It is the game that lurks on Georgia’s schedule year-round, a reminder that no matter how hopeful a season might be, it can all crash and burn on just one Saturday in Jacksonville.
It’s most appropriate, when you think about it, that the Georgia-Florida series has been played around the time of year reserved for all things shadowy and spooky. Strange, often unexplainable things have been happening when these two rivals meet. It has been the site of many a championship dream turned into a nightmare.
Sure, the history is irrelevant to today’s players, and they’re the ones who will determine the outcome Saturday. But that doesn’t make the fans breathe any easier.
Season 2 for Kirby Smart is shaping up to be something special. A 7-0 start has pushed the Bulldogs to No. 3 in the national rankings. The SEC East is theirs for the taking, but it’s by no means wrapped up. They’ve yet to play South Carolina and Kentucky, two teams still mathematically kicking.
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These last five games will define their season, just as they always do. That’s what happens when you play your three biggest rivals – Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech – down the homestretch. The Bulldogs have swept those rivalry games only three times (2007, ’11 and ’12) in post-Herschel Walker years.
Going 6-21 against Florida since 1990 had a lot to do with that. (Before that it was Auburn’s brief domination of the Bulldogs under Pat Dye.)
For the most part, the Gators have dominated the Dogs simply because they were better. Still, there were some games where Georgia was at least Florida’s equal or even the better team but still lost. One such season was much like this one. It was 2002, oddly enough Mark Richt’s second season at Georgia. The Dogs won their first eight games – including impressive wins over Alabama and Tennessee – to ascend to No. 4 in the BCS rankings. Florida was merely mediocre under Ron Zook. But the Gators held Georgia to one first-half touchdown and a pair of field goals and scored in the fourth quarter to win 20-13.
What happened 25 years ago – before any of today’s players were even born – has no bearing on this season. But it serves as a reminder of how the Gators have inflicted so much misery on the Bulldogs since Steve Spurrier awakened the sleeping giant that Florida had been for years.
What is relevant to the current players is the unique atmosphere of the Georgia-Florida game. It was David Davidson of the Atlanta Journal who years ago labeled it The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Officials have tried to bury that label because, you know, college kids don’t drink. That hasn’t made the mood of the game any less hostile. The stands are split 50-50. You know, kind of like this year’s Georgia-Notre Dame game. Only the hostility of the atmosphere is felt by the players.
How Georgia’s younger players – especially freshman quarterback Jake Fromm – can handle it remains to be seen. Will the seniors – who have never beaten Florida – be psyched out or so jacked that they critical mistakes?
Most rivalries are fan-generated. Not this one. These two programs have genuinely despised each other at times. Like the time Florida’s Brandon Spikes was caught on video intentionally stuffing his fingers into Washaun Ealey’s facemask after a tackle. Spikes was suspended for a half following an investigation by the SEC, and he volunteered to sit a full game.
It turned Richt and Urban Meyer into coaching enemies. That probably won’t happen with Smart and Jim McElwain, who worked together under Nick Saban at Alabama.
There’s no way Georgia should lose this game. The Bulldogs are much better in every phase of the game. But there is one fact that still lurks and cannot be dismissed.