By CHRIS WHITE
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Richt and Georgia hit a big bump on the road to recovery Saturday.
Any time you go through Florida, blowing out a tire as you drive over an alligator — as dead and bloated as it might have looked lying in the middle of the road to the SEC championship game — will set you back on your trip.
The Bulldogs were supposed to already have had their lows behind them after opening the season 1-4. And with the Gators limping into Saturday on a three-game losing streak, the Bulldogs had a chance to kick their biggest enemy on the worst day of their lives.
Instead, the game unfolded like a scab being slowly peeled off as Georgia’s second-half rally was gutted in a 34-31 overtime loss to Florida — and with it went any hopes of passing South Carolina for the SEC East title.
Even Richt will tell you: This one felt like Georgia’s ballgame before it even started.
“I felt good going into the game,” Richt said. “I didn’t feel awful at halftime. I mean, I didn’t like being down 21-7, but I felt like we had what it took to come back and win it.”
Many Florida fans might have felt the same way Richt did before Saturday’s kickoff. The Florida half of EverBank Field had groups of open seats sprinkled throughout. While the Georgia side was packed before the game, Florida fans moseyed to their seats en masse in the final few minutes before kickoff.
Maybe they had low expectations for their limping team against a Bulldogs squad on the up-and-up. Or maybe those late to their seats felt it might help to throw back a few more at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party before trying to swallow what they anticipated would be another sour Saturday.
The announced attendance of 84,444 was the least, if only by 37 people, since 2003. The difference is almost negligible on paper, but those teal seats in place for the Jacksonville Jaguars jump out and scream at you.
Unfortunately for Georgia, the Gators weren’t as easy to defeat as some of that fan morale may have been this season.
But Georgia has been here already this season. What’s a close rivalry loss when you already staved off a potential mid-season firing of your coach with a string of conference wins?
Richt said he would set about bouncing back with the same formula that worked the last time.
“Just keep fighting, keep grinding,” Richt said. “Show up to work, be a grown man and do your job. And enjoy it.”
Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite.