Georgia-Florida looms large in playoff picture

The winner of this classic rivalry keeps its national title hopes alive. The loser will probably need a few extra cocktails.

Things looked beyond bleak for the No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on that early November day in Jacksonville, Florida, as it seemed the sun had begun to set on them and their 1980 national championship hopes.

The clock inside the old Gator Bowl Stadium showed 1:03 to play in the game and 20th-ranked Florida leading 21-20 when junior quarterback Benjamin Franklin “Buck” Belue broke his huddle in the Georgia end zone facing third-and-11 at the Bulldogs’ 7-yard-line. Hanging in the balance was an eventual undefeated season, a trip to the Sugar Bowl, a 17-10 win over Notre Dame and legendary coach Vince Dooley’s only national title.

Lindsay Scott | Photo courtesy Georgia Athletics

It was so bad it is said that even the late, great Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, Southern humorist and self-proclaimed “No. 1 Georgia fan of all time” Lewis Grizzard left the stadium early only to learn of its outcome in the parking lot. Belue didn’t know that Grizzard had deserted his beloved Dawgs or that all those accolades lay ahead. He only knew the play he just called was the most important of a special season to that point.

According to several Georgia insiders, the terminology from the Bulldog playbook was simply “Left 76” of “L-76”, which told the junior Lindsay Scott to go downfield 18 yards, curl into an open spot, catch the ball from his roommate, Belue, and hold on for dear life. What unfolded over the next few heartbeats is simply one of college football’s greatest…plays…ever.

Who better to pick up the story than gravel-voiced Larry Munson, the Bulldogs’ beloved radio play-by-play man for 42 years. Munson had several handfuls of truly classic calls in more than four decades behind the microphone, and this raucous exhortation on which he even broke his chair, was undoubtedly one of his best:

Scott’s electrifying, mind-numbing 93-yard touchdown run gave Georgia a stunning 26-21 victory and supporters on both sides of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” reason to bend their elbow a few extra times that night.

Of all the thousands of plays he witnessed and all the outcomes he saw in 24 years at Georgia, Dooley called this the greatest. In the book Dooley’s Playbook: The 34 Most Memorable Plays in Georgia Football History, Dooley said, “I had it as No. 1, and probably 98 percent of the Georgia people would agree to that. Not only did it win that game, it continued on to the undefeated, undisputed national championship. Which never would have happened if that one play had never happened.”

As with any good receiver, Scott wanted the ball when the game was most in doubt. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound wideout from Jesup, Georgia, felt that if Belue could get it to him, he could keep the game alive.

“All receivers think we’re open all the time, and we think if you get us the ball we can make a difference,” Scott said in a story on DawgNation.com. “I always thought that way. Just get me the ball, and I’ll make something happen. Maybe not 93 yards, but we can keep the chains moving.”

Belue celebrates with Scott. | Photo courtesy Georgia Athletics

Belue believed his roomie was definitely the man to go to. “Before the snap, I knew where the ball was going,” Belue said in the same DawgNation.com story. “It was going to Lindsey. We had some other receivers out on the play, but, gosh, this was now or never, so you just believed the ball had to go to the right guy at the right time. And the right guy was Lindsey in that situation.”

This year’s matchup bears a certain resemblance to that classic game from Nov. 8, 1980. Once again the Bulldogs, ranked seventh in this week’s Associated Press poll, are clinging to their national championship hopes like a man hanging outside a 20th-story window digs his fingernails into the window sill. And the resurgent Gators of first-year head coach Dan Mullen, ranked ninth, come in with the same 6-1 mark they had in 1980 and visions of derailing the Dawgs en route to a possible championship run themselves.

Georgia defensive back Johnathan Abram (25) makes a tackle against the Florida Gators at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (Photo by John Kelley) | Courtesy Georgia Athletics

It shapes up to be one of the best games of the entire SEC season, with the Eastern Division lead (both teams stand at 4-1 in conference), a trip to Atlanta in six weeks, and college football playoff consideration on the line. In short, it could be another classic.

