Despite this being the 55th consecutive year I’ve been present at the Georgia-Florida rivalry, it never changes.
I’m talking about the anticipation, excitement and buildup for this particular football game matching the Bulldogs and Gators in what has to be the greatest neutral-site collegiate contest in the country. Yes, even better than that Texas-Oklahoma game staged every October in Dallas.
And what exciting match-ups I’ve witnessed through over a half century on this sacred ground adjacent to the St. Johns River in ol’ Jacksonville. On the Georgia list of best memories are of course Belue-to-Scott in 1980, the Fourth-and-Dumb game in 1976, Appleby-to-Washington in 1975, the Henderson and Worley smacking of No. 1-ranked Florida in 1985, the Robert Edwards-Mike Bobo pounding of the Gators in 1997, the Herschel-led drive to enable the Bulldogs to put up another 26-21 win over Florida in 1981, Herschel running wild for 219 yards in the 44-0 win in 1982, “The Drive” led by John Lastinger in a 10-9 victory in 1983 and the Gator Stomp in the end zone by the entire Bulldog team in 2007 when Knowshon Moreno ran for 188 in a 42-30 declawing of the Gators … and many more!
But, only thing, over the last 26 years or so, us Bulldawg alumni and fans haven’t been celebrating victories over the hated Gators nearly as often. Ever since one Steve Spurrier assumed the head coaching job at Florida in 1990 and then began putting beatdowns on the Dogs – he whipped Georgia 11 times in a 12-year period – the good feelings for the Georgia faithful in this game have been fleeting, to say the least. Count ‘em, in these last 26 meetings of the two teams, the Gators have won 20 times, the Bulldogs have won only six times. Quite the contrast from the 25 years Vince Dooley was at the UGA helm, when the Red and Black walked out of the old Gator Bowl a winner 17 times, while losing just seven to the reptiles from Gainesville and tying once.
Now, after Dooley, Ray Goff, Jim Donnan and Mark Richt comes former Bulldog player Kirby Smart to the Georgia-Florida spectacle. And in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs, the primary question swirling around Bulldawg Nation is, this: Can Kirby begin his coaching debut in this fabled series with a bang? Can he somehow steer his underdog Georgia team to an upset of the nationally 14th-ranked Gators and thus begin swinging this game back in the Bulldogs’ corner … something Goff, Donnan and Richt couldn’t do with consistency over these past two decades-plus?
Not gonna be easy for Kirby and the Dawgs. The Georgia offense, which struggled mightily against Nicholls State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt this season when the Bulldogs couldn’t run the ball a lick, will have to somehow find a way to move it this afternoon against a Gator defensive unit that ranks in the top three in America in most categories.
To have success against Florida, it almost goes without saying the Bulldogs must not only run the football effectively, which will require Georgia’s offensive front to create space for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel the way it did against North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina, but the Bulldogs must also get a decent passing performance from freshman Jacob Eason. I don’t think Eason’s going to make a living throwing deep against maybe the best secondary in the country (UF cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye) but it’s imperative that the Georgia quarterback complete quick passes to his backs and slant throws to the wide receivers, so as to balance the Bulldogs’ attack and maybe keep that tenacious Florida defense on its heels a little bit.
Of course, it also goes without saying that the Georgia defense, which has done a lot of good things this fall, must keep a somewhat sputtering Gator offense from finding itself on the turf of EverBank Field. The Bulldogs’ best chance to win this game, I would think, is for Georgia to keep it a low-scoring affair throughout and then find a way to put the Gators away in the fourth quarter. And as for special teams play, I don’t think I have to say what the Bulldogs must do in this area … what after the special teams disasters we’ve witnessed this entire 2016 season.
Very, very tempted to call the upset today but until I see Smart’s first Georgia team able to put both its running and passing games together against such a defense as the Bulldogs are encountering today in Florida, I have to ride with the favored Gators, say by 21-14 in a good one.
And, as always, GO DAWGS!!