ATLANTA -- Mark Richt says sometimes he would hear only one question when meeting Georgia fans in the offseason.
The popular query, Richt said Sunday, was “Are you going to beat Florida? Are you going to beat Florida? Are you going to beat Florida?”
Sounds like those impatient Georgia fans were trying to make a point with the coach.
Richt, in his 11th season at Georgia, is only 2-8 against Florida, including losses in the annual neutral-site game in Jacksonville each of the last three years.
It’s no wonder the coach didn’t hesitate when asked if Saturday’s game still feels big even though Florida is only 4-3 this season.
“It does to us. We know it’s a big game,” Richt said. “We know it’s big for a lot of reasons for us this year.”
The No. 1 question from Georgia fans establishes the mandate for Richt, who was on the hot seat even before the Bulldogs opened the season with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
His response to that familiar question?
“I say well, that’s the goal, but I hope more than anything that when we get to that game it’s still very meaningful to us in the Eastern Division race, which it is right now,” Richt said. “That’s what we’re thrilled about. But we know we haven’t had a lot of success in Jacksonville lately and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Georgia (5-2 overall, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is trying to keep pace with South Carolina atop the Eastern Division.
The No. 22 Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game with momentum. Georgia has won five straight games, and it has the added benefit of an off week to prepare for the Gators.
Richt said there was no panic on his team, even after the 0-2 start.
“I really felt like we had a very good team from what I saw in the offseason, what I saw in the camp,” he said before adding he “wasn’t all that thrilled” after the 35-21 loss to Boise State to open the season. He said he saw the pieces were in place for a successful season the following week.
“After the second game I just had a very good feeling that we had all the ingredients of being a very good team,” he said.
“No one felt panic. No one felt in the tank. We didn’t need some kind of a special team meeting to gather everybody together and put the pieces together. We never felt like we fell apart to begin with.”
Georgia still faces SEC games against Auburn and Kentucky after the Florida game. South Carolina, which still has SEC games against Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida, would win a tiebreaker with Georgia.
“I’m not shocked that we’re doing well right now, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” Richt said.
Richt says his team is in good shape after the off week with receiver Malcolm Mitchell and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree returning from injuries. Another receiver, Rantavious Wooten, has not been cleared from a concussion.
Ogletree is making his return after breaking his foot in the first game. Another inside linebacker, Christian Robinson, hurt his foot the following week, leaving Georgia in a bind at the position.
Now, with both original starters healthy, Georgia has good depth with junior Michael Gilliard and freshman Amarlo Herrera, who were the fill-in starters.
“We hope nothing bad happens but right now we look very healthy,” Richt said.