The two teams come in so evenly matched you couldn’t slide a sheet of copy paper between them. Georgia scores 39 points per game, and Florida 34.4. Georgia allows 16.3 ppg, and Florida 16.6. Georgia rushes for 226.3 yards per game, and Florida 197.3. Georgia’s defense allows 310.6 yards per game, and Florida’s 323.3. Florida allows 160.1 yard passing per game, and Georgia 174.3. See what we mean?

The general consensus seems to be that this one will be decided by which team runs the ball best. Though their overall 6-1 marks rank both in the Top 10 record wise nationally, both are near the bottom of the SEC in rushing defense. Georgia’s defense allows 136.3 yards rushing per game, which doesn’t seem too bad until you realize it puts them eighth in the SEC. And Florida’s run defense allows 163.1 yards per game, ranking it 11th out of 14 teams.

Georgia tailback Sony Michel (1) against the Florida Gators at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (Photo by John Kelley) | Courtesy Georgia Athletics

In the rushing department, Georgia junior Elijah Holyfield ranks 13th in conference with 488 yards rushing (4 TDs), and D’Andre Swift is 19th with 362 yards (4 TDs). Florida’s Jordan Scarlett is 17th with 381 yards (3 TDs) and Lamical Perine is 18th with 376 yards (3 TDs). The wildcard here could be Perine, who has had the hot hand lately, rushing for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns in Florida’s last two games – wins over LSU and Vanderbilt.

While Georgia coach Kirby Smart calls Florida’s trio of starting wide receivers Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond, the “best overall receiving corps we have gone against” the real deciding factor may come down to quarterbacking.

Amazingly, the advantage here could go to Florida and Feleipe Franks. The Gator sophomore has not been great, ranking ninth in conference with 1,406 yards passing, though he is tied for third overall with 15 TD passes. Franks falls right behind Bulldog sophomore Jake Fromm in yards passing (1,409) and just ahead of Fromm and his 14 TD passes.

Georgia’s John Jenkins, Garrison Smith, and Alec Ogletree play defense (Photo by Paul Abell) | Courtesy Georgia Athletics

The intrigue here is that there have been recent rumblings about true freshman Justin Fields getting more time under center – former UGA quarterback Jacob Eason says that sounds familiar – so it will be interesting to see what happens here. If you see a good bit of Fields in this game, you have to wonder if slow and steady with Franks might be the difference.

This one has been so hotly contested over the years that the two schools can’t even agree on how many times they have played. Georgia says it’s 96. Florida says it’s 95. So of course they disagree on the overall series record as well with Georgia listing it as 51-43-2 and Florida 50-43-2 in Georgia’s favor.

There is little doubt the Gators have dominated over the last three decades, winning 21 of the 28 games played since 1990, which coincided with the “Old Ball Coach” Steve Spurrier returning to his alma mater that year. From that point, the Gators won 13 of the next 14, 15 of the next 17 and 20 of the next 23. In that span they won seven in row at one stretch and six straight in another. 

“I think historically it’s still the biggest game the Florida Gators play,” Spurrier said this week.

Georgia, which by its accounting won 24 of the first 30 meetings in the series, has won four of the last seven matchups and looks to make it two straight after drubbing the Gators 42-7 last year.

There is no doubt this one has the makings to be another cliff-hanger, and like Belue-to-Scott in 1980, it will come as no surprise if we see something else that makes us fall off our chairs in amazement. H&A

Kickoff for Georgia versus Florida is set for 2:30 p.m. CDT on CBS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed is the former award-winning sports editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star and editor of Saints Digest, the official team publication of the New Orleans Saints. He is a two-time winner of the Alabama Sports Writers Association Herby Kirby Award for the best sports story in the state of Alabama and has received numerous writing awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, the National Motorsports Press Association. and the Alabama Press Association. He is also the author of NASCAR legend Donnie Allison's biography "Donnie Allison: As I Recall."
Jimmy Creed

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