Thursday October 29th, 2009

ATHENS, Ga. -- The photos hang throughout Georgia's locker room. They show Florida coach Urban Meyer pushing the tips of the fingers on his left hand into the palm of his right to form a T during the fourth quarter of last season's loss to the Gators. They've hung for a while, just to remind the Bulldogs how it felt to sit through two late timeouts during a 39-point beat down.

Georgia players probably should be madder, but most consider the rub-it-in timeouts a fair retaliation for their own full-team stomp in the end zone in 2007. "They won," quarterback Joe Cox said. "They had the right to do whatever they wanted to do. It did really let you sit there and think about how bad you were getting beat. We did our celebration the year before when we won. They did their timeouts when they won. They got us back."

Georgia needs no extra motivation this week. The Bulldogs, already with three losses and beset on all sides by critics, understand perfectly that they're playing a potential season-maker in Jacksonville on Saturday. That's why Georgia, coming off a bye week and armed with the knowledge of Florida's flaws that Arkansas and Mississippi State recently exposed, might be the season's most dangerous 17-point underdog.

"We're not going to the national championship," safety Bryan Evans said. "We might as well ruin it for somebody else."

Those words probably bounce off anyone who has only followed the series recently. Since 1990, Florida has gone 16-3 against Georgia. But to older Gators, who for decades watched the Bulldogs spoil their SEC title dreams, Georgia remains always dangerous. "There are ghosts," said Lee McGriff, a former Florida player and assistant coach who now serves as an analyst for Florida's radio network.

Those seeking spooky parallels need not look back too far. If anything, the run-up to this meeting is the mirror image of the run-up to the 2005 edition of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Consider the similarities.

In 2005, Florida had an open date heading into the Georgia game. Undefeated and No. 4-ranked Georgia was coming off a closer-than-it-should-have-been win against Arkansas. In 2009, Georgia enjoyed the open date. Undefeated and No. 1-ranked Florida, meanwhile, is coming off a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Mississippi State.

In 2005, Florida suffered a 21-17 loss at LSU two weeks before the Georgia game. In the fourth quarter of that loss, Florida failed to advance the ball past its own 30-yard line on four possessions. Meyer shed tears in his postgame press conference, and in the aftermath, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen shifted from the sideline to the press box. In 2009, Georgia suffered a 45-19 loss at Tennessee three weeks before the Florida game. In that game, the Bulldogs made Volunteers quarterback/punching bag Jonathan Crompton look like Dan Marino. Also, after another lackluster performance by the Georgia offense, coordinator Mike Bobo shifted from the press box to the sideline.

In 2005, Florida coaches were lampooned during the two weeks of Georgia preparation. Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy took the brunt of the criticism, but plenty went toward first-year coach Meyer as fans wondered why the Gators hadn't simply rehired Steve Spurrier after firing Ron Zook. "If coach Spurrier was out there," one letter writer opined to The Orlando Sentinel, "there is no doubt in my mind we would have whipped LSU soundly."

In 2009, Bobo, Georgia offensive line coach Stacey Searels and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez took the brunt of the criticism, and the potential for gallows humor skyrocketed when Georgia assistants took a mandatory furlough day last week. That inspired Macon Telegraph beat writer David Hale to imagine how Searels spent his day off. It also inspired Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley, who on Thursday posted five ways the Bulldogs could topple the Gators. Guess what came in at No. 5? "Willie Martinez takes another furlough day," Bradley wrote. Martinez's boss, Mark Richt, hasn't been spared, either. Richt, the longest tenured coach in the SEC, has two SEC titles on his mantle but no signature wins since the Bulldogs beat Florida in 2007. Earlier this month, Georgia athletic director Damon Evans acknowledged in an e-mail to the Journal-Constitution that he does have "some concerns" about where the Bulldogs are. Obviously, all athletic directors are concerned about their programs, but they rarely acknowledge that in the media at such a touchy time.

In 2005, Meyer and his staff overhauled Florida's offensive scheme and used a limited playbook that played to the strengths of the Gators' few healthy playmakers. The result was a 14-10 upset of the Bulldogs that took the heat off the first-year coaching staff. In 2009, Richt and his assistants have remained quiet about any schematic changes. They do have inspiration, though. Mississippi State gave teams a clinic on how to handle Florida's offense, and a week earlier Arkansas managed to squeeze off a few big plays against the Gators' usually impenetrable defense.

The one major difference between Florida in 2005 and Georgia in 2009 is that while Bulldogs starting quarterback D.J. Shockley missed the 2005 game with an injury, Gators starter Tim Tebow is healthy. Tebow isn't exactly in mint condition, though. He has carried 66 times in the past three weeks. In 2007, Georgia faced a Tebow slowed by a shoulder injury from one carry too many against Kentucky the previous week, and the Bulldogs sacked him six times.

Whether Martinez can dial up a defense that can repeat that feat remains a nagging question. Tennessee's Crompton threw for a career-high 310 yards and four touchdowns against the Bulldogs. The Gators haven't shown much of a downfield passing game, but neither had Tennessee until it faced Georgia.

For his part, Martinez has ignored the criticism lobbed his way. "It doesn't bother me," said Martinez, who traveled to Frostproof, Fla., last week to assure Georgia recruit Nickell Robey that he wasn't about to be fired. "You focus on what you really can control, and that's how kids prepare. That's what we do. I really don't pay attention to a lot of that stuff that goes on, because that's not going to really help get your team ready to play. I may come off as somebody that doesn't care, but that's not true. That stuff is not going to help us win games. It's not going to help us get recruits."

Like Robey, Martinez's players have heard the complaints. Cornerback Brandon Boykin said the defensive backs gathered before Georgia's 34-10 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 17 and vowed to silence their coach's critics. "We came together and said they're talking about our coach, basically," Boykin said. "It's up to us. He's not out there playing in the game. It's up to us going into these last few games."

So while the Bulldogs would love to spoil Florida's dream of an undefeated season, that isn't their primary objective this week. It's been a long couple of months in Athens, and Georgia players and coaches desperately want to offer proof they can solve their myriad issues. The defensive backs want to prove Martinez's worth. The offensive line wants to match Searels' intensity. The quarterbacks, running backs and receivers want to celebrate touchdowns with Bobo on the sideline.

"We need a win for our season," Cox said. "We're not worried about what they finish up doing or if they can make it to a championship game. We want to win this game for us, because we need it."

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