It’s the bridges.
That’s one of the things that always comes to mind when I think of the event that is the Georgia-Florida football game, also known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Whether it is crossing over the Torras Causeway or the cabled Sidney Lanier en route to Saint Simons, Jekyll or Sea Island to get primed for the weekend, or one of the myriad of memorable Jacksonville overpasses of the mighty St. Johns River, bridges go hand-in-hand with Georgia-Florida.
“I remember crossing the bridge as a player,” reflects Smart, “and seeing all the fans and the stadium, it is an incredible scene.”
There are, of course, numerous literary and philosophical metaphors when it comes to a bridge. To cross from one situation, place or setting to another, often over turbulent waters, a bridge can serve as the pathway from good to great, or send you backwards. With the St. Johns River right next door to the old Gator Bowl, now known as TIAA Bank Field, and the Atlantic serving as the backdrop for so much of the weekend tailgating festivities, this is a football game that is one with water for the Bulldog faithful.
Once again, a lot of chips are on the table in this one, primarily for Georgia. The Gators have lost a trio of games by a total of just 16 points. Talented and hungry to play the role of spoiler, Florida and its fourth year head coach Dan Mullen are aiming to spoil what has been a memorable first half of the season for the Bulldogs.
In 1980, Lindsay Scott raced 93 yards with Buck Belue’s aerial and Georgia pulled off a miraculous 26-21 victory in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs came into that game ranked second nationally with an 8-0 record. The win combined with then No. 1 Notre Dame’s 3-3 tie with none over than Tech, vaulted the Bulldogs to the Number One ranking in the national polls. The Bulldogs would go on to capture the national championship with a perfect 12-0 record.
Two years later, Georgia headed to Jacksonville 8-0 and ranked No. 2. The Bulldogs blew away Florida 44-0, with Herschel Walker running for 219 yards and three touchdowns to emerge as the front runner for the Heisman Trophy, which he would win after the Bulldogs capped a perfect 11-0 regular season. There would be heartbreak in New Orleans for a second straight year and Georgia just missed out on another national title, having gone to the Sugar Bowl as SEC Champions with national rankings of No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 for three straight seasons.
When the decade of the 1980s drew to a close, Georgia had won 15 of 19 meetings with the Gators between 1971 and 1989 and led the all-time series 44-22-2.
But things turned south quickly when Florida brought back its favorite son Steve Spurrier, who suffered his most heartbreaking loss ever to the Bulldogs as a Heisman winning quarterback in 1966. Spurrier would get his revenge.
The Gators would go on to win 18 of the next 21 meetings. Spurrier went 11-1 against Georgia as Florida’s head coach. Georgia’s lone win against “the old ball coach” came in 1997. Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs pulled off a 37-17 victory, led by a host of standouts, including seniors Robert Edwards and Hines Ward, and junior safety Kirby Smart.
Georgia actually went to the SEC Championship Game in 2002, 2003 and 2005 despite losing to Florida in all three of those seasons. Those losses to the Gators cost Georgia shots at heading to the SEC Championship Game with a shot to play for the national title.
Jacksonville would prove to be Mark Richt’s Waterloo in his 15-year tenure at the Georgia helm. Those three in particular, stinging losses. Along with victories over Florida in 2004 and 2007, Richt’s Bulldogs would beat Florida three straight times from 2011-2013. The 2012 Bulldogs, led by Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell and Jarvis Jones came within a dagger in Atlanta from playing for the whole thing.
When Richt and Georgia parted ways, Smart returned to his alma mater with visions of doing for his Bulldogs what Spurrier had done for his Gators.
In Smart’s second season of 2017, Georgia beat Florida 42-7 and moved to the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff Poll. The Bulldogs would go on to win the SEC and play for the whole thing with a well documented tragic ending.
For three straight years, from 2017-2019, Georgia beat Florida, had 11-1 regular seasons and played in the SEC Championship Game. The last SEC East team to advance to three straight conference title tilts was Spurrier’s Gators.
Florida would prevail against Georgia a year ago, improving Mullen to 1-2 against the Bulldogs in Jacksonville.
Now the Bulldogs head into this most raucous and emotional of contests as the consensus No. 1 team in the country, with a perfect 7-0 record, 5-0 in the SEC. The dreams are rightfully big. For the Bulldogs to make them all come true, and cross that longest of bridges over the most violent waters, the Gators loom and lurk, seeking to eliminate any margin for error on Georgia’s journey towards destiny.