October 27: Georgia (in Jacksonville)
Death, taxes, and Florida over Georgia, right? Well, it’s not that simple, but is has seemed that way since 1990. It took Ron Zook being fired earlier in the week for Georgia to beat Florida the last time they did, back in 2004. The only other time since 1990 that Georgia has won this game was 1997, the year after Florida won its first national championship. We are now presented in 2007 with the same situation. Does that mean Georgia‘s time has come once again?
The answer is a solid maybe. A lot probably depends on how the quarterbacks of the teams grow this year. Matthew Stafford was decidedly uneven in his performance as a freshman, and Tim Tebow basically was a running back who occasionally did halfback option passes. Stafford had to beat out three other guys to become the starter last year, but now is the undisputed top guy at the position. Tebow was Chris Leak’s backup and change of pace guy, but now is the undisputed top guy at the position. While Stafford probably won’t ever get pulled other than in the second half against Western Carolina (and maybe Troy), Tebow will likely come out of games for brief periods in favor of Cameron Newton. Urban Meyer said he plans to continue the two-quarterback system, and last year said that one of the reasons he did it was so he could talk to the QBs face-to-face on the sideline.
One point of intrigue is Mike Bobo. Mark Richt let the former Bulldog QB call plays for the last two games of 2006, both wins, and plans on doing the same this year. Will he remain as successful as the season goes along and defensive coaches get more film of his strategy? Bobo has said that he plans on establishing the run first, which makes sense because Georgia has a lot of depth at running back and no depth at receiver. While Georgia‘s offensive line will be young, it will probably end up being fine. This game will present a big challenge to the Gators’ young front seven.
Georgia is doing a bit of rebuilding on defense after it gave up more than 24 points only once in 2006. It’s not nearly as extensive as what Florida is going through, having lost nine starters, but it may be a concern for the Bulldogs this year. In fact, Georgia‘s best cornerback was declared academically ineligible and entered the NFL supplemental draft. This news should make any Gator fan perk up because Florida is loaded on offense this year, especially at receiver. While rivalry games never seem to turn out the way they should on paper, Florida should have noticeable success on offense against Georgia.
This brings up a good point: this is a rivalry game. While it has been eclipsed in recent years by the rivalry with FSU, and some might even argue Tennessee, it is still Florida‘s oldest and most traditional rivalry. Young Gator fans like myself almost take it for granted that Florida will beat Georgia, just as sure as Phil Fulmer is fat at it always gets freezing cold in Gainesville the week of the FSU game (or at least it seems like it does). Older, I mean, um, more experienced Gator fans relish every victory as payback for the many years where the Bulldogs beat up on the Gators seemingly every year. Georgia fans have completely lost their minds over this game though, going as far as “taunting” myself and my fellow Gator Band members in 2005 saying, “You should have won by more!” The atmosphere and split stands in Jacksonville also make for a very special weekend every year.
I’ll tell you one Gator who doesn’t take a win in this game for granted is Urban Meyer. He is an unthinkable 6-0 so far in rivalry games (versus Tennessee, Georgia, and FSU). His only loss in the state of Florida was in 2002 when Bowling Green lost at USF. The winner of this game probably won’t be guaranteed to be in the SEC title game with Tennessee and South Carolina expected to be better, but the loser almost certainly will need help to get to Atlanta. With so much on the line, I have to expect that Meyer will find a way to win this game. Georgia has more overall experience, but Florida is the more talented team. No one maximizes talent like Urban Meyer does, so if my earlier prediction is correct, he will improve to 8-0 in rivalry games following this one.
November 3: Vanderbilt (HC)
After inexplicably having LSU for homecoming last year (on the first weekend of October, no less), Florida returns things to normal and has homecoming in November against an SEC bottom feeder. Well, sort of.
Vanderbilt probably will finish last in the SEC East again. It was the only SEC East team not to go to a bowl last year (which is pretty incredible, when you think about it). Bobby Johnson has had the Commodores respectable the past couple of years, and last year proved it wasn’t just Jay Cutler doing it. Chris Nickson has come in and is one of the more dangerous guys in the conference for both sides. He can be electric with his running and passing, but he was erratic at times and committed more turnovers than he would have liked. With Earl Bennett and George Smith to throw to, he has a couple of the best targets in the league.
Vandy is a team that seems to play Florida well, at least a lot better than it should play. Urban Meyer has had particular trouble with the ‘Dores, needed double overtime to win his first game with them, and winning by just 6 points last year. Florida and Vandy have played every year since 1992, a side effect of the SEC expansion and introduction of divisions, and the results have been as follows: Florida wins by 10 or more happened 10 times, Florida wins by fewer than 10 happened 5 times, and wins by Vandy did not happen.
So, about once every three years, Vandy gives Florida a serious run for its money. It’s either an aberration that two of those five close Florida wins have come in the last two years, or it’s a sign that Vanderbilt is getting better. I lean towards the latter. The talent at Vandy is as higher this year than I can ever remember it being, and Johnson has done about as well as can be expected at a private college with no athletic director (yes, really) playing in the toughest football conference in the country. Vandy had a couple of really close losses last year, and should have gone to a bowl in 2005 except that it inexplicably lost to a bad Kentucky team.
So where am I going with this? Well, I don’t think that it will be a repeat of 2005, but I don’t think it will be a blowout either. It will probably play to the standard script, where Vanderbilt stays close longer than it should and Florida pulls away at the end. How much the Gators can pull away depends on how well the defense can keep Vanderbilt’s offense from moving the ball. In addition to Nickson, Bennett, and Smith, Vandy has a fairly good running back tandem with Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison. If those two stay healthy, it will open up opportunities in the passing game and allow Nickson to spend less time running around like he did last year.
I don’t think this is a winnable game for Vanderbilt. Even with everything Florida has lost and everything Vanderbilt has coming back, it’s still Vandy. The Commodores will struggle to win more than the four games they won last year. However, it won’t be a comfortable day for all the Gators groggy from Gator Growl and the festivities the night before.