Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football for SEC fans, unearthed this doozy of a fact earlier in the week:
The last three times Georgia has taken a top-five ranking into the Cocktail Party, it has lost to Florida.
This game has often been closely-fought and volatile, and favorites — even when they survive — rarely feel secure.
In 2012, Will Muschamp’s one really good Florida team lost its only regular season game against Georgia… because the Cocktail Party is often drunk.
You get the point: Georgia needs to be sober this week… and Florida fans shouldn’t lose hope. Yes, if these teams played a best-of-seven series, Georgia would probably win in five games, if not four. In one game, anything can happen.
In the Cocktail Party, it often does.
Here is what Florida needs to do to — if not beat Georgia — at least give itself a good chance.
1 – SERVE MIXED DRINKS
If it’s a Cocktail Party, Florida needs to make Georgia woozy and blurry with potent mixtures of alcohol. The Gators can’t serve conventional fare. They are coming off a bye week, which enables them to install all kinds of fresh flavors and treat this game as a mini-Super Bowl.
Let’s not kid ourselves, Part I: Florida’s defense will have to stand tall in this game. The Gators will not win 41-38. A 27-24 score is more realistic.
Let’s not kid ourselves, Part II: Barring kick returns or blocked punts for scores — or takeaways in Georgia’s red zone, all those obvious (yet unlikely) scenarios — Florida’s offense is the epicenter of this game. The UF defense will become peripheral to the outcome if the offense has nothing to offer against Kirby Smart’s defense, which has been the true rock of this team even more than the UGA offense has.
To that end, the Gators can’t expect to line up and knock the snot out of Georgia’s front seven. More precisely, they can’t expect to run wild the way Will Muschamp’s last Florida team did in 2014. Florida was supposed to get smoked in that Cocktail Party yet ran wild against Georgia’s defense. The 2017 Gators would love to do that, but they can’t expect to pull off that feat — not at the start of the game, and not for 60 minutes.
If Florida is going to score at a reasonable rate against Georgia — without help from the defense or special teams — it must get the Bulldogs off balance and mix things up, not just in terms of run or pass, but in terms of horizontal and vertical plays… and most of all, in terms of quarterbacks and lines of attack.
No, Malik Zaire shouldn’t start. No, he shouldn’t get most of the snaps… but he should play.
Gator fans recall when he was inserted into the Michigan game and was clearly not in command of his teammates or the playbook. The move seemed understandable at the time in a broader context, but in retrospect, Zaire wasn’t ready. He was still catching up.
Now, after a bye week, Zaire should be able to exhibit enough command of the offense that he can come in for a few series of downs with his own specialized package of plays.
I understand that he simply hasn’t been very good — otherwise, he would have supplanted Feleipe Franks a long time ago — but Zaire can serve a few basic purposes in this contest.
A ) He can represent a change of pace.
B ) Playing a few series can give Franks a few select breathers, which will enable him to study the game more and realize that he doesn’t bear the FULL responsibility for the UF offense. That is the kind of epiphany which can often make an athlete play more within himself and with confidence.
Playing Zaire in spots can help Franks be a better No. 1 quarterback — not in future weeks, but in this game. The move would recall the time Steve Spurrier played Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise in a memorable 32-29 upset win over Florida State in 1997. Johnson played with fewer burdens and more focus because he knew he didn’t have to do everything himself.
Tactics have value for what they do to the opposition (creating confusion and hesitation), but also for what they can do to inspire and energize one’s own players. Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier have to think outside the box against Georgia.
2 – CONSIDER TEMPO
Along the lines of point No. 1, Florida doesn’t need to use the same pace in its offensive approach all the time, much as it doesn’t have to use the same quarterback on every play. Just as using Malik Zaire doesn’t mean he should get a majority of snaps, Florida should also realize that a sped-up offense in select situations does not mean a hurry-up offense should be the Gators’ primary modus operandi on Saturday in Jacksonville.
However, using a hurry-up or no-huddle offense in spots will give Florida a chance to limit the UGA pass rush, and also make reads simpler for Franks. A fast tempo — used selectively — can eliminate some guesswork for Franks and enable him to think less. Accordingly, Franks can play more freely and naturally process what he sees on the field.
Another realistic point about the value of tempo: With Tyrie Cleveland possibly returning to the lineup, Florida might not have a full playbook available in terms of ambitious shots down the field. Franks will certainly need to make some plays, but expecting him to dazzle seems ambitious at this point. Adjusting tempo to make Georgia guess and get the Bulldogs out of alignment emphasizes non-play-call factors, which thereby relieves at least some strain on the whole offense, from Mac and Nussmeier to Franks to Cleveland and the other skill players.
I doubt Georgia expects a hurry-up offense on Saturday. That’s part of the point: McElwain and Nussmeier have to give the Dawgs a lot of looks. Variety and unpredictability in terms of pace — not just play selection — can pry open opportunities to get big gains and score.
3 – FIRST THINGS FIRST
Coaches love to talk about how this game is 60 minutes and can be won in the fourth quarter. Coaches revel in having the tougher team who wears down the opposition and finishes with a flourish.
However, in order to be able to win the game in the fourth quarter, Florida has to stay with Georgia in the first half. No SEC team has been able to do that yet in 2017. Only Notre Dame has given UGA a game over the course of four quarters, and that was a night (in Week 2) when Jake Fromm was thrust into the fire as a starting quarterback following the Week 1 injury to Jacob Eason.
Washington had crushed its first six foes in 2017, but when Arizona State jumped the Huskies and took a 13-0 lead to the halftime locker room, Washington didn’t know how to react to game and scoreboard pressure. The Huskies didn’t settle down until it was too late, and the 2-3 Sun Devils stunned the 6-0 crew from U-Dub. Exerting that level of game pressure is paramount for Florida. It needs to get on top of this game in the first half. It cannot expect to rally late — not with Franks’ limitations as a passer against a Georgia defense which will feast on a predictable attack.
Mac and Nussmeier might need to set up some trick plays in the third quarter and sit on them until after halftime, but if they feel a second-quarter play could mean the difference between being up seven at halftime and being tied, they need to spend that play-calling capital then and there, instead of waiting for a later point in time.