It’s easy to look back now and scoff at the nickname attached to Georgia’s 2011 recruiting class. “Dream Team,” they were called, as they were supposed to be the group that led the Bulldogs back to glory.
And while there have been many inglorious things about that group — five players dismissed, one incarcerated, several others not starting even as seniors — they have realized a dream or two.
Case in point: Saturday’s game against Florida in Jacksonville.
If the No. 11 Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 SEC) defeat the Gators (3-3, 2-3) at EverBank Field, it will be their fourth consecutive win in the series. The seniors who will take the field for Georgia already have secured a 4-0 record against Tennessee in their careers. Their aim is to finish undefeated against Florida and Georgia Tech as well.
“It’s cool,” senior wide receiver Michael Bennett said. “Not a lot of Bulldogs can say they were undefeated against Florida, Tennessee and hopefully Tech. So there’s something to be said for that.”
The Dream Team predictions of SEC and national championships haven’t come, but Georgia’s seniors have played in two of the past three SEC Championship games, and they’ve helped flip the script in this streaky 110-year-old series, played here on the banks of the St. Johns River since 1933.
Changing the tide in this rivalry was one of the initial mandates for Mark Richt and one of the main reasons he was hired as the Bulldogs’ head coach after the 2000 season. When he arrived in Athens from Florida State, Georgia had lost 11 of the previous 12 games in the series to the Steve Spurrier-coached Gators.
And while Richt didn’t immediately reverse the outcomes in the rivalry — he lost the first three and five of the first six — he instantly made it more competitive and slowly redirected the track.
“I try not to make too big of a deal of it,” Richt said of his strategy to that end. “Because, again, I think if the players are focusing on, ‘I hope we win,’ all that kind of stuff, that’s just not a healthy way to be. Or, ‘we ought to win.’ Whatever it is.
“What’s important is being good at what we do, playing together as a team, believing in each other, then getting after it. Hopefully, we’ll make the plays that need to be made when you need them the most. That’s really all we can do.”
That’s what the Bulldogs have done to sustain their recent streak. In 2011, Georgia’s two fourth-down conversion, game-saving defensive plays preserved a 24-20 victory. In 2012, Malcolm Mitchell scored on a 45-yard, fourth-quarter catch-and-run and the Jarvis Jones-led defense made it stand for a 17-9 win. Last year, the Bulldogs let a 20-0 lead shrink to almost nothing, but held on for a 23-20 win.
This year, you have a different dynamic. Georgia enters as a double-digit favorite as Florida coach Will Muschamp — who the Gators blame for letting the pendulum swing the other way — clings to his rapidly declining job security.
And the Bulldogs, despite learning this week they’ll play without star tailback Todd Gurley for a third consecutive game because of an NCAA-mandated suspension, enters the game confident and with their eyes on bigger prizes.
“It’s fun,” senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said of the notion of winning a fourth straight game. “But we have bigger goals than that. That’s just one of them. To accomplish our goal, we’ve got to beat them this week.”
Said senior center David Andrews: “We take a lot of pride in it. Any time you win and have success since you’ve been at a school, it means something to you. But we need to win it because it’s the next game.”
It won’t be the first time if the Bulldogs manage to record four wins in row against the Gators. They’ve won four or more against Florida four times in the 92-game series, logging seven consecutive twice and six in a row two other times, and dominating the series from 1964-89 (18-6-1). The Gators have enjoyed similar periods of dominance, going 14-1 from 1990-2003.
So, clearly, this rivalry is about one team keeping the other’s face firmly planted in misery.
Said senior quarterback Hutson Mason, making his first start in the game: “You definitely know kind of what they are feeling right now. I can remember when we were in their shoes, we were, like, ‘Man, this is the biggest game of the year, we want to beat these guys.’ You’d circle it on your calendar because we hadn’t beat them in a while.
“So I guarantee you they are thinking the same thing about us.”