It should be apparent by now that I have been putting off previewing the Georgia Bulldogs’ October 29 SEC East showdown with the Florida Gators in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, so much so that I have devoted front-page space to double-dipping Dawg bites and examining such pressing questions as tickling while tackling, SEC coaches’ superstitions, and conference expansions that are unlikely to happen. I’ve done everything short of comparing SEC teams to something else entirely, and that trick is so 2006!
It should also be apparent why I have been ducking this preview in particular. The unnerving and unavoidable truth is that the Sunshine State Saurians have had the Classic City Canines’ number since Steve Spurrier took over his alma mater’s football program in 1990. As distressing as this was in the ‘90s, it was at least explicable: Coach Spurrier’s Gator squads dominated the SEC like no teams since Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide juggernauts of the ‘70s. Ray Goff’s and Jim Donnan’s Georgia clubs simply were no match for the Evil Genius, and this fact was reflected in the series record and on the scoreboard: Florida went 10-1 against the Red and Black from 1990 to 2000, with eight of those Gator victories coming by double-digit margins and six of them being certifiable blowouts.
This disparity between the programs did not carry over into the 21st century. Mark Richt represented a considerable upgrade on the Bulldog sideline, and the programs in Athens and in Gainesville both recruited at a high level. Since Coach Richt arrived in the Classic City, Georgia has attended three SEC Championship Games and won two of them, while Florida has attended three SEC Championship Games and won two of them in the same span. Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2010, the Orange and Blue went 8-2 over the Red and Black . . . and six of those clashes by the St. John’s River were settled by margins of seven or fewer points, with the Floridians winning five of the nailbiters.
In the 1990s, a chasm divided these two programs; in the 2000s, the gap has shrunk almost to insignificance, yet this has not translated to a significant uptick in wins; rather, what were routs are now heartbreakers, with Georgia now playing the role Florida once played. How else do you explain a series in which our all-time leading receiver drops a critical third-down pass, our starting quarterback gets injured for one game, and our outstanding freshman signal caller throws interceptions on both his first and last passes of the day? What kept the Bulldogs below the Gators in the 1990s was Georgia’s inferiority; what has kept the Bulldogs below the Gators in the 2000s has been Georgia’s inferiority complex.
Although the Maple Street Press annual tells you all you need to know about the 2011 Bulldogs, this point is so basic that a magnifying glass and a copy of Phil Steele’s annual will suffice: Coach Richt has led the Red and Black to unbeaten or once-beaten home records in six of ten seasons, even including last year; he has produced unbeaten or once-beaten road records eight times, the last two seasons being the only exceptions to that healthy trend; but he has overseen only two seasons that generated unblemished neutral-site ledgers, as opposed to seven years of going .500 or worse on neither contestant’s campus.
I would like to be able to point with confidence to such comforting realities as Coach Richt’s 19-7 ledger following a bye week, and, against literally any other team in all of college football, I would. I would like to give you half a dozen meaty paragraphs on how Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense matches up with Charlie Weis’s offensive scheme, or how Will Muschamp’s presence on the Florida sideline changes the tenor of the series, or how some inscrutable factor will make all the difference in the world, and, in fact, I gave you two solid pages’ worth of that sort of stuff in the aforementioned annual, and Jason Hortman gave you eight great pages on the history of the series that put all that in perspective, so, by all means, go read those articles if you haven’t already.
At the most basic level, though, the mindset of this series changed somewhere in the midst of all those merciless Steve Spurrier bludgeonings. We went from Florida doing what was necessary to win this game in the 1990s to Georgia doing what was necessary to lose this game in the 2000s. There was a time---in my adult lifetime, in fact---when Florida lost thoroughly winnable games to Georgia simply because the Gators looked up, saw the red helmets, and choked. We now live in a time in which Georgia loses thoroughly winnable games to Florida because the Bulldogs look up, see the orange helmets, and choke. Until that has changed, nothing has changed; once that has changed, everything has changed.
The Sunshine State Saurians will not be the best team the Classic City Canines play this season, but they will be the toughest, and the most important, because it is highly unlikely that the first seven games of the 2011 campaign will produce either a record so bad that it cannot be redeemed by a win in Jacksonville or a record so good that it cannot be ruined by a loss in that venue. The Gators will remain the most difficult out on the schedule until the Bulldogs begin playing as well in the Gateway City as they have proven themselves capable of playing everywhere else in the land.
Also on Dawg Sports: Boise State game preview . . . South Carolina game preview . . . Coastal Carolina game preview . . . Ole Miss game preview . . . Mississippi State game preview . . . Tennessee game preview . . . Vanderbilt game preview . . . bye week preview . . . Maple Street Press annual!