The clock in Baton Rouge hadn’t hit 0:00 before the disappointment felt by Georgia backers yielded to primal fear: “What if we blow it in Jacksonville again?” As we know, the thought of losing to Florida isn’t some irrational bit of Munson-like fretting. For the Bulldogs, it has become longstanding reality.
We needn’t list every single grim number linked to TIAA Field, as the stadium by the St. Johns River is now known. (It used to be EverBank Field. Before that, it was Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. Before that, it was Alltel Stadium. Before that, it was the Gator Bowl.) These nuggets should suffice: The last Georgia coach — this includes the incumbent — to manage a winning record against the hated Gators was Vince Dooley, whose final game came, in the old Gator Bowl, on Jan. 1, 1989.
Florida has had two great coaches since. Between them, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were 16-2 versus Georgia. Florida has also had three coaches it wound up firing, and two of those — Ron Zook and Jim McElwain — were 2-1 against the Bulldogs. The only head Gator ball coach since Galen Hall to post a sub-.500 record against Georgia was Will Muschamp, who was 1-3 but managed to thump his alma mater 38-20 two weeks before his firing.
The point being: This series, which has turned on everything from tight end Richard Appleby throwing the ball to Doug Dickey’s fourth-and-dumb to a phantom timeout to Faton Bauta, ultimately hinges on coaches. The better coach usually — though Mark Richt didn’t, did he? — tilts the series his way, and the side that wins in Jacksonville tends to win the SEC East.
Georgia fans believed their team had – to invoke center Peter Anderson’s famous words after Dooley’s crew crushed Gators, No. 1 for the first time in their history, 24-3 in 1985 — “restored order to nature” by hiring Kirby Smart, whose second band of Bulldogs crushed the Gators 42-7 last year. But Florida fired McElwain the next day. (Say this for the Gators: They’re good at cutting losses.) After a flirtation with the overblown Chip Kelly, Florida hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State.
Mullen wasn’t quite the people’s choice in Gainesville, Fla., or at least the choice of a certain person who matters. Jeremy Foley, athletic director emeritus, was never, for reasons unknown, a fan of the man who’d been Meyer’s offensive coordinator when Florida won the 2006 BCS title. Scott Stricklin, who’d been the AD in Starkville before replacing Foley, wound up hiring Mullen just when it appeared Tennessee was about to grab him, thereby leading to that comedic cavalcade of a search that ended with Phillip Fulmer riding to the managerial rescue.
To this observer, the marriage of Mullen and Florida seemed nothing for Georgia to sweat. He’d done well at Mississippi State, which is a tough job, but his only 10-win season there saw his Bulldogs overrun by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. He’d managed a winning SEC record once in nine seasons. When Mississippi State played in Sanford Stadium last September, it lost 31-3. And even now, with the Gators 6-1 and ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, it’s hard to know how good they are.
Mullen’s second game in Gainesville saw the Gators lose to Kentucky for the first time since 1986. They mustered one touchdown in a narrow victory in Starkville. Their victory over LSU saw them prevail despite a numbing second-half sequence that went interception, punt, punt, punt, punt. A week later, they trailed Vanderbilt 21-3.
Florida is 66th nationally in total offense, which by recent Gator standards is a major uptick. (Since Meyer, Florida had ranked 105th, 103rd, 113th, 93rd, 116th, 111th and 109th.) Against Kentucky and LSU, quarterback Feleipe Franks completed less than half his passes. The Gators do defend – they’re tied for 21st nationally in yards against — and there have been days in Jacksonville when defending has been enough. It’s hard to see this Saturday as being one of those.
Three Smart recruiting classes plus a Florida coaching change have given Georgia a talent edge over the program that rarely operates, even in its lesser years, at a talent disadvantage. (Franks would be the Bulldogs’ No. 3 quarterback.) That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs can beat Florida on a bad day, and goodness knows they’ve known a slew of bad days in this series. But Georgia is coming off an awful day at LSU, and it’s not hard to imagine some semblance of order, ahem, being restored to nature.
Its thumping loss notwithstanding, Georgia seems now as it has all season – the class of the SEC East. Florida looks better under Mullen than it did under McElwain and Muschamp, when all it did was punt and play defense, but you’re going to have to score to beat these Bulldogs.
As someone who has been wrong about this game many times, I know never to say never. (The 418 yards rushing dropped on Jeremy Pruitt’s defense in 2014 will never be forgotten.) Still, Georgia-Florida is about coaches. I can’t see Smart in Year 3 losing to Mullen in Year 1. The Bulldogs will have had two weeks to stew over losing. They shouldn’t lose again until December.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.