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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 II)

In an effort to turn Bulldog Nation’s collective angst into a productive discussion, I have raised the issue of the Georgia Bulldogs’ ongoing struggles with the Florida Gators in the modern era of college football. Simply stated, the central impediment to Georgia’s gridiron success is the inability to defeat the Saurians. If the Bulldogs go back to beating the Gators with regularity, as they did for the first 85 years of the series’ history, all the Athenians’ other goals will be within reach.

This is, however, easier said than done. As I noted on Wednesday afternoon, Mark Richt’s woeful 2-8 record against the Orange and Blue, while intolerable and unacceptable, actually represents an improvement upon the 1-10 mark set in the eleven seasons prior to his arrival, particularly when one considers how competitive most of those eight losses have been in comparison to the beatdowns the ‘Dawgs endured throughout the ‘90s.

One problem (which I know is obvious, but we are trying to get back to fundamentals here) is that, in 18 of the last 21 years (counting 2010), Florida has been led by the men who are far and away the best two coaches the Gators have ever had. The Gainesvillains are good, and their current coach is without peer in rivalry games. Urban Meyer is 6-0 against the Tennessee Volunteers, with four of those victories coming by at least nine points and half of those triumphs being decided by at least two touchdowns. Coach Meyer is 5-0 against the Florida St. Seminoles, with four of those games being settled by margins of 27 points or more. Coach Meyer is 5-1 against the Bulldogs, with three of his five Cocktail Party wins being decided by a touchdown or less. No traditional Florida rival has fared very well against Urban Meyer, and, as rivals go, Georgia actually has done better than most, although that is cold comfort.

Our fear, of course, is that Mark Richt may turn out to be the Bulldogs’ John Cooper, a coach whose overall success eventually was overwhelmed by his inability to beat the major rival standing between his program and the elite success it sought and otherwise earned. Coach Cooper’s 2-10-1 record against the Michigan Wolverines ultimately mattered more than the Ohio St. Buckeyes’ 109-33-3 record against everyone else under his stewardship. Three of Coach Cooper’s Ohio State squads went into the Michigan game undefeated; none emerged unscathed.

Of course, John Cooper did not inherit a program that already had a mental block about beating its major conference rival the way Mark Richt did; on the day Coach Cooper arrived in Columbus, the Buckeyes had taken four of the previous seven meetings with the Maize and Blue, whereas the ‘Dawgs were mired in a decade-long slump against the Sunshine State Saurians ere Coach Richt ever set foot in Athens. Likewise, Coach Richt has posted winning records against every other meaningful Georgia rival, whereas Coach Cooper’s Buckeye clubs had a losing ledger against Illinois, fell to a 4-4 Michigan State squad as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation in 1998, and went 3-8 in bowl games. With apologies to the fox and the hedgehog, Mark Richt has failed at one big thing, whereas John Cooper failed at many things.

As Jman781 has noted, and as Greg McGarity has stressed, we need to de-emphasize the importance of the game, lest the Red and Black continue to psych themselves out every time they cross the state line. Accordingly, McGarity told his coaches that there was no special "mandate to beat Florida," in order to "dispel" the "extremely unhealthy" mindset he dubbed "a ‘Florida fixation.’" This attitude adjustment represents a stark departure from the tone established by Damon Evans, who expressly used the Orange and Blue as the benchmark against which to measure success.

Clearly, the Gators are in the Bulldogs’ heads, and have been for a while. No current player for either team has ever known anything but Florida dominance in the series during his lifetime, which instills confidence in the Orange and Blue and doubt in the Red and Black. The importance of such psychological factors in intercollegiate athletics is evident in the streaky nature of many rivalries; losing streaks to Tennessee and Georgia Tech in the 1990s turned into winning streaks in the 2000s because Georgia acquired confidence in both series by snapping their string of setbacks to both rivals.

While some have suggested that abandoning the game’s historic home in Jacksonville in favor of alternating series meetings between Athens and Gainesville might make the game feel more like an ordinary SEC showdown, without the extra pressure of the unique atmosphere offered by the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, such a solution would not work in the short term, if it worked at all. McGarity gives every indication of being even more strongly committed to keeping the game by the St. John’s River than his predecessor did, and the current contract with the city will keep the game in Jacksonville through 2016. In sum, moving the series back to campus is unlikely and will not happen for a while, so, regardless of whether such a move is a good idea, it is off the table as a short-term panacea.

How, then, do we de-emphasize the series? How do we treat as "just another game" a rivalry showdown in a unique atmosphere that, whether we like it or not, perennially pits the Bulldogs against the program that most often stands between them and the Eastern Division championship? Clearly, amping up the artistic expression isn’t helping, but do we really want to tone it down? When Bill McCartney took over as the head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes in 1982, the team had no primary rival. (The in-state series with the Colorado St. Rams had gone by the wayside in the late 1950s.) Coach McCartney chose to set his sights on the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who initially had little cause to recognize the Buffs as a rival; Coach McCartney’s first four Colorado squads were trounced by the ‘Huskers by a combined 150-47 margin.

The gap narrowed over time, however, as a 50-point beatdown in 1983 became a 17-point setback in 1984, then a ten-point road loss in 1985, and, finally, a ten-point home win in 1986. A 2-0-1 run against Nebraska from 1989 to 1991, not coincidentally, was accompanied by a 30-5-2 overall mark, a 20-0-1 conference ledger, and a share of the 1990 national championship. Beating the Cornhuskers was a prerequisite to success, in the Big Eight and beyond; by focusing on defeating the Big Red Machine, Bill McCartney built a program that was capable of contending for and capturing the highest prize. Anyone who recalls the confidence, intensity, and joy for the game displayed by the ‘Dawgs over the course of the rest of the season after their 2007 win in Jacksonville understands that the same principle that applied in Boulder applies in Athens.

It seems to me that, if Mark Richt tries to tell his players that the Florida game is no longer a big game, he’s going to have about as much success as Michael Adams had when he tried to tell us that the Florida game is no longer called "The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." This game is still the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and this game is still a big game. Heck, it was a big game this year, and it pitted two teams who both had endured losing streaks of at least three games’ duration.

I question whether we’re going to get anywhere by ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If he’s in the room, sooner or later, you’re going to have to confront him. He’s in the way, and you can’t pretend he isn’t, and you can’t get around him, and you can’t ask him nicely to move. Sooner or later, you’ve got to get your mind right, roll up your sleeves, set your shoulder into him, and move him. It’s only a Sisyphean task for as long as we believe it to be futile, so whatever psychology is required---from running on a continuous loop clips of plays (and there were several) in which the current crop of Bulldogs performed well against the Gators on Saturday to plastering the athletics complex with the final scores of significant Georgia victories in Jacksonville (and there are many)---ought to be employed.

I am reminded of the scene in the film "Clear and Present Danger" in which the president of the United States is advised to minimize his acquaintance with a murder victim who was close to some shady associates. Jack Ryan recommends the opposite course: asked if he and the victim were friends, the president should say they were good friends; asked if they were good friends, the president should say they were lifelong friends. Explained Ryan: "There's no sense defusing a bomb after it's already gone off."

This bomb has already gone off, folks. It’s been going off for 21 years now. Wednesday was my 42nd birthday, so this bomb has been going off for half my life, and 21 years of fallout are enough. Given the reptilian nature of our foe, it is only appropriate that the principle we must follow in overcoming the challenge before us would be enunciated in a line from a film called "Swamp Thing": "The only way out is through."

It’s a big game. It’s time to play it like it’s one.

How do we do that, exactly? Stay tuned. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!