The road to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta almost always runs through Jacksonville. As we head into the last Saturday of October and the impending schedule gauntlet, that is once again the case.
Georgia is 7-0, 4-0 in the league. The Gators are 5-2, 3-1 in the SEC. If you want to play in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December, you had better win in Jacksonville.
When the league split into divisions with the additions of South Carolina and Arkansas in 1992, the SEC Championship Game was born. There have been 31 of them, the first two in Birmingham, and all the rest since in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome and now Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Florida has played in 13 SEC Championship Games. Georgia has been in 10, all in the last 21 seasons, dating back to 2002. Over that stretch, Florida has been in six. Here’s how the rest of the math shakes up out of the SEC East. Tennessee has appeared in five, the last coming in 2007. Missouri has been twice, in its second and third years in the league in 2013 and 2014. South Carolina went, with Steve Spurrier at the helm, in 2010. Kentucky and Vanderbilt have not advanced to the conference’s title tilt.
In all of Florida’s 13 seasons where it advanced to the SEC Championship Game, the Gators beat the Bulldogs en route. That’s 13 for 13. Strangely, and painfully, the Bulldogs lost to the Gators on their first three trips to Atlanta. Georgia went 13-1 in 2002, but lost to Florida. The Gators beat Georgia the following year, as the Bulldogs went to the title game for a second straight season. Then in 2005, undefeated Georgia, without injured standout quarterback D.J. Shockley, lost to the Gators but made it to the Dome. Where the Dogs, as in 2002, won the conference title.
On Georgia’s seven most recent trips to the SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs have beaten Florida, in 2011 and 2012 under Mark Richt’s watch, and in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 with Kirby Smart at the helm. That’s five out of six for the Bulldogs, with the Gators advancing, in large part due to a win in Jacksonville, in 2020. In fact, since Mizzou’s back-to-back appearances in ‘13 and ‘14, either Georgia or Florida has been in Atlanta eight straight years.
Georgia’s head man, the country’s premier coach, native son and one of the heroes of the Bulldogs 1997 vanquishing of Florida, dubbed on the Bulldog Brunch and Dawg Talk airwaves as “Coach King Kirby Smart,” has taken his alma mater to the mountain top. What a run for Kirby’s Canines – back-to-back national championships in 2021 and 2022, six straight seasons in the top ten, six successive major bowl games, and some incredible streaks en route to 40 wins in the last 41 games (since losing to the Gators in 2020).
When it comes to records, there are two ways that I’ve found tend to usually tell the best story. Who else is in the conversation, it’s the company you keep. And how long has it stood.
Smart set a record, surpassing some of the greatest icons in college football history, for the best mark at an SEC school through a coach’s first 100 games. When Georgia beat UAB on September 23, it improved the Bulldogs to 85-15 in the Smart era. That garnered most wins and best winning percentage, surpassing legends like Bear Bryant, General Robert Neyland, Nick Saban, Vince Dooley and Spurrier.
Under Smart’s watch, the Bulldogs have been to the SEC Championship Game five times in the past six years. In each of those five years, the Bulldogs went to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a record of 11-1 or 12-0: 11-1 from 2017-2019, 12-0 in 2021 and 2022. The only other coach to go to five SEC Championship Games in a six year period is Spurrier, who led Florida to the first five from 1992-1996. This streak began after he led the Gators to the 1991 SEC title, Florida’s first ever SEC championship. From 1991 through 2008, Florida won an astounding eight SEC titles, six with Spurrier as the head coach and two with Urban Meyer. The Gators run of SEC Championship Games ended at five in large part due to the aforementioned Bulldogs victory in 1997. Peyton Manning quarterbacked Tennessee to Atlanta that year. The Gators beat the Vols earlier in the season.
Spurrier’s blood lust for Georgia dates back to the Bulldogs 1966 victory over the Gators, which cost Florida the SEC title. Georgia and Bama were co-champs in 1966. Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy but was understandably haunted by that 27-10 Bulldogs victory in Jacksonville. He would get his revenge with an 11-1 record against Georgia as Florida’s head coach, with 1997 the outlier.
Now Smart, the player who helped the Bulldogs end a seven game losing streak in the series and keep Florida from a sixth straight SEC Championship Game, is the coach of the program currently sitting atop the college football world. A big factor, those five trips to Atlanta in six years, highlighted by five wins over Florida in six years. As the Top Dawg is always quick to caution, ‘humility is just a week away.” And to make it to Atlanta for a sixth time in seven years, it will likely require making it six out of seven in Jacksonville.