ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia’s annual Florida week media day came dressed in its familiar trappings – the perfunctory deference to its storied rival; the platitudes about the neutral site environment; the rote responses of past not being prologue to the present.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Down in Gainesville, Fla., however, the conversation got a lot more interesting Monday when the 3-3 Gators opened their mouths.
Head coach Jim McElwain offered up then refused to elaborate on apparent death threats. One unimpressed defensive back condescended about the “simple” talents of the Bulldogs’ undefeated freshman quarterback. A pair of sophomores independently offered up a phrase so precisely identical you assume it must be written in the Gator football handbook.
“Georgia isn’t a team that we lose to,” both receiver Josh Hammond and safety Chauncey Gardner uttered in context of Florida’s confidence as 14-point underdogs facing the No. 3 team in the country.
Steve Spurrier’s role as “ambassador and consultant” is clearly making an impact on his alma mater’s trash-talking skills.
Just when you thought this might be the most boring, one-sided Georgia-Florida game in recent memory. It may indeed turn out to be the mismatch many expect, but it will definitely be interesting.
As much as Georgia would like to pretend that this week is just another opponent and just another step toward what looks like an inevitable return to the Southeastern Conference championship game, Kirby Smart and the 7-0 Bulldogs want this win more than anything. Smart – who was a Bulldog freshman when Spurrier’s Gators “hung half a hundred” the only time in the last 85 years when the game was played in Athens – tried his best to talk down the significance of Georgia’s general struggles in this rivalry over the last quarter century.
“I don’t get too much into who won last year, who won the year before that,” he said Monday. “It’s a whole lot more about what we’re going to do this year, because that’s really all we can control. We can control how we play this year, worry about the things that matter. I don’t think any of that matters.”
Behind closed doors in the locker room, Smart sings a different tune with his players who have only experienced losing in this rivalry.
“I haven’t really thought about it until last night when coach told us to stand up if you have beaten Florida and no one stood up,” said nose tackle John Atkins, a graduate senior from Thomson. “The road to win in the East goes through Florida so you have to be able to beat them. It’s a big rivalry, you don’t want to lose to a big rival.”
That’s clearly the same message being seared into the Gators’ heads.
“That brings a lot of confidence to us, just knowing that Georgia isn’t a team that we lose to,” said Hammond. “So I think that’s the message in the locker room right now. They might be the No. 3 team in the country, but they can’t beat Florida. That’s our mentality going forward, and we’ll come out and be ready to play.”
There’s inarguably some truth in that. Since 1990, Florida is 21-6 against Georgia. In the last three seasons, the Gators have lost to South Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama, Florida State and Michigan, but not Georgia. The last time the Bulldogs beat the Gators in 2013, Florida was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak with subsequent losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern somewhat diminishing any satisfaction Bulldogs fans might have collected in Jacksonville.
If they can’t beat Florida this year, call an exorcist. Georgia’s significantly better on offense and possesses a defense that should have little trouble shutting down Florida’s mostly anemic offense no matter how much praise Smart heaps on the Gator wideouts.
Meanwhile, Gardner’s dismissive assessment of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm should add a little more fuel to the Bulldogs’ offensive fire.
“I mean, you say they have a great quarterback; I get it,” he told Florida reporters. “He’s throwing simple passes; I get it. Anybody can throw a slant; I get it. If you call him the best quarterback, so be it, but he has to play Saturday.”
That cockiness belies the harsh realities in Florida. If things seem dark at the moment for McElwain despite consecutive SEC East titles, imagine how bad it will be if the Gators fall to 3-4 and threaten bowl ineligibility by losing to Georgia – which, as you might have heard, isn’t a team that they lose to.
“There’s a lot of hate in this world and a lot of anger, and yet it’s freedom to show it,” McElwain said Monday in a rambling tangent of the current national climate. “The hard part is when the threats against your own players, death threats to your families, the ill will that’s brought upon out there … a lot of angry people in this business and we’re the ones you take shots at.”
It’s pretty pathetic if fans actually resort to making threats because a team is not performing to unrealistic expectations.
In any case, the Georgia-Florida game always seems to have the biggest impact in ultimately defining every season. In three consecutive years, losing it has cost the Bulldogs the SEC East title. Somehow losing it again this year might short-circuit playoff aspirations.
A lot is on the line again. Nobody at Georgia will dare say it, but the biggest goal on Saturday will be to shut Florida up.