You can’t look at the past 20 years of the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville without concluding there’s more at work here than simply the Gators outplaying the Dogs on the field.
Too many times we’ve seen the Florida players looking loose and like they were having fun (winning a bunch in a row will do that for you), while Georgia has looked about as tightly wound as a team can get.
Former QB David Greene alluded to this on the radio the other day when he was talking about how badly Georgia players want to beat Florida. Sometimes, he said, they want it so badly that they get too wound up and make mistakes that cost them the game.
Even the coaches have been susceptible to this, as we’ve seen in Mark Richt’s reliance on gimmicks like end zone dances and black helmets to try and get his team emotionally ready for the Gators in recent years. Not to mention some bone-headed calls like a certain onside kick.
It’s one thing for the fans to be obsessed with a rivalry, but when the players get too wrapped up in losing streaks and “hate week,” it messes with their heads, and the result is they don’t play their best football.
Of course, it’s easy to understand how this game has morphed into something special, what with the Cocktail Party atmosphere and the 50-50 split of the fans inside the stadium.
But as new UGA athletic director Greg McGarity — who spent the past 18 years on the other side of this rivalry — pointed out this week, it’s moved beyond that in Athens to a “Florida fixation” that he finds “extremely unhealthy.”
McGarity said he can’t understand “why it was more important to beat Florida than it was to beat South Carolina, Tennessee and anybody else in the [SEC] East. … That doesn’t diminish our desire to win [against Florida], but I think if you put too much pressure on that, it translates into players being tight and coaches being tight. Coaches and student-athletes have enough pressure on them as it is. They know the deal.”
Georgia’s players certainly are trying to talk the talk this week when it comes to playing down the obsession. Said Carlton Thomas, a Florida native: “The only differences are all the festivities and that it’s 50-50 in a neutral site. Other than that, it’s still four quarters and somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose.”
And Aaron Murray, another Sunshine State boy, said, “I’m just trying to prepare like it’s any other game and not focus on all the hype. It’s an SEC game for us, so we’ve just got to keep working hard.”
It would be great for Georgia if the players really could enter EverBank Field in Jacksonville with that sort of mind-set — that this is just another SEC East game, no more or less important than any of the others. But the odds of that are probably pretty slim.
I’m not sure there’s anything that’s going to fix the “fixation” other than Georgia getting back to winning this game on at least a somewhat regular basis like back in the Vince Dooley era. But before that can happen, the players first have to win the mind game.
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