DAWGS WILL FINALLY LIVE UP TO PRESEASON BILLING, BITE GATORS

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DAWGS WILL FINALLY LIVE UP TO PRESEASON BILLING, BITE GATORS

UGA Spike Squad during the 2018 Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, FL
UGA Spike Squad during the 2018 Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, FL

Back in August, as I went down Georgia’s 2019 schedule, I pointed to the Sept. 21 home game against Notre Dame and the Nov. 16 date at Auburn as the Bulldogs’ biggest hurdles in their quest to get back to the College Football Playoff.

Georgia, of course, has already taken down the Fighting Irish with a hard-fought 23-17 win at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. And the battle on the Plains with Gus Malzahn’s Tigers still looms over two weeks away.

One huge game that I thought would be tough but at the time couldn’t see the Bulldogs losing was the annual bash with the Florida Gators on Nov. 2 down in Jacksonville. After all, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs held down the preseason No. 3 national ranking while Dan Mullen’s Gators were sitting in the No. 8 spot.

Now, though, with Georgia-Florida week staring us in the face, this game takes on an entirely different look than it did back in the preseason. That’s because the Gators have performed much better than almost all of the so-called college football experts thought they would; in fact, with their 7-1 (4-1 SEC) record entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff, Florida has leaped to No. 6 in the nation in both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls.

And the Bulldogs? As you know, Georgia (6-1, 3-1) is still residing in the Top 10 in the rankings, being No. 8 this week in the AP poll and No. 7 in the Coaches’ poll.

But, in contrast to the Florida Gators, this Georgia team — which is stacked with former 5 and 4-star high school players and was generally being billed before the season as the most talented in UGA history — hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations.

Take that fourth game of the season against Notre Dame in Athens. Sure, the Bulldogs won the game — and that’s the most important thing — but Georgia’s inability to put the Irish away until the game’s final minutes was a bit concerning. Mind you, the same Notre Dame team that was run out of the stadium 45-14 by Michigan this past weekend.

And then, the Oct. 5 game in Knoxville where Georgia was a prohibitive favorite over the struggling Volunteers. The Bulldogs got off to a puzzling slow start and in fact were still behind Tennessee 14-10 early in the second quarter before then getting their act together before halftime and going on to hammer the Vols, 43-14.

UGA Paint Line during the South Carolina game on Saturday, October 12, 2019
UGA Paint Line during the South Carolina game on Saturday, October 12, 2019

And the next Saturday came the inexplicable of all inexplicables … Georgia’s stunning 20-17, 2-overtime loss to 21-point underdog South Carolina. And between the hedges, too! It seemed the Bulldogs simply weren’t ready to play on an afternoon where Jake Fromm uncharacteristically threw three interceptions and also lost a fumble. Very rarely is a Smart-coached team not ready to play but that was the case on Oct. 12 when the players’ execution, coaches’ play-calling and everything else was out of kilter. Consequently, a bitter defeat to a Gamecock team that recently was blown out by Tennessee and has now lost five games this fall.

The Kentucky contest the following weekend wasn’t your normal college football game as it was played throughout in driving rain and also windy and cold conditions. But still, that doesn’t explain why Georgia’s offense couldn’t tally a single point in the first half against a struggling Wildcat defensive unit, thus making for a 0-0 first half. Again the offensive play calling by first-year coordinator James Coley was so predictable that it brought a chorus of boos as the Bulldogs left the field at intermission. To Coley’s credit, he began getting D’Andre Swift out on the edge in the second half and with Georgia’s stellar tailback running for 179 yards the Bulldogs struck for three touchdowns in the final two quarters to topple Kentucky 21-0.

Then came the open date of this past weekend. Now,  it’s a revitalized Florida team awaiting Georgia on Saturday at TIAA Bank Field, aka the old Gator Bowl, Alltel Stadium, EverBank Field … what have you.

And as the Bulldog players themselves have stated this week, this one is for all the marbles. Saturday’s victor will become the odds-on favorite to capture the SEC East crown and thereby earn a spot in the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, while the loser this weekend will have seen its 2019 championship aspirations evaporate into the adjacent St. Johns River.

Now, the questions for Georgia are, thusly: Will the Bulldogs’ mammoth offensive line, which was billed as the best in the nation before this season kicked off, finally live up to its laurels and enable the Georgia tailbacks to run the ball down the Gator defense’s collective throat? Will Fromm shake off the passing troubles he had against South Carolina and Kentucky and revert to the confident, precision-throwing quarterback that he is? Will the Bulldogs’ receiving corps get it together, get separation from the Florida DBs and reel off big plays Saturday? Can Georgia’s defense, tops in the SEC in almost every category, frustrate Florida quarterback Kyle Trask and his talented band of receivers? Will the Bulldogs’ special teams indeed be special Saturday with both Rodrigo Blankenship and Jake Camarda having big afternoons and the kick coverage teams being on point? And finally, will Georgia’s coaches dial-up unpredictable plays that will keep Mullen’s Gators guessing, both offensively and defensively?

Certainly, these highly-touted Bulldogs know what’s on the line in this football game. And if they are taken down by the Gators, all they have to do is to look in the mirror to see why it happened.

Georgia shouldn’t have to look for said mirror. The Bulldogs bring it together Saturday in Jacksonville and resemble that No. 3 team of the preseason rankings. Make it Dawgs 28, Gators 21 in a good one!

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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.