Big Game Hunting: Spurred on by an old friend, Florida looks to hand Georgia a rare ‘L’

Chicago
By Chicago 8 Min Read

Steve Spurrier is 78 years old. Florida fans probably can just go ahead and give up on their dreams of the “Head Ball Coach” someday pulling his blue-and-orange visor out of the closet, returning to Gainesville and making fall Saturdays magic again.

But guess who was on campus this week to chat up the Gators in advance of Florida (+14½) vs. No. 1 Georgia (2:30 p.m., CBS 2)? And, boy, did they ever need a pep talk. The mighty Bulldogs — No. 1 for the 19th straight poll and on a 34-game regular-season winning streak — have won two in a row, and five of the last six, in this monster rivalry series played on neutral ground at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

Nobody did more whuppin’ up on the Dawgs than Spurrier, who was 11-1 against them during his outrageously entertaining run as coach at his alma mater from 1990 to 2001. And nobody had more fun with it.

“Why is it that during the recruiting season they sign all the great players, but when it comes time to play the game we have all the great players?” he once said. “I don’t understand that. What happens to them?”

Much later, after his decade-plus as coach at South Carolina, Spurrier delivered this all-time-classic gem about the Gamecocks’ annual mid-September game against Georgia: “I always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.”

Good times. But about that inevitable tail-kicking …

Because isn’t Georgia (7-0) pretty much unstoppable? Only Miami in 2001-02 (21 weeks) and USC in 2003-05 (33 weeks) did the No. 1 thing for longer stretches. Georgia’s last regular-season loss was to Florida in 2020 — not many on this Gators team experienced that — but the Bulldogs were top-ranked for the last two meetings and dominated 34-7 and 42-20.

An upset Saturday might be the biggest one for the Gators in the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” since 2002, when they were coached and quarterbacked, respectively, by a couple of dudes named Ron Zook and Rex Grossman.

What can the Gators (5-2) hang their visors on this time? One, Georgia’s schedule has been weak, so we still don’t know if this team is as good as the last two that won national championships. Two, tight end Brock Bowers, the Bulldogs’ most talented offensive player — and a matchup nightmare like no other — will miss this game, and at least a few after that, with an ankle injury. Bowers’ backups can’t be nearly as scary, even if one of them is named Lawson Luckie.

We’ll have to see about Gators quarterback Graham Mertz, who has been good since transferring from Wisconsin. Is he a changed player from his mistake-filled days in Madison? Can a guy from Kansas who started for three seasons in the Big Ten just drop into a boiling SEC rivalry pot and handle it? On the other hand, it might be Bulldogs QB Carson Beck’s comfort zone. Even though Beck is a first-year starter, he — just like Tim Tebow — is a Jacksonvillian.

“It’s super-cool, growing up there my whole life,” Beck said. “To go back to my hometown, Florida-Georgia, it’s big-time.”

It is, indeed. Dawgs chomp down on another “W,” 34-20.

OTHER WEEK 9 PICKS

Maryland (-14) at Northwestern (11 a.m., BTN, 720-AM): The Terrapins can’t feel too awful about their 5-2 record, but the last two games were disappointing. First, they fell apart after a very strong first half at Ohio State. Then, they got upset on their home field by Illinois. After an off week, this game is an important restart for a good team with an always-dangerous passing attack led by QB Taulia Tagovailoa. The Wildcats (3-4) just don’t have the offense to keep up. Terps, 30-13.

Pittsburgh (+20½) at No. 14 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC 5, 780-AM): Last we saw the 6-2 Irish, they were rag-dolling Heisman Trophy quarterback Caleb Williams and USC. Then came an off week, meaning plenty of time to both bask in their best win of the season and gear back up for another game. Pitt is just 2-5, but do you know what it was up to as the Irish were beating USC? Try smoking Louisville 38-21. That’s the same Louisville that had topped the Irish by two touchdowns a week earlier. Uh-oh? No, no. Irish, 34-17.

No. 20 Duke (+4½) at No. 18 Louisville (2:30 p.m., ESPN): Hey, weren’t we just talking about the Cardinals (6-1)? It could be a rainy Homecoming, so running the ball — and protecting it — are keys. Don’t forget how physical the Cardinals were against Notre Dame or how physical the Blue Devils (5-2) were in coming within a whisker of beating Notre Dame, too. Basketball schools? Please. This one will be lots of fun. Duke, 23-20.

My favorite favorite: No. 3 Ohio State (-14½) at Wisconsin (6:30 p.m., NBC 5): Badgers QB Braedyn Locke made some great throws down the stretch of last week’s comeback win at Illinois, and he’ll be in again for injured starter Tanner Mordecai. Different animal, though, this Buckeyes defense. And if you watched the Illinois game, you know how much Locke struggled for three quarters. Buckeyes, 31-10.

My favorite underdog: No. 13 Utah (+6½) vs. No. 8 Oregon (2:30 p.m., FOX 32): You go to Rice-Eccles Stadium, and your offense stops working. Ask Florida about that. Ask UCLA. The Utes (6-1) haven’t lost on their home field since the 2020 opener against USC, and that’s their only “L” there since 2018. The Ducks (6-1) have an offense that’s supposed to work everywhere, and maybe it will in this one, too, but Kyle Whittingham’s Utes always have such a knack for finding answers. Say it the Vincent Gambini way: Utes, not youths, 29-28.

Last week: 6-1 straight-up, 4-3 against the spread.

Season to date: 45-18 straight-up, 35-24-4 against the spread.

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