ATHENS — With Georgia slumping to a 4-3 start and about to take on No. 1 Florida, just a year removed from a 49-10 drubbing by the Gators, it probably shouldn’t be surprising to hear numerous complaints from fans, criticism of coaches and questions looming about the future.
What is surprising, however, is that many of those questions, critiques and complaints this week are aimed at the Gators.
Despite an unblemished record and dominion over the BCS rankings through seven games, Florida’s usually high-flying offense has been hovering rather low to the ground, and that has fans, commentators and even head coach Urban Meyer a bit concerned. But the sluggish start for the Gators isn’t fooling Georgia.
“No matter when we play them, we know we’re going to get Florida’s best shot,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We know their emotions will be high. They’re going to give us their all. There’s no way you can’t get pumped for this game.”
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Motivation may not be the problem, but the passing game certainly could be for the Gators.
Florida ranks 80th nationally in passing offense, and former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow has thrown just three touchdowns compared to four interceptions in SEC play this season. He has thrown for more than 200 yards just twice this year. Earlier this week, Meyer told reporters he thought Tebow was “not playing at his highest level.” That might constitute stinging criticism from a coach who once referred to Tebow as the best college player of his era.
Without last year’s star receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy — both of whom are starting in the NFL now — the Gators have struggled to create a vertical attack, and the lack of big plays have been in stark contrast to last year’s acrobatics.
“It’s going to be hard to replace Percy Harvin,” Georgia safety Bryan Evans said. “They still have a lot of speed and a lot of talent. They just need that one breakout player to emerge like Percy was before, and I don’t think they’ve found that player yet.”
That’s music to the ears of Georgia’s 90th-ranked pass defense, but on film, the Bulldogs aren’t seeing quite as many reasons to be skeptical of Florida’s offense as some fans might be.
On the scoreboard, the Gators haven’t looked dominant. A year ago, Florida went 7-1 in conference games, winning by an average margin of nearly 33 points. This year, it’s been a struggle, with four of its five wins in SEC play coming by 10 points or fewer.
The way Curran sees it, however, a win is a win, and Florida has won them all. That’s all the reminders Georgia needs that the Gators still have plenty of bite.
“They’re not putting up 45 points a game, and their fans are used to seeing that big deficit, so of course there are going to be a few complaints when they’re not beating teams like Arkansas that people expect them to kill,” Curran said. “But I think people forget this is the SEC, and anybody can win on any given Saturday with all the top competition that you faced.”
Expectations in the SEC are one thing, but Georgia’s defenders know the reality. After all, while Florida may be getting some rare tweaking by the pundits, Georgia’s defense has been listening to criticism for more than a year.
So while Evans figures the Gators might have a bit of extra motivation this week, they won’t be the only team with something to prove.
“Any time you can stop Tebow and that offense, that’s a big plus for the defense,” Evans said. “We’re going in with a chip on our shoulder, too. We don’t want to give up any points, and we want to help out our offense as much as we can.”
For a defense that has already allowed three quarterbacks to throw for at least 300 yards against it this season, that might sound like a bit of a stretch.
For a defense that has allowed 38 points or more in seven of its past 13 games, stopping the Gators won’t be an easy task.
And for a unit that watched helplessly as Florida ran up the score a year ago, the battle plan for a victory might seem complex.
But stranger things have happened, defensive end Justin Houston said. After all, midway through the season, the No. 1 team and the most heralded quarterback in the country are earning scorn from their own fans. With a little luck, he said, Georgia hopes to provide a bit more fuel for the fire this week.
“I guess when you’re No. 1 in the country, you’ve got a big target on your chest, so everybody’s trying to knock them off,” Houston said. “Everybody’s giving them their best shot. Hopefully we do the same.”