You wouldn’t expect much to change over two weeks, but both Georgia and Florida have used the bye week in recent years to get an edge for the WLOCP.
In 2007, Georgia needed a late fumble and field goal to escape Vanderbilt with a 20-17 win. At that point in the season the Dawgs were 5-2 and just off a humbling blowout loss at Tennessee and a near-loss to Vandy. In fact, the last-second win at Vanderbilt snapped a six-game losing streak against SEC East opponents.
Two things changed for Georgia going into the 2007 Florida game. One, the celebration, we’ll never forget. The other, more substantive, change was a renewed running game. Redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno had only one 100+ yard game before Vandy, and he never had more than 20 carries. Moreno broke out against the Commodores with 28 carries and 157 yards. Though Georgia hit a couple of big pass plays for scores against Florida, Moreno stole the show with 33 carries, 188 yards, and three touchdowns. He rolled off five straight games over 100 yards as Georgia salvaged the season with a Sugar Bowl bid.
In 2010, Florida was going through some tough times on offense. They had lost three in a row going into the bye, and their latest 10-7 loss to Mississippi State was just ugly. Injuries in the backfield left the running game ineffective, and new quarterback John Brantley was straining to carry the offense.
Florida’s offensive coaches spent the bye week installing an up-tempo package that featured freshman Trey Burton rotating in to take snaps. The Gators rotated quarterbacks based on what they saw from the defense and found a ground game with Burton who ran for a career best 17 carries, 110 yards, and 2 TDs. As if two quarterbacks weren’t enough, the Gators added Jordan Reed to the mix for a couple of power runs from the quraterback spot. Georgia’s defense was confused by the rotation, and the tempo gassed the Dawgs. The Gators racked up 450 yards of offense, 231 of which came on the ground.
Georgia’s 2012 bye came two weeks before the Florida game, and the Dawgs had to survive a trip to Kentucky first. The transformation was just as dramatic though. Shawn Williams’ public challenge to his teammates between the Kentucky and Florida games helped to bring about a much different defense in Jacksonville that maintained a high level for the rest of the season. Georgia found themselves in an ugly physical game against Florida, and a less tough team wouldn’t have made it out with a win.
Will 2013 see a bye-week transformation from either team? Injuries will play a big part in that answer. Florida is one of the few schools that can put up an injury report comparable to Georgia’s. The Gators expect to get a couple of defensive starters, Damien Jacobs and Ronald Powell, back for Jacksonville. Georgia anticipates the returns of starters Todd Gurley, Michael Bennett, and Tray Matthews.
In terms of strategy, Will Muschamp has pulled his coaching staff off the recruiting trail for a bit of introspection. There’s only so much that can be done at this point, but one area Muschamp identified is along the offensive line. The Gators have allowed ten sacks over their past two games and have rushed for a total of 170 yards in those losses. Muschamp might dip into his reserves – a JUCO transfer and a freshman – and “he also anticipates using more seven- and eight-man protection schemes.”
For Georgia’s part, the bye week priorities are getting as many people back from the injury list as possible and then shoring up the defense and special teams. The special teams problems aren’t really an issue of personnel or strategy – it’s just going to be a question of execution in the game. The defense has shown a bit of improvement over the past two games, but it hasn’t taken much for the wheels to come off. The most critical area to watch on the defense will be in the secondary. Whether or not Josh Harvey-Clemons is able to play, there are some personnel questions to answer. Is Swann kept as the nickel (star) defensive back where he looked more comfortable at Vanderbilt? Does Sheldon Dawson earn more time at cornerback? What the heck happened to Langley?
Whether it’s through simplification, a return to health, or improved execution, Georgia’s defense is going to have to play a larger role due to the injuries on offense. It’s not quite as simple as the toughness challenge a year ago, but a large part of Georgia’s chances in Jacksonville depend on the Georgia defense making sure that Florida continues to struggle on offense.
It’s hard to believe that one of these preseason top 10 teams will leave Jacksonville with a three-game losing streak and a .500 record, but that’s the kind of month it’s been. I am interested though to see what both teams come up with during the bye – either team’s season could be salvaged or lost, and these coaches know how much emphasis fans put on the game.