The words from a couple of decades ago that Kirby Smart uttered as a Georgia junior safety probably still hold true today in his first year as Bulldogs head coach.
"Losing is bad enough, but losing to Florida every year is worse," Smart said in 1997 in the Orlando Sentinel. “It was mentally draining. We were very tired of losing to Florida, and we've been trying to get to the level that they're at. I don't think I have ever been around a win this big."
Georgia’s 37-17 victory in '97 over the nation’s No. 6 team ended a seven-year losing streak to Florida, their longest in a series the Gators have dominated since Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990. Smart had two interceptions in the game and Robert Edwards rushed for 124 yards and tied a school record with four rushing touchdowns.
“This game's a lot more important to me now than it was back then,” Smart said Monday. “Obviously, the ramifications are different and things are a little different. Nobody expected or gave us a chance that game. I think we were -- I don't know what we were underdog wise, but we were able to run the ball, control the line of scrimmage; and they had some turnovers and it opened some things up. I think they also had some injuries that day.”
Florida has won 20 of the last 26 games in the series spanning from Spurrier to Ron Zook to Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain.
“I think when you get recruited to go to Georgia and Florida, that's a game that you always point to you want to play in,” Smart said. “I know historically I was that way as a player. But I know our players are that way. It's considered to them one of the biggest games we have each year, especially because of where it's played.”
Mark Richt went 5-10 against the Gators. Jim Donnan was 1-4. Ray Goff stood at 1-6.
If Smart could approach Vince Dooley’s record against Florida-a 17-7-1 mark--that would be saying something.
No. 14 Florida is favored by 6 ½, according to Vegasinsider.com.
“I think we've gotta play our best football, and we have yet to do that all year,” Smart said. “And I think the rivalry has just grown, especially as there's been a little more parity and a little more back and forth.”
Georgia had won three straight before losing the past two in Jacksonville against the Gators.
“This is a big week, ol’ Florida hate week,” fifth-year senior offensive tackle Greg Pyke said. “There’s no better feeling than coming over that bridge and seeing all the people tailgating and knowing how big of a game that is.”
Smart went 1-3 as a Georgia player against Florida (losing 52-17, 37-17 and 38-7) and 0-1 as an assistant coach (14-10 in 2005), but his overall record coaching against the Gators is 8-2 with five straight wins.
Smart sported a 5-1 record against Florida at Alabama, 0-1 at Georgia, 1-0 at LSU and 2-0 at Florida State when he was a graduate assistant.
On Monday, Smart wasn’t elevating Georgia’s game against Florida head and shoulders above other rivalry games on the Bulldogs’ schedule.
“We've said before, there's five, I think, states contiguous with Georgia, so they're all huge rivalries, and to say that one is more important than the other, I think that's unfair,” Smart said. “I think when you say SEC East, you've gotta rank those opponents first because in order to advance you've gotta beat those teams. So those would be all 1As. Then you cross over to the West and it makes it a little different. This game is big and they're all big. Not to say that one is bigger than the other.”
Added Pyke: “He comes in there for the meetings and treats every SEC opponent the same. They’re another team we have this week, another SEC opponent, but it is Florida so it is different. You don’t try to make things personal out there but I definitely want to get a win.”
Georgia outside linebacker Davin Bellamy says he’s been well aware of this game since he was little.
“It is a game you grow up watching,” he said. “I definitely grew up watching it and always wanted to play in it….I’m 1-2 in Jacksonville so I definitely want to do something about that.”