For the second straight season, the winding road that is Georgia’s season has reached a crossroads in Jacksonville.
A loss to the No. 6 Florida Gators will knock No. 8 Georgia out of College Football Playoff contention and almost certainly eliminate the Bulldogs from claiming their third consecutive SEC East crown as well.
However, a third straight triumph in Jacksonville would put Georgia in the driver’s seat for the East and could serve as a springboard for a late-season surge to the SEC Championship.
Safe to say, the stakes will be high on the banks of the St. Johns river come Saturday afternoon.
“I mean it’s the way it should be when you look at the SEC East,” Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart said. “Georgia and Florida have been pretty dominant in the East picture for a while, and this game has always had some bearing on who goes to Atlanta.”
Smart knows a thing or two about important games in Jacksonville. In 1997 and 1998, Smart’s junior and senior years in Athens, both the Bulldogs and Gators entered the annual showdown with one loss in the SEC.
Georgia prevailed 37-17 in 1997, while Florida won 38-7 the following year. Smart recalled the 1997 game and seeing his mother, who is a Florida native and almost attended Florida, after the game as one of the highlights of his career.
“I really don’t think it would matter if was about the SEC East or not. It’s Georgia-Florida,” Smart said. “The game, the history, the tradition, the fact that you’ve got a Hall of Fame for the game alone and players can be remembered for their performances in that game alone. It’s pretty big.”
The history, the hall of fame, the crowd split 50-50 down the middle of the endzones — it all makes for the most unique atmosphere the Bulldogs play in during the regular season. Smart referred to it as a “pro mentality” with the lack of a student section either cheering for or against the Bulldogs, especially during pregame warmups.
Even before they arrive at TIAA Bank Field, the players are aware of the wild scene surrounding the game. Running back D’Andre Swift was told his freshman year to take everything in as the team crossed the bridge over the river heading toward the stadium. Safety J.R. Reed, who like Swift played in the rivalry for the first time in 2017, said he’d never seen anything like the even crowd split.
“You already know the momentum is just going to go up and down and up and down,” cornerback Eric Stokes said. “You’ve just got to swing with it.”
Everything about the rivalry plays a role in the events that will transpire in Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon. The stakes of the game, however, will determine the rest of Georgia’s season.
Even with a loss to South Carolina already on the schedule, all of the Bulldogs’ goals, including a College Football Playoff berth and a national championship, are still attainable. But step one in that plan is a win over Florida. Without that, the flames of the dreams the Bulldogs have been fanning will quickly be extinguished.
But there is precedent for the spot they’re in. One only has to look back a year, when Georgia entered the game 6-1 off a loss to LSU. A 36-17 victory over the Gators jumpstarted a five-game winning streak that placed the Bulldogs back in the SEC Championship game.
“Going into November, this is where we wanted to be (in control of our own destiny) and we want to play every single football game and win every single football game,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “So if we do that, we’re where we want to be at the end of the season.”
Just like 2018, a win over Florida could trigger a hot finish from a team that has struggled at points this year. The schedule this year, however, is much more difficult, with contests against Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M and Georgia Tech following the showdown in Jacksonville.
If a strong finish is coming, it starts with preparation. Swift said the Bulldogs needed to adapt a more serious and focused approach everywhere from practice to team meetings.
“With where we’re at right now, I think this is like a playoff game for us,” Swift said. “We’re playing for pretty much everything we want in our season in one game. We have to approach it just like that.”
Is that enough to result in a win? That’s anybody’s guess. But at about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night, the Bulldogs will know whether their season retains its hope or gains the label of a disappointment.