Georgia will head to its annual showdown with No. 9 Florida counting on a strong-arm freshman quarterback from Texas to provide the firepower to help pull off an upset.
A year ago, Matthew Stafford was helping lead Highland Park to a state high school championship in the Lone Star State, but he isn't a total stranger to understanding what beating Florida can mean to a bitter rival.
Stafford grew up a fan of a program that hates Florida about as much as Georgia does and lived in the shadows of another college football border rivalry.
"Shoot, I know about big rivalries," said Stafford, who spent most of his life in Texas but was born in Tampa, Fla. "I grew up a Florida State fan. I had Florida-Florida State every year. I had Texas-OU (Oklahoma) right down the road. I know what it's about. I know rivalry games. I'm sure this one has its own little twist to it."
Stafford will try to do what the past two Bulldog freshman quarterbacks to start in Jacksonville couldn't: Leave with a victory.
Georgia lost to Florida 38-7 in 1998 with Quincy Carter and 45-13 in 1991 with Eric Zeier. Carter went 33-of-49 for 368 yards with two interceptions. Zeier was 18-of-34 for 196 yards with a touchdown and interception. Johnny Rauch in 1945 is believed to be the last Georgia freshman starting quarterback to beat Florida.
"I don't know what's going to happen for sure," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "It's a lot less settled. When you've got a veteran quarterback, you've got a pretty good idea how he's going to react in an awful lot of situations. I don't know exactly how he's going to play, but some of that is a little bit fun and exciting."
In Georgia's 27-24 win against Mississippi State, Stafford had his second three-interception game of the year on a day when he completed 20 of 32 passes for 267 yards and threw a pair of touchdowns. The SEC named him its freshman of the week Monday.
"In order for him to continue to get better and get as good as we need him to be down the stretch here, I thought we needed to give him some opportunities to grow," Richt said. "I wanted him to experience some more football and experience some more times in the pocket, experience learning when to throw it away and when not to."
That's a part of Stafford's game that is still a work in progress.
Of the top 100 passers in the NCAA efficiency ratings, Stafford has the fourth-highest percentage of passes intercepted (5.6 percent). He has seven this season.
"I thought I played pretty well, but we've just got to cut down on the turnovers as a team and me personally," Stafford said.
Florida is tied for second in the SEC in passes intercepted with 11. Safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Ryan Smith have four each.
Reach Marc Weiszer at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Clemson at Virginia Tech, 7:30 Thursday (ESPN)
- Georgia vs. Florida at Jacksonville, 3:30 (CBS)
- Tennessee at South Carolina, 7:45 (ESPN)
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