Ugh. Just … UGH.
This game. That play above. This team. This border war. My right nostril instinctively curls up at the mere mention of their name and sight of that logo. Their colors make me see red and want my team to give them an eye of black. I may call Georgia home, but I certainly despise the state’s flagship college football team. Thus, the Georgia Bulldogs check in at No. 2 on the Florida Gators’ top rivals list. To be fair, I lived in Jacksonville for almost 10 years – which probably clouds my assessment some, but really, you know it’s true.
In my life I have attended the 2007, 2012, and 2013 Florida/Georgia games (and yes, Georgia fans, F comes before G in the alphabet so it’s Florida then Georgia). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s a damned ugly and downright awful thing walking out of EverBank Field that day as a loser. Just imagine hearing that “Dawwwwwwg” snarl, enduring that incessant loud and drunken woofing and barking, smelling the aroma of bad cigarettes and stale Jack Daniels bottles from the other half of the field, and the “I said it’s great to BEAT a Florida Gator” chant on repeat while sorrowfully exiting towards your car.
(Sidenote: If you are a Gator and your blood isn’t boiling after reading that, I don’t know what other red meat to throw at you)
To a large number of Gator fans like myself, who came into the Gator Nation post-Steve Spurrier, this wasn’t much of a rivalry at all. Spurrier owned Georgia. He got into their heads, made them bow down to the greatness of orange and blue, and made Georgia fans put him above a certain guy named Sherman as historical enemy No. 1. Spurrier hates UGA (tracing back to a 27-10 Florida loss in Spurrier’s 1966 senior season as Florida QB), and makes absolutely no qualms about it – one of the reasons he’s still so beloved by the Gator fanbase.
In 1995, while old Gator Bowl Stadium in Jacksonville was being torn down and replaced with Alltell Stadium (later EverBank Field), the series flipped to a home-and-home affair. When Florida visited Athens that year, Spurrier engineered a 52-10 win because, as he put it, “we heard no one had ever done that (scored 50+ points) before.” To this day it stands as the most points scored between the hedges. Of course, Spurrier also endured a Georgia fan throwing a cup of tobacco spit at him that day for the stunt. Of course.
Even modern-day one liners like, “I kinda like playing Georgia early in the season, because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended,” demonstrate that the Head Ball Coach still has no love lost for the school in Athens.
Spurrier gave Gator fans all the dog treats they could enjoy during his tenure at Florida, posting an astounding 10-1 record against the Bulldogs. Ron Zook also had a winning record against Georgia (including an epic 2002 win that knocked the Dawgs out of the BCS Championship race). And then Urban Meyer stepped up and claimed himself a winning record (including my favorite of the entire series: when he avenged the bench-clearing celebration from 2007 by annihilating the Dawgs the very next year).
But times have changed.
Will Muschamp (a Georgia alumnus) does not have a winning record against the Bulldogs. As a sobering reminder, he is now 0-7 in this rivalry – as both a player and coach combined. A loss this year would be Georgia’s first four-game sweep over Florida since a six-game run between 1978-83. Throw in the fact that this border war is one of college football’s fiercest rivalries, and it almost seems as if the entire season revolves around this game – and it kind of does.
Older (ahem, “more experienced”) fans remember the days when Vince Dooley had the Gators’ number in much the same way Spurrier did years later. The 1980 heart-breaker that punched Georgia’s ticket to a national championship, the 44-0 beat-down in 1982 that left the Gators smarting, and a 1988 crushing defeat for an offense that included Emmitt Smith still hang heavy in the hearts of many Gators. They are games I regularly heard (and still hear) about from friends’ father’s, uncles, or grandfathers who witnessed the yearly and seemingly never ending slaughters so many years ago. That generation of fans wants this win badly, and is willing to sacrifice any coach who can’t get a victory. Do not forget that.
Newer Gators, though, are shocked and dismayed at the Dawgs’ current three-game win streak. Georgia is the only common annual opponent tho whom Florida owns a losing record. And if Will Muschamp doesn’t get the better of Mark Richt this year, it may be his last game roaming the Florida sidelines at EverBank Field.
Unfortunately for Muschamp, it will be a task not made easy by Georgia.
Though Aaron Murray (thankfully) is no longer playing in red and black, Georgia has a solid team for the 2014 campaign. Behind senior QB Hutson Mason, the offense should keep chugging along. Mason, who dutifully sat on the bench for four years watching Murray break record after record in the SEC, has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career – he also led UGA to a thrilling win over rival Georgia Tech last November. Throw in potential Heisman Trophy candidate running back Todd Gurley and lightning-fast Keith Marshall, and this offense should show no signs of stopping any time soon. Malcolm Mitchell returns at receiver after missing all but one game last season with a torn ACL. He and Chris Conley, who led the team in receiving yards last year, can stretch any secondary – even one as talented as Florida’s. And lest we forget Justin Scott-Wesley, who was was a high school letterman and champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash.
On defense, Georgia is making moves to change a unit in need of fixing. During the offseason, they added arguably the games best defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt started by adjusting the coaching structure that existed under former UGA defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He eliminated the secondary coaching position – Pruitt will handle that himself – and brought in an extra coach to help with the front seven. He is conducting defensive exercises all over the field, mandating that players run to each new workout. His unit and coaching staff hold fewer overall drills, and the team splits off so everyone participates rather than standing around watching (as many Georgia fans complained about in the past).
Pruitt, in case you missed it, has been on the past two national championship staffs (under Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher), so the man knows that he’s doing. However, he certainly inherits a mess in Athens.
Former starting safety Tray Matthews was dismissed from the team (and later transferred to Auburn) in early June after an incident in a classroom; former five-star recruit and starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed in February after violating a team rule; and starting cornerback Shaq Wiggins elected to transfer to Louisville in May. These departures have left the secondary paper-thin and devoid of experience. Though Harvey-Clemons and Matthews may best be known to UGA fans as the goats of the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” last season, they will absolutely be missed. The linebacker position should be okay, though the defensive line has no standout star.
There is a chance four freshman could start on defense this fall, which will not make Pruitt’s plight any easier. Georgia must find a way to stem the blood-letting from last season, where it allowed 377 total points and nearly as as many yards per game (375). Simply put, the program’s defenses in 2011 and 2012 were far more talented and deep than this year’s roster. However Richt could make no better hire than Pruitt to rebuild the porous unit.
If the talented and dangerous offense can mask the issues on the defense, then Georgia is in for a special ride – and most likely its third SEC Championship Game since 2010. It has the tools in the toolbox to be successful. The “Dean of SEC Coaches” (Richt) has recruited well, developed talent, and mastered the art of winning.
Suffice it to say, the Gators must beat the Dawgs this year. No class of Florida seniors should have to endure four losses to Georgia (and I personally am looking forward to signing “Orange and Blue” at the end of this year’s matchup). Throw in the added pressure from fans, along with the scorching, red hot seat of Muschamp’s, and it doesn’t get any better than this. Two hated rivals, playing not only for pride, but bragging rights as well.