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Both have a seven, who has luck?

Florida and Georgia bring the nation's No. 7 offense, No. 7 defense to Jacksonville.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- Get out those swizzle sticks. The 2000 version of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is going to be a potent mix of seven and seven.

But this is no blend.

Florida has the nation's seventh-ranked scoring offense at 42.1 points a game. Georgia has the nation's seventh-ranked scoring defense at 13.4 a game.

"We're going to go out there and really attack their secondary and try to put up points," UF receiver Alex Willis said. "They know we're going to throw the ball a lot, so they're going to buckle down in the secondary and try to stop our passing."

Welcome to the front lines -- also known as the passing lanes -- of Saturday's annual border war between No. 8 Florida and No. 13 Georgia at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, where the loser no longer will control its destiny in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.

Florida's passing game is hitting on all cylinders with freshman quarterback Rex Grossman, who threw eight touchdowns and no interceptions in victories against Louisiana State (41-9) and Auburn (38-7). Grossman is the nation's most efficient passer with a 195.69 rating, and the Gators average 320.7 yards passing.

Georgia's defense is looking to regain form. Revamped this season by coordinator Gary Gibbs, the Bulldogs led the SEC and were ranked among the top-10 nationally a week ago. Then Kentucky happened. In a wild 34-30 victory, the Bulldogs surrendered 528 passing yards to freshman quarterback Jared Lorenzen.

Before the Kentucky game, Georgia's defense and special teams had allowed eight plays covering 25 yards or more, none for touchdowns. Against the Wildcats, who lead the SEC in passing despite an 0-5 league record, Georgia gave up six big plays, including touchdowns of 86 and 75 yards.

Georgia coach Jim Donnan blamed a rash of poor tackling on light-contact practices intended to help the Bulldogs heal from nagging injuries. Not this week.

"We usually practice like the Russians are in St. Louis," Donnan said. "We're going to practice like we normally do and bite the bullet."

When it comes to big plays, UF coach Steve Spurrier wrote the book. Florida has 24 plays of 25 yards or more, including seven passing touchdowns. Of freshman Jabar Gaffney's 10 touchdowns, only three have been fewer than 25 yards.

Still, the Gators are wary.

"It doesn't matter what they did against Kentucky," Grossman said. "Kentucky can nit-pick you and throw little short passes that screw you up. That's not what we like to do, so Georgia can do a bunch of new things against us."

Under Gibbs, Georgia's third coordinator in as many seasons, the Bulldogs take few risks. Gone are the blitzes, stunts and bump-and-run coverages that used to leave them vulnerable. Instead, there is a solid, five-man front anchored by tackles Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud and a zone system that avoids one-on-one matchups in the secondary.

"This year their style is a little more conservative," Spurrier said. "Their front seven feels like it's good enough that they don't have to bring a lot of safeties up to help with tackling the way most teams do. They play a little more like they used to in the '80s."

Or, maybe, Oklahoma in the '80s.

Gibbs, 48, spent what he thought was his entire football career at Oklahoma, one spanning 23 seasons from his days as a linebacker in the mid-1970s to his forced resignation as coach in 1994.

He had been in private business for five years when Donnan called last spring with a surprising proposition to rekindle the days when Donnan called the offense and Gibbs the defense as Sooner assistants in the late 1980s. With Gibbs as coordinator, OU had the nation's No. 1-ranked defense from 1985-87.

"It came out of the blue," Gibbs said of Donnan's call. "But it just made sense to me."

Since his arrival, the Bulldogs have gone from leaky -- they gave up the most yardage in the SEC last season -- to stingy. In 18 trips inside the red zone, Georgia opponents have scored seven touchdowns. Six times, the Bulldogs held teams scoreless: two turnovers, two fourth-down stands, one missed field goal and one expired clock.

Florida is flourishing in the red zone: 27 touchdowns and seven field goals in 40 trips. But the Gators have not faced Georgia, which means things could change.

"I think most of their defensive players made preseason all-conference, didn't they?" said Spurrier, exaggerating slightly the Bulldogs' four honorees among 10 returning starters. "They've got a good team. Their linebackers are very active and their defensive linemen are the best we've faced thus far. It's going to be a big challenge."

One bound to cause a stir.

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