconds to play. But officials ruled Gators cornerback Anthone Lott called timeout before the play. Florida escaped with a 33-26 victory.

-- Mark Schlabach

The Gators figure to be extra-motivated after watching Georgia's St. Johns River Dance over and over again for the past 12 months.

"It's huge," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said when asked earlier this week what motivation can do for a football team. "Motivation, intensity, passion. Those things are so critical for a football game. It's just a mentality that everybody has; it's something that you can't even explain. It makes you play better; it makes you play harder. It makes the other team play on their heels, play back, play nervous."

Richt and Meyer have tried to persuade reporters and fans alike that they have wiped the incident from their memories. Neither coach would talk much about the end-zone celebration this week, and both coaches seemed to order players to follow their leads.

But even an outsider such as Miami coach Randy Shannon knows Georgia's not-so-impromptu celebration will have a bearing on Saturday's game.

"Something will happen in that game," Shannon told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this week. "I can guarantee you that. You better go to that game. You would get a great story. Don't come to ours. I'm serious. Something is going to happen after what happened last year. You can book that."

More than anything else, Richt believes Georgia's victory last season -- only its third in its past 18 meetings against the Gators -- altered the way both schools now view the rivalry.

Nearly two decades of frustration and anxiety for Georgia were replaced by confidence and excitement. And nearly two decades of dominance, which nearly seemed to be an annual entitlement for Florida, has been superseded by downright anger and vengeance.

"Winning the game last year was huge," Richt said. "We've won two of the last four and won the last game. Our guys know it's going to be a tremendous battle, but they're excited about it."

You can bet the Gators are excited to play the Bulldogs again, too. In his biography that was published this summer, Meyer said he would never forget the incident from last season's game.

"That wasn't right," Meyer said in "Urban's Way," which was written with sportswriter Buddy Martin. "It was a bad deal. It will forever be in the mind of Urban Meyer and in the mind of our football team. We'll handle it, and it's going to be a big deal."

Asked earlier this week if Georgia's celebration was still a big deal for the Gators, Meyer said: "No comment."

Defense, or whatever defense each team can muster, figures to be a big deal in Saturday's game. Georgia leads the SEC in total offense (431.3 yards per game) and in passing offense (258.8 ypg). Florida, meanwhile, leads the SEC in scoring (42 points per game) and ranks third in total offense (410.3 ypg).

"We are both very balanced," Meyer said. "I think we are the top two teams in the SEC statistically, which usually means in America. Why? We are balanced."

Florida's defense has performed better than Georgia's has lately, leading the SEC in scoring defense (11.9 points per game) and pass-efficiency defense (121.8 in passing-efficiency formula). The Bulldogs are usually quite stingy against the run, but missed a boatload of tackles in last week's 52-38 victory at defending national champion LSU.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Kim Klement/US PresswireGeorgia's TD celebration last season will not soon be forgotten by Urban Meyer and Florida.

Containing Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner -- along with the Gators' collection of speedy skill players like receiver Percy Harvin and tailbacks Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey -- will be a daunting task. "You don't stop teams like Florida," Richt said. "You just try to slow them down a little bit and hope you play good enough offensively and on special teams to make up the difference."

Georgia will probably try to do what it did last year: control the clock and momentum with its running game. Moreno ran for a career-high 188 yards and three touchdowns against the Gators in 2007. Reportedly, Florida's defenders spent the offseason doing 188 pushups each day as a reminder.

"This year, we are more mature," Meyer said. "When we play good teams, I see our guys prepare differently. The best form of motivation is to push players. It has nothing to do with the color pants we wear or how much we yell. Those things all serve a purpose, but the best motivation is to play a good team."

Whether motivation makes a difference on Saturday remains to be seen. Both teams have been advised by SEC officials to be on their best behavior. But that might be easier said than done.

Georgia (9.5 infractions per game) and Florida (8.1) are already the SEC's two most penalized teams.

"We went down there last year with an attitude," Bulldogs defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. "We refused to lose. We're going to go down there with another attitude this year and refuse to back down."

The Gators will be waiting. "Getting to play in this rivalry," Tebow said, "it's special."

At least it's a rivalry again.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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