This will come as scant consolation to Georgia fans, but Florida folks were once like you. The Gators would arrive in Jacksonville fearing the worst, and they’d get it.
Here’s how completely this rivalry has turned: Vince Dooley, the best coach in Georgia history, worked against four different Gators coaches over a quarter-century and had a winning record against each; Mark Richt, the second-best coach in Georgia history, has worked against three different Florida coaches over the past decade and has a losing record against each.
From 1964 through 1989, Georgia beat Florida 18 times (and tied once) in 26 meetings. In the 21 games since, Florida has won 18 times. The Bulldogs can’t even rent the game they used to own. The series flipped when Dooley retired as coach after the 1988 season and Steve Spurrier took the Gators in 1990, but even after Spurrier left for the NFL after the 2001 season nothing much has changed.
Which isn’t to say what we’ve witnessed is unfamiliar. On the contrary, the feeling of dread that has descended on Georgia was once expressed rather poignantly by eminent Gators. The year was 1984. Florida arrived in Jacksonville with maybe its best team ever — although Charley Pell, its coach, had stepped down after three games amid an NCAA investigation — but no real confidence that it could beat Georgia.
Because Florida would always lose to Georgia. Bulldogs backers recall Belue-to-Scott as the greatest play in the history of collegiate football; Gators fans remember that the Florida defender with the best angle fell as Lindsay Scott turned upfield. Other Gators lowlights: Bill Stanfill rising from a sick bed to sack Spurrier, who would win the Heisman; Richard Appleby, a Bulldogs receiver, throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass off an end-around; Florida coach Doug Dickey failing on a gamble that became known as “fourth-and-dumb”; Georgia driving 99 yards behind John Lastinger to the touchdown that beat Florida 10-9.
That excruciating drive came in 1983 and was fresh on the minds of Gators this correspondent interviewed in November ‘84. Said Spurrier, then coach of the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits: “Twelve or so times we’ve played Georgia with the SEC on the line, and they were either better or tougher or luckier than we’ve been. Probably Georgia just expects to win big games more than Florida does.”
Said Ray Graves, the Gators’ coach from 1960 through 1969: “After all the strange plays Georgia has pulled off, with guys falling down and guys knocking each other down, there’s always a feeling that a team can start believing in a jinx. You keep losing and losing, and you say, ‘Ah, we’ll get you next year,’ and then the other side says, ‘Yeah, that’s what your grandpa said, too.’ ”
A Georgia fan born in early 1990 has reached adulthood knowing only three Bulldogs victories over Florida: In 1997 under Jim Donnan, when Robert Edwards ran wild; in 2004 under Richt, when Florida coach Ron Zook had already been rendered a lame duck, and again in 2007, the year Richt’s players danced in the end zone after their first touchdown.
Of Richt’s eight losses to the Gators, half have come when he appeared to have the more talented team. A true oddity: Richt has taken Georgia to the SEC championship game three times, but beat Florida in none of those seasons.
Speaking 27 years ago, the former Gator Cris Collinsworth said: “Something would always happen to us to make us turn around and say, ‘Wait a minute – is there really a jinx?’ ”
Today Georgia will play as a favorite, having won its past five games. Florida, by way of contrast, has lost three in a row. But similar dynamics prevailed last year: Georgia had won three straight and Florida had lost three straight, and the Gators won in overtime.
Recent history in this series has driven this correspondent into a default position: I’ll believe Georgia can beat Florida only after I see Georgia beat Florida. Which, believe it or not, was a different correspondent’s position regarding a different team back in 1984.
Said Hubert Mizell, then of the St. Petersburg Times: “I’ve seen so many weird things happen in that [Georgia] game that if Florida led by 28 points going into the fourth quarter, I’d call it 50-50.”
For the record, Florida beat Georgia 27-0 in 1984, breaking a six-game losing streak against the Bulldogs. Was Gators domination finally at hand? Nope. Florida entered the 1985 game ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in its history. It lost to Georgia 24-3.
By Mark Bradley