Georgia is heading to Jacksonville atop the polls with a perfect 7-0 record as the reigning national champions of college football. Florida is 4-3 with losses to Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU. The Gators led in all three of those games. The Bulldogs have beaten Oregon. Florida has topped Utah.
So many times in the 20th century, the winner of this game has had the inside track to a berth in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. In fact, in the last 20 SEC title tilts, Georgia or Florida have appeared in Atlanta as the winner of the East Division 15 times. The Bulldogs have won the SEC East nine times dating back to 2002, while Florida has been to the Georgia Dome/Mercedes Benz Stadium on six occasions over that stretch. Georgia, interestingly, suffered gut-punch losses to the Gators in 2002, 2003 and 2005, which proved costly in the pursuit of the national championship, but those three Bulldog teams all found their way to the SEC Championship Game, capturing the league crown in 2002 and 2005. But that’s an anomaly.
It’s been the Bulldogs or Gators in Atlanta for seven consecutive years, with the Gators winning in Jacksonville and advancing out of the East in 2015, 2016 and 2020. Georgia has played for the SEC title in four of the last five seasons, with Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs topping the Gators en route to Mercedes Benz in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Bulldogs posted 11-1 regular seasons, while going 12-0 a year ago. The Dogs won the SEC championship and Rose Bowl in the College Football Playoff in 2017. Georgia fell in de facto national quarterfinal games in 2018 and 2019, costing the Bulldogs a shot at the national title. Last season, the Dogs lost in Atlanta, but earned a berth in the CFP and defeated Michigan in the Orange Bowl and Alabama in the National Championship Game to capture college football’s ultimate prize.
No longer can arch rival fan bases, who’s schools have been dominated by the Bulldogs, significantly in the glory-laden Smart era, tease the Georgia faithful about how long it had been since the program’s most recent national title.
Georgia has beaten Auburn 15 of the last 18 times. Under Smart’s watch, dating back to the revenge victory over the Tigers in the 2017 SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs have won six in a row over Auburn. That includes a 42-10 victory over Auburn earlier this month at Sanford Stadium, an eighth consecutive win in the series of the Tigers Between the Hedges. Bryan Harsin, whose seat is mighty warm, is the second Auburn coach to square off against Smart since 2017.
Following the Gators this weekend, Georgia will host Tennessee. The Bulldogs have won five in a row over the Volunteers under Smart’s watch, and 10 of the last 12 dating to the Mark Richt era. In the Vols two wins in 2015 and 2016, Georgia blew a 24-3 lead in Knoxville, and then were upended by the Hail Mary at Sanford Stadium. Josh Heupel has Tennessee soaring again. He is the third Volunteers head coach Smart has faced.
Since 2001, the Bulldogs are 17-3 against the Yellow Jackets. Oh how it could be 20 in a row. There was no game between the two in-state arch enemies in 2020 due to conference only scheduling in the SEC. Georgia is on a four game winning streak against Tech, outpointing the North Avenue Trade School 180-35 over that stretch. With Geoff Collins ousting – he never coached Between the Hedges and his Tech teams lost by a cumulative 97-7 total in 2019 and 2021 – interim head man Brent Key will be the third Yellow Jackets head coach to square off against Smart’s Dogs when the two meet the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Paul Johnson, (Collins’ predecessor) went 3-3 versus Georgia at Sanford Stadium. There was a great sense of relief not having to prepare for that equalizing triple option.
And then there are the Gators.
From 1990-2010, Florida went 18-3 against Georgia. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. There were a lot of long rides home from the Golden Isles for two decades. Georgia had won 15 of the previous 19, but then Steve Spurrier arrived and times changed.
The tables turned some following Urban Meyer’s departure from Gainesville, as Mark Richt’s Bulldogs won three in a row from 2011-2013. But then Florida would win three straight, including a 2014 upset coached by current Bulldogs co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Once Smart got the Bulldogs machine rolling in 2017, things turned back Georgia’s way. A 42-7 rout of the Gators showed Jim McElwain the door. Dan Mullen came on board and Florida went to major bowls in ‘18 and ‘19 after falling to Georgia. The Gators beat the Bulldogs in 2020 and were on the way to the SEC Championship Game and another major bowl. He once had the attendance of the Florida spring game announced as a total corresponding to how many days it had been since the Bulldogs 1980 national championship.
But a thrown shoe against LSU started a tremendous ripple effect. Georgia has won 25 of 26 games since, while things went south for the Gators. The Bulldogs 34-7 victory over the Gators last season dropped the tenure of Dan Mullen, who lost his final four SEC games as Florida’s head coach, five and a half feet under.
Now Billy Napier is Florida’s head coach, the third that Smart has squared off against. If the Gators win, that would be two of three in the series, a win in Napier’s Jacksonville debut, a big jolt for Florida and a dagger to the Bulldogs championship hopes.
Meanwhile, it’s a chance for Georgia to make it 8-0 on the season, keep those championship dreams thriving and make it five of six against the Gators. Plus, it would start Napier off with a losing record in the series. That is very important. It’s hard to go uphill in this series. Losses to Ron Zook’s Gators in 2002 and 2003 left lasting scars for Richt’s Bulldogs.
But last season’s national title exorcized a lot of demons.
Now with the glow of that National Championship crown beaming for the Georgia faithful, the Bulldog aim to further a march to glory in 2022 and continue some wonderful trends against arch-nemesis who can’t scream 1980 as a falling insult.