When Mark Richt took over the program in 2001, no one really expected his first Georgia squad would beat what turned out to be Steve Spurrier's final Gator team. As predicted (and by the early 2000's, "expected"), Georgia fell to Florida 24-10 in a game that was close for 3 quarters, but eventually played out like all but a single game in the 1990's. Still, optimism regarding this series and the fortunes of Georgia Football was high and would get a boost when Spurrier left for his ill-fated stint with the Washington Redskins and Ron Zook was named head Gator.
Under Brian Van Gorder, Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2004, the Dawg defense was probably a better overall unit than the offense during this period - which was adequate if not spectacular. During this same period of time, Georgia faced Ron Zook 3 times, only winning in 2004 during a time when Florida was clearly down - going 23-15 during this span. The opportunity to change the fortunes of a rivalry that is still awaiting that change was missed. Was there bad luck? A bit. Missed calls? Yes, but that's life. Dropped passes? One in particular, but that was but a single play. Georgia, for the first time since the 80's, clearly had better teams but could not reverse the awful fortunes of the entire earlier decade. The opportunity to affect real change in this rivalry came and went as quickly as a single brief coaching regime. By 2005, Zook was out and Urban Meyer came in with his spread offense, outstanding recruiting and a policy to sign anyone who could turn Florida into champions, no matter how dubious the recruit was or would turn out to be.
Flash forward to the first half of the "20-teens," and a similar story unfolded. Georgia had a nice little 3-game streak from 2011-2013, but only captured a single SEC East title, and the failure to beat Florida in 2014 (when we had better talent) and 2015 (when the dysfunction of the staff truly manifested itself) was the undoing of the Mark Richt era at Georgia. Make no mistake. It is all about beating Florida. That will never change.
I still contend that Richt deserved another year and will never accept how his ouster was handled by our Athletic Director. However, I am in total support of Kirby Smart, his new staff, and the direction of the program which I hope maintains the character and accountability that was already well established.
There's no need to delve into the 2016 schedule. We all know that Georgia has to rebuild in a few areas and there is a real possibility of starting a freshman quarterback who will play like a freshman before he begins to play like a savior. None of that concerns me as much as how well this team is playing when we travel down to the banks of the St. John's River on October 29. I don't care if Florida has issues at quarterback and lost the teeth of an NFL-ready defense. I don't care how the Gators withered down the stretch in 2015 as they faced better competition. Florida is still in our heads. They've been in our heads since December 31, 1989 - the day Steve Spurrier agreed to coach his alma mater. If we are going to perform an exorcism, we'd better have some holy water and a righteous plan. I hate to put pressure on a guy who has only been in town for 8 days, but I'm fairly confident he knows what is at stake
We simply must beat Florida in 2016. The physical changes at Georgia must become a new mental change as well. What Coach Smart brings to Athens is, by all accounts, a new way that was born of "The Process." At the risk of trivializing whatever "The Process" is, and I don't like using that term at all because it's entirely unoriginal now, I've got to think that - at the minimum - a new way to approach this rivalry with something borrowed (Okay, we can borrow from "The Process") will hopefully translate into what a football game always comes down to: Execution. Can we execute in the clutch? Can we get that critical stop on 3rd down, or anticipate the fake field goal that everyone in the stands saw coming except the staff? Can we learn to play loose instead of tight and turn an opportunity for a "blow-out" victory into reality instead of a nail-biter that should have never, ever come to that point? I have no idea how to change things up regarding this rivalry. Even all of our recent victories had that element of "here we go again" lurking on the next snap.
I don't know how many Georgia-Florida games Kirby Smart will coach, but he'll only coach against them for a first time "one time." Maybe in 20 years, the Florida faithful will be pointing to December 6, 2015 as the date their collective mental anguish began. Here's to new beginnings.
As Always, GO DAWGS!