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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Gators?: Notes on Restoring Balance in the Georgia Bulldogs' Most Important College Football Rivalry (Part I)

Now that I have been forced back into the saddle by the compulsion of intervening events, I might as well begin trying to face up to, sort through, and come to terms with the ugly truth of last Saturday’s loss. I begin from the following premises, which I will accept as givens until and unless I hear a persuasive contrary case made:

  1. Few programs in the country enjoy the institutional advantages possessed by the University of Florida. Jeremy Foley is a first-rate athletic director, who has built championship programs in all sports, generated enormous revenues, and kept an athletic department that previously had multiple run-ins with the NCAA free from scandal. Urban Meyer is a first-rate coach who has won everywhere he’s been; evidence of Coach Meyer’s elite stature may be found in the facts that he is one of only seven men in Division I-A history to have recorded at least 90 wins in his first nine years as a head coach and one of only seven men in conference history to have won two SEC titles in his first five years as a coach in the league. The University of Florida is academically one of the most respected schools in the Southeastern Conference, boasting a top 60 ranking in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and the institution has the benefit of a scenic campus (in every sense of the term), top-rate facilities, a large and generous alumni base, a recent history of success, great weather, and a fertile natural recruiting ground in its surrounding environs. While few schools can compete with the University of Florida in these respects, the University of Georgia has all of these advantages, as well. Damon Evans ran a clean and cash-generating athletic program, which recently was taken over by Jeremy Foley’s longtime right-hand man, Greg McGarity; Mark Richt, while lacking a national championship, is one of the other six men to have won 90 games in his first nine years and two SEC titles in his first five years; Georgia’s U.S. News rank of 56 is right up there with Florida’s rank of 53, and the Bulldogs have the benefit of a longer tradition of success. In sum, Florida has a wealth of natural advantages to make the Gators successful, and, consequently, the Gators succeed. Given Georgia’s comparable institutional strengths, however, there is no reason why the Bulldogs cannot and should not be equally or very nearly as successful as the Gators.
  2. For the foreseeable future, the most important game on the Georgia Bulldogs’ schedule each year will be their game against the Florida Gators. While strong historical cases may be made that the Auburn Tigers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have been bigger rivals traditionally for the Red and Black, the fact that the Sunshine State Saurians are a division rival of the Classic City Canines makes winning the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party imperative if the Bulldogs are to be in the hunt for division, conference, and national championships. The Ron Zook era (in which Georgia could lose to Florida yet still win the SEC East) is over, and the only way past the Gators is through them. Between 1992 and 2009, the Eastern Division was represented in the SEC Championship Game either by Florida or by a team that had beaten Florida thirteen times in 18 seasons; this year, the Eastern Division will be represented in the SEC Championship Game either by Florida or by a team that has beaten Florida. The road from Athens to Atlanta, metaphorically if not geographically, runs through Jacksonville.
  3. Georgia’s marked lack of success against Florida from 1990 to 2010, and in any subset of years within that 21-season span, is intolerable and unacceptable.

Absolutely the most maddening aspect of this entire matter is our inability to overcome this knotty conundrum. Coaching changes, special uniform selections, the location of bye weeks, the respective rankings and won-lost records of the two teams, and the temporary moving of the game to campus all have had no measurable effect on the outcome; irrespective of whether those factors operated in favor of the Bulldogs or the Gators, the Orange and Blue somehow found a way to come out on top.

Some of Mark Richt’s critics would like to believe it’s all his fault, and that firing our current head coach would solve the problem. Unfortunately, the trouble is nowhere near that simple. Coach Richt has gone 2-8 in Jacksonville; his two immediate predecessors combined to go 2-10 against the Gators, with one of those two wins antedating Steve Spurrier’s return to Gainesville. Mark Richt has been responsible for two-thirds of Georgia’s victories over Florida since the Evil Genius came home to the Swamp, while being to blame for fewer than half of the Bulldogs’ losses to the Orange and Blue. His 2-8 record in Cocktail Party contests is atrocious and unacceptable, but it actually represents an improvement upon what came before. (This is especially true, in light of the closeness of the games: Ray Goff and Jim Donnan together lost to Florida by more than 30 points six times; Mark Richt has five losses to the Gators by a touchdown or less. That is small consolation indeed, but it shows how bad the situation was before, and how much improvement was and still is needed.)

There are no easy answers, and a myriad of disorganized yet far from random thoughts are bounding around in my brain (which, I should stress, may be mildly addled by the cold I am fighting and the medication I am taking, so pardon me if something I say sounds too crazy), but I will attempt to cobble together a few ideas to clarify the nature of the problem, in the hope of beginning the process of identifying and implementing the solution we all seek.

Stay tuned. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!