All this talk at the SEC meetings this week about scheduling and the pros and cons of permanent cross-division rivals got me to thinking about what makes a rivalry and how important they are to schools like UGA.
There are various sorts of rivalries, of course. There are the natural in-state rivalries such as Georgia-Georgia Tech, and then there are rivalries born of proximity (border wars) like Georgia-Florida and Georgia-Auburn. Rivalries work best when the fans of the two schools live and work practically side by side.
It also helps to make a rivalry if, over the long haul, the two programs are fairly closely matched and competitive. As my friend Dan put it, “In order to be a rival, there has to be some equality.” For that reason, the rivalry with Tech has suffered during those long gaps between Jacket victories. And if the annual game between the Dawgs and Gators weren’t a special “neutral” site affair held in Jacksonville, the shine might have gone off Georgia-Florida at various times, too.
The absurdly even nature of the competition between Georgia and Auburn is, I think, one reason why it’s perhaps the most revered of Georgia’s rivalries. That, and the fact that they’ve been playing it longer than any other rival game in the deep South.
So, in football, Georgia has always been hip-deep in rivals. However, you have to play them every year for the rivalry to really stay vital. Georgia-Clemson once was perhaps the Bulldogs’ hottest rivalry, but the twice-a-decade status it’s gone to has cooled things off somewhat.
Still, some schools apparently don’t hold rivalries quite as sacred as the folks in Athens do. LSU’s coach and athletic director argued this week for doing away with permanent cross-division rivalries in the SEC because a) they think it’s inequitable for Mississippi State to play Kentucky every year while Auburn plays Georgia and b) for some reason they want to unload their cross-division rival, Florida.
Thankfully, UGA officials don’t think that way. “There are just some things that are part of the SEC fabric that we think are important,” Greg McGarity said of the permanent rivalries like Georgia-Auburn. “Hopefully, at the end of the day, that will ring true.”
And Mark Richt didn’t mince words on the subject: “My sentiment, to be real clear, is we should play Auburn.”
The same apparently goes for Tech. Even if the SEC were to add a ninth conference game, McGarity said, Georgia would not drop its rivalry with the nonconference Yellow Jackets.
Asked which rivalry matters more to UGA, Auburn or Tech, I like what Richt had to say: “I don’t think you should give up either one. I think too many teams are giving up too many rival games. College football is special because of rival games. I think our league in particular is special because of rival games and the passion of our fans. As we progress, I think we need to be mindful of that and respect that.”
Also being hashed out this week at the SEC meeting has been basketball scheduling, and things haven’t worked out quite the way UGA coach Mark Fox had hoped in terms of rivals.
For the next three years, teams will play an 18-game conference schedule that will include two games (home and home) against a permanent rival, plus four rotating teams twice and one game against eight other teams.
Fox wanted Georgia’s permanent rival to be Florida, but reports are the conference has decided to pair Georgia with South Carolina and let the Gators be Kentucky’s permanent rival.
In basketball, I’ve never really felt Georgia had a true rivalry going aside from Georgia Tech. The game Georgia fans have gotten most excited about every year was Kentucky, but that’s true for every fan base in the conference. Otherwise, I’m not sure who our natural rival is.
I asked a few fans and some opted for South Carolina, despite the fact they’ve only been in the SEC for 20 years. Others mentioned Tennessee.
My son Bill remembers when he was a freshman at UGA the students rushing the floor at the Steg three times during the 2003-2004 season: after beating Tech in overtime when they were undefeated and in the Top 5, beating Kentucky soundly, and beating Florida in a weeknight game “with a rowdy student crowd when we were still a bubble team. Someone hit a Florida player and that drew the attention of the league and new prohibitions on rushing the floor.”
But despite Florida being one of the teams that draws a big crowd in Athens, Bill said he would prefer Tennessee as Georgia’s permanent rival in basketball. I can see that, as I recall quite a few fans in orange showing up at Stegeman Coliseum in recent years. “Tennessee has been pretty good the past decade and we’ve had some real good games with them,” Bill said. “They’ve made an effort to be good at the sport and carry some name recognition as a decent program. Also, that would dovetail with the quasi-rivalry we have with them as two of the league’s traditional powers and most consistent programs in women’s b-ball.”
Overall, Bill notes that “the basketball schedule discussion has been an interesting ego check for UGA, as Florida looks like they are basically teaming up with Kentucky, at the exclusion of UGA. Florida and Kentucky were always the two games that juiced attendance, so that is a shame. But the reality is, UGA has a pretty weak basketball history and hasn’t shown signs of being consistently good, pretty much ever. We’ve been rebuilding for 10 years now with a freak SEC tournament championship and slipping into the tourney for a first round exit as all we can show since 2002.”
My brother Jonathan summed it up by noting that until Georgia becomes “a force to contend with” in basketball, “everyone is a rival.”
What do you think? Have the basketball Dogs just never been good enough to have a true rivalry? Who should their natural rival be? And in football, should Georgia-Auburn and Georgia-Georgia Tech be protected at all costs?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg