October 28, 2011

Will this be the time?

For all their critics who claim that Georgia's 5-2 start is due solely to the level of competition, Mark Richt's Bulldogs have a chance to quiet those claims with a win Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) at EverBank Field against arch-rival Florida.

Granted, the Gators (4-3, 2-3) aren't having the type of year they're used to having, although having to play back-to-back-to-back games against the likes of Alabama, LSU and Auburn would prove difficult for anybody.

Richt conceded as much earlier in the week, wondering aloud what would happen if the situations - and schedules - had been reversed.

"I know they've lost the last three, but they've played three ranked teams, and two of them are dominating everybody that they play. I think there is a perception that Georgia (5-2, 4-1) is on a roll and Florida is struggling, but if you flip those schedules I'm not sure it wouldn't be a whole lot different story for us and for them as far as winning," Richt said. "They are a very talented team as always, very fast team. That's the one thing that sticks out more than anything is just the team speed, offense, defense, special teams. We have issues to deal with in that regard."

It still beats the alternative. Although the four SEC teams Georgia has beaten have a combined league record of 1-15, the victories count the same and the Bulldogs find themselves tied with South Carolina for the top spot in the East Division heading into Saturday night's play.

The Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) play at Tennessee (3-4, 0-4) Saturday night.

No doubt the Bulldogs will be watching.

"Our focus is the Eastern Division. That's all we really have been thinking about, talking about and aspiring to win. We know this game could set us back but it wouldn't bury us," Richt said. "With the way things are happening in our league it doesn't count us out. We know if we win it, it doesn't count us in. It's important and it's huge and we know we are in much better shape if we win the game, but there's no guarantees either way win or lose."

There's no question on what side Bulldog fans want that coin to fall.

Georgia is 2-8 against Florida under Richt, and although a loss would not necessarily eliminate the Bulldogs from the conference race, that certainly won't help the feelings of a Bulldog Nation anxious for a little payback against their hated rivals to the South.

"We are paying more attention to this game this year because of the way the SEC East race is shaping up. We're tied for first in the East and we feel like we really have a chance to win the East as long as we do our part. This game is more about that than just the fact that we are playing Florida."

Defensive back Sanders Commings said the team is trying to take the same approach it has with its previous seven games.

"We need to look at this game as we do any other game on the schedule. Last year we had a chance to win but a couple of plays changed the outcome," Commings said. "If everyone stays within themselves and we play the way we are capable of playing, everything else will take care of itself."

Richt's attempted just about everything to find a successful formula against Florida, which has won 18 of the past 21 games between the two.

"We've tried different things. I know one year or two years, and one year in particular that I can remember we had a team meeting every day in the off week, bringing in somebody that played for Georgia or coached for Georgia that had success and let them talk to the group. I can't remember when we did that. I think we might have done that a couple years and one year we won and one year we lost. I think we are much better off focusing on the things that really truly matter, and that's what is your job, what is your assignments, what are you going to do if this happens, what are you going to do if that happens," he said. "When we get there, I don't think we are going to have any problems with emotions. I don't think we are going to have any problem with guys being excited to play that game. We practice crowd noise, practice schemes, try to get better fundamentally and get after it."

For his part, Gator coach Will Muschamp just wants to play.

Three straight losses haven't set well for the former Bulldog player, who despite having a bye week, like Georgia, wishes his team could have been able to play last week.

"I think that you never want to have a bye week after a loss, and we had three. It was very frustrating from that standpoint of living through that. But, again, you need to be technical about what you have done well, and what you haven't done well. You need to correct things that need to be corrected, you need to build on the positive - which there have been some positives and continue to move forward with our team," Muschamp said. "Do I think it came at a good point? Yes. Especially from the standpoint that we were a little banged up. We needed to get some guys healthy and we needed to get some guys out of the grind of the season. It's disappointing from the standpoint that we're coming off of three losses, it's always tough to have to sit through the weekend and not have an opportunity to go get it out of your mouth."

Speaking of health, two of the game's bigger storylines have centered around the health of two of the team's respective starters - Florida quarterback John Brantley and Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.

Brantley hasn't played since injuring his ankle against Alabama and only returned to practice Monday.

Muschamp lists the senior as "probable" although there is plenty of conjecture over whether or not Brantley will be healthy enough to effectively execute the Gator offense.

Mitchell, meanwhile, is listed as "doubtful" by Richt, who in the same sentence Wednesday he's "hopeful" the freshman will be able to play."

Georgia will definitely be without the services of nose guard Kwame Geathers and Shawn Williams for the first half due to their suspensions from the Vanderbilt game.

However, Richt is confident Todd Grantham's troops will still be able to do its job.

"When the defense plays good it helps everybody. I know when I was a play caller when the defense played good it was the offensive coordinator's best friend. Even if you were having a rough day it wasn't as noticeable. Field position, turnovers, points off defense - all those things help your team in general," he said. "If you make mistakes offensively with a turnover or a special teams mistake and your defensive can bow their neck and turn it into three points or no points that's huge. I like the fact that our defense is really beginning to become a championship defense. I wouldn't say we are there, but we are getting there."

Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at [email protected]