This one is about the season and the series.
The Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville is a stage and scene unlike any other. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is once again filled with drama and intrigue, as championship stakes abound for both the Bulldogs and Gators.
Entering with identical records of 6-1, and 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference, the stakes are obvious. The winner can rightfully dream big Saturday night.
For Georgia, coming off an incredible 2017 campaign highlighted by the Southeastern Conference championship, Rose Bowl triumph and blowout victories over a host of rivals, including a 42-7 pounding of Florida, the future is as bright as that of any program in college football. Kirby Smart and his staff are recruiting at a tremendous rate and developing talent and depth at a level few can match. So much so that a team that had to replace right at half of the starters from 2017, including trio of all-time greats in Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Roquan Smith, began the season ranked in the top five nationally and rose to No. 2 following a 6-0 start.
Along the way, there were some warning signs for Smart and the Georgia faithful, including an uncharacteristic high number of penalties and some mental mistakes, like making sure pay dirt has been struck before dropping the pigskin to celebrate. Smart was concerned. Georgia though was 6-0 in back-to-back years for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs simply overwhelmed the opposition with superior talent and athleticism, and even had a fumble recovery/return for a touchdown in each of the first four SEC games.
But special teams miscues, turnovers and missed opportunities melded with an outstanding performance in front of a raucous Baton Rouge crowd created a perfect storm in a 36-16 Tigers win.
Sometimes those lessons don’t sink in until dealing with failure and defeat. Especially with a roster so young that right at 70 percent of Georgia’s players are freshmen and sophomores.
As Smart always preaches, humility is a week away. Georgia was humbled two Saturdays ago in Baton Rouge. Now it is all about how these Bulldogs respond.
Last season was great. The promise of 2019, 2020 and beyond is electric. But if Georgia is going to be great in 2018, be in the hunt for something special, the Bulldogs must beat the Gators Saturday.
When the Bulldogs lost last season at Auburn in similar fashion, with turnovers and special teams malfunctions all cropping up on the same day, the veteran Georgia squad came back the next two weeks to beat Kentucky 42-13 and crush Tech 38-7 and earn a rematch with the Tigers.
How will these youthful Bulldogs respond?
There are no guarantees and a lot more potential pitfalls en route to the finish line. But if Smart’s Dogs do come back and beat Florida for a second straight season, then everything is still in sight for Georgia. With Baton Rouge lingering as a cautionary reminder.
A second straight win over Florida would be just as huge. Let’s face it, with all due respect to every other team in the SEC East, including Kentucky, which looms the following Saturday, Georgia’s path to Atlanta and the conference’s title tilt will always run through Jacksonville. The Gators also have the resources and recruiting base.
Georgia’s got its’ coach, a proud alum with the pedigree and great early success. There is just confidence that the Bulldogs are in the early stages of a golden era of Georgia football, and that a decade of success and dominance is on the near horizon. A one time sleeping giant is on the verge of consistent greatness.
That was the theme in Gainesville for decade after decade until Steve Spurrier’s arrival at his alma mater in 1990.
Florida is on its third coach since Urban Meyer quit for a year before heading to Ohio State. Dan Mullen was his offensive coordinator and helped engineer those outstanding attacks led by Tim Tebow. After a near decade of fine work at Mississippi State, he has the Gator faithful excited. He also took a page out of Spurrier’s and Meyer’s playbook and took a jab at the Bulldogs in the offseason.
“Listen, winning one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” Mullen said with a laugh in an interview with 24/7 sports. “In two of the last three years, we’ve been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
Mullen was actually in Starkville for those Gator trips to Atlanta in 2015 and 2016, but point taken.
It would be big for Georgia to start the new Gators coach off with a losing record in the cocktail party, and also avoid losing to a fourth different Florida coach in the 2010s.
Three is enough!
A second straight victory over the Gators would both send the Bulldogs of 2018 to Kentucky with championship hopes and the Bulldogs of 2019 to Jacksonville confident that the series has shifted Georgia’s way.
That’s a must on the path to sustained greatness for the Bulldogs.