ATHENS, Ga. -- When reflecting on Georgia's recent history with those two noted bullies of the Southeastern Conference, Jim Donnan harbors few grandiose illusions.
"We've got to make it more of a rivalry," the fourth-year Georgia coach said of the Bulldogs' struggles with Florida and Tennessee. "We have to make it more competitive."
Perhaps Donnan's blunt appraisal underscores just how much progress his team has made in three years -- "not much," by his own admission -- and how much farther it must go.
The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, site of the SEC Championship, is a mere hour's drive from Athens, but until Donnan and the Bulldogs best their nemeses, it might seem a heck of a lot longer.
A tough task, being spoken in the same breath with the Volunteers and Gators. One of the two has played in the national championship each year since 1995, and twice -- Florida in 1996, Tennessee in 1998 -- one of them has won the title.
So breaking their death grip on the SEC East might sound easier than it is.
"It'd be nice if they could take a year off," Donnan said. "But we're a lot more prepared to be competitive. We've just got to do it."
Since 1989, the Volunteers have left tire tracks on the Bulldogs, winning eight straight games by an average score of 31-16. Florida hasn't treated Georgia much better in the past nine years, taking eight of the contests by an average clip of 41-14. The lone exception was a 37-17 Georgia victory in 1997.
Unless the Bulldogs reverse those trends this fall, they'll have to accept a cold possibility: they might be a much-improved outfit in 1999, but it won't necessarily be revealed in the standings.
"It's always something that's on our minds," said senior linebacker Orantes Grant. "We know we are going to work hard to move up the totem pole. It's possible we could be in the Top 10 and still be third in the East."
Grant leads a defense that could be the Bulldogs' best in years. He, along with several others, asserts that Georgia has the talent to contend with the Gators and Volunteers -- it's the mental games where they say they've fallen short.
"Florida and Tennessee are two great teams, and when you play them you have to play them with everything you've got," Grant said. " We have not played them to the best of our ability. Our problems are we lack focus. We got down on ourselves when things went wrong and we were unable to handle adversity very well."
Sophomore quarterback Quincy Carter said he and his teammates entered last year's matchup with the Volunteers lacking their typical confidence.
"We went into the Tennessee game skeptical that we could beat them," said Carter, whose Bulldogs will try to avenge that 22-3 loss Oct. 9 when they meet the Volunteers in Knoxville, Tenn., for a 7 p.m. contest on ESPN. "This year, we know what to expect. We're ready to play those guys with a better psychological point of view than we had then."
Still, Carter knows there's only one way to silence the doubters.
"You beat them," he said. "That's the only answer. You let them know that you are in this thing, too, and you are fighting just like they are fighting. That's they key. You've got to beat them to erase that mental edge."
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The Jim Donnan Show can be seen at 2 p.m. Sundays on WJBF-TV.
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