Vince Dooley vs. Florida: 17-7-1.
Steve Spurrier as UF Head Ball Coach vs. “I-don’t-know-what-happens-to-them”: 11-1.
Urban Meyer vs. UGA: 5-1.
Kirby Smart vs. UF: 5-2.
Common denominator – each won a national championship. Meyer won two. Smart is sitting on two.
The best coach on either side not to have owned this series was Mark Richt. He was 5-10 against Florida. His Bulldogs prevailed in consecutive seasons only from 2011 through 2013, when the Gators were being undercooked by Will Muschamp, the Georgia grad who’s Georgia’s co-defensive coordinator.
Richt’s final two losses in Jax – Florida’s 389 rushing yards in Muschamp’s last throes and especially the Faton Bauta game a year later – were reasons athletic director Greg McGarity opted to move on. Smart’s Bulldogs have beaten Florida five of the past six years. Not coincidentally, they’ve won the SEC East five times over those six seasons.
This marks the final year of SEC divisional play. Over the past 31 seasons, the East was won 13 times by Florida, 10 by Georgia. Tennessee’s last division title came in 2007. Everything after 2014 has been Georgia or Florida.
Bear Bryant is said to have said of Florida: “If they get the right man (meaning coach), they’ll win forever.” It took the Gators until 1984 to claim an SEC title – which was, owning to excesses under Charley Pell, stripped in May 1985. Not until Spurrier returned to his alma mater in did Florida find its right man.
Post-Spurrier, the Gators have hit it right with Meyer, albeit for only six pre-burnout seasons, but mostly wrong. Ron Zook, Muschamp, Jim McElwain – none made it through four seasons. As for Dan Mullen …
As late as December 2020, he seemed Mr. Right. His first two Florida teams went 10-3 and 11-2. His third started 8-1. It beat Georgia 44-28. It was bound for the SEC title game, maybe the College Football Playoff. Then cornerback Marco Toney wound up with an LSU receiver’s shoe in his hand and, for wont of a better idea, threw it.
Florida lost that night on a 57-yard field goal after Toney’s penalized fling. It lost to Alabama despite scoring 46 points. It lost the Cotton Bowl to Oklahoma by 35. What should have been a breakthrough season broke bad at the end.
Mullen lasted 11 more games. His 2021 team lost 40-17 to South Carolina, a game that led him – finally! – to can defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The next week, the Gators trailed Samford 42-35 at halftime. An overtime loss at 4-5 Missouri prompted AD Scott Stricklin to dump his hand-picked choice.
Asked what went wrong, Stricklin said: “I have some thoughts, but I’m going to keep those to myself.”
Enter Billy Napier, who had success at Louisiana and who apprenticed, like half the free world, under Nick Saban. Napier’s first Florida team went 6-7. The second opened by scoring 11 points in a wretched loss at Utah. The Gators have since beaten Tennessee, lost by 19 at Kentucky and won 41-39 at South Carolina.
Consensus holds that Napier is making strides. His first full recruiting class is rated No. 3 by 247 Sports. Transfer quarterback Graham Mertz ranks 15th nationally in passing efficiency. A non-divisional SEC might well enhance Florida’s fortunes. Saban turns 72 next week, FYI.
Trouble is, Georgia already has its Right Guy – and Smart’s 47. The Bulldogs and Gators will still meet every season; history teaches that only one can dominate. The program in the ascendance remains UGA, which hasn’t lost a regular-season game since Nov. 7, 2020.
That was to Mullen’s Florida. Events rendered it a blip. The Gators have yet another coach. Florida has lost the past two games in Jax by the aggregate score of 76-27. It’s a two-touchdown underdog this time.
Oh, and UGA quarterback Carson Beck? He’s No. 13 in passing efficiency. And Georgia’s 2024 recruiting class? It’s ranked No. 1.