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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Gators?: Notes on Restoring Balance in the Georgia Bulldogs' Most Important College Football Rivalry (Part III)

In my ongoing effort to get back into the swing of things following last Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss, I have attempted to put my time to productive use by asking how to address the problem of the Georgia Bulldogs’ continuing struggles with the Florida Gators. Since I do not believe we can resolve this conundrum by minimizing the importance of the game, I think we need to focus on the psychology of the players (John Smoltz, anyone?) and otherwise stress two external factors that can play a big role in determining the outcome of the game. While not intended to provide an exhaustive list, these are they:

1. Game-plan and condition for four quarters of football. The Bulldogs are getting better at making in-game adjustments, but the staff needs to get better at pregame preparation. As much as we emphasize the open date (more about which anon), the fact is that the Gators make better use of their bye weeks than Georgia does. Florida had the open date in 2005, and the Saurians’ preparations enabled them to score two first-quarter touchdowns. The Red and Black shut them out the rest of the way, but Florida held on for the 14-10 win. Urban Meyer obviously used the Gators’ bye week to good effect this year, as well. The Bulldogs’ use of last year’s extra week to get ready was, to put it delicately, lacking.

Florida is dictating the terms of the engagement, and you don’t have to be Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz to know that favors the Gators. Instead of digging out of halftime holes, the ‘Dawgs need to take the field knowing they’re ready to play. Adequate preparation, not black helmets, provides the confidence needed to win. Aaron Murray’s amped-up early misfires in front of the home-state crowd recalled the performance of another second-year collegian and first-year starter, Clemson quarterback Homer Jordan, an Athens native who (in Danny Ford’s words) "was uptight and anxious" in Sanford Stadium in the Tigers’ 1980 loss to the Bulldogs. That didn’t prevent Jordan from having a fine college career, but it did show a lack of mental preparedness heading into the big game.

While I have criticized (I believe fairly) some of Urban Meyer’s actions and decisions, this is merely a matter of good coaching. He schemes to maximize the talents of his personnel, he game-plans to play to his team’s strengths and his opponent’s weaknesses, and he adjusts to stay one step ahead of the opposition. That’s why you never hear Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson asking why Coach Meyer isn’t utilizing his best offensive weapon for three quarters.

The importance of playing a four-quarter game is evident in an examination of Mark Richt’s won-lost record. During the first nine seasons of Coach Richt’s tenure, the Bulldogs were 67-9 when scoring first, 70-7 when leading at the half, and 77-5 when leading after three quarters. Coach Richt’s Georgia squads were 3-1 when tied at the break and 5-0 when tied after 45 minutes of play. However, those same Red and Black teams were 23-18 when surrendering the initial points of the outing to the opposition, 17-19 when behind at halftime, and 8-22 when trailing entering the fourth period.

Similar trends have continued this autumn. In 2010, Georgia has never led in any of the Bulldogs’ five losses, and the Classic City Canines have never trailed in any of the Athenians’ four victories. This fall, you’ve known which way the wind was blowing as soon as the first points were put up on the scoreboard.

The symbolic gesture of raising four fingers to the tune of "Krypton Fanfare" represents an important reality: toughness in the fourth quarter is critical to victory in a competitive contest. Mark Richt’s teams exhibited that spirit during his first nine years on the job, posting a 30-17 ledger in games decided by seven or fewer points and mounting 18 second-half comebacks to card victories. In 2010, however, the ‘Dawgs have gone 0-3 in outings resolved by a touchdown or less.

Playing four full quarters of football has historically been a hallmark of the Georgia program. In the 1980s, when the Bulldogs and the Tigers annually played rock-ribbed bone-jarring slugfests, Clemson coach Danny Ford stated of Vince Dooley’s teams: "They’re taught they can whip us in the fourth quarter." No less a gridiron luminary than Bear Bryant expressed it best when he said, "Winning isn't imperative, but getting tougher in the fourth quarter is."

Four-quarter preparation requires the mental toughness with which sports psychologists can help, the game-planning that instills confidence and prevents halftime deficits, and the conditioning to outlast the opponent in the final fifteen minutes. The latter prerequisite to victory requires upgrading our weightlifting program.

Anyone who doubts the importance of strength and conditioning need only look at the reaction of Alabama fans when I suggested hiring the Crimson Tide’s strength and conditioning coach. They know that the bedrock foundation for Nick Saban’s success is being put down in the weight room in the offseason. During the Vince Dooley era, opponents knew the Bulldogs were going to be physical for 60 minutes; when Brian VanGorder had an Athens mailing address, the other side knew that, too. We need to get that back.

My final thought on toughening up the team for the long haul involves adapting the motivational technique of having former Georgia players speak to the team beforehand. I like that addition to the repertoire, and I hope it continues, but I believe Coach Richt should think outside the box a bit on this one. I would suggest having the following former Bulldog address the football team before next year’s Florida game: John Isner.

Initially, it had been my intention to offer both suggestions in a single posting, but that first one ended up being longer than I had planned (surprise, surprise), so I’m going to save the second suggestion for a separate posting. Stay tuned. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!