JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In September 2010, during his first year as Georgia’s athletic director, Greg McGarity had a meeting with all of the Bulldogs’ head coaches. He had several messages he wanted to convey, but one of the main ones was this: Don’t make Florida games bigger than any other.
McGarity has a unique perspective on the Georgia-Florida rivalry. A UGA graduate and one-time coach and athletic administrator for the Bulldogs, he also spent 18 years as the No. 2 man in the Gators’ athletic department. McGarity happened to arrive in Gainesville, Fla., not long after Steve Spurrier took over as football coach and swung the series in Florida’s direction.
During that time, McGarity noticed a trend among his former constituency. Defeating Florida — in any sport, but especially football — had become a fixation. He observed that it had become so important to the Bulldog Nation, and to the coaches and players as well, as to become a debilitating obsession.
“I wanted to debunk this notion that beating Florida was any more important than beating anybody else in the SEC,” McGarity said this past week. “It doesn’t count any more in the standings. I just felt like there was too much emphasis being put on beating one team.”
McGarity told his coaches that winning SEC championships — not defeating certain opponents — is the standard on which they would be judged.
To that end, the Bulldogs often tripped over Florida trying to do just that. They’d win only three of the 18 games with McGarity on the other sideline, and he observed Georgia teams often stretched taut with anxiety.
“It seemed like there would always be that one play where Georgia would drop a pass or throw an interception late in the game or something, and that would end up being the difference,” McGarity said. “It just seemed like they were too uptight. I think that was because they put so much pressure on themselves that didn’t need to be there.”
So McGarity’s primary advice as Georgia and Florida prepare to renew their rivalry for the 91st time Saturday: “just relax and trust your abilities.”
The SEC East is on the line again as the No. 10 Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1) and No. 2 Gators (7-0, 6-0) meet at EverBank Field. A Florida win punches its ticket to the Georgia Dome. A Georgia win gives the Bulldogs the head-to-head tiebreaker should they win out.
Georgia coach Mark Richt appears to have heeded the advice of his boss. The Bulldogs lost in overtime in 2010 and won 24-20 last year to help clinch an SEC Championship game berth. And as far as anyone can tell, there are no plans for any field-rushing touchdown celebrations or uniform changes as he has resorted to in the past.
“I think it’s one of those weeks as a coach where you don’t sit around wondering how you can motivate these guys,” Richt said. “They are motivated to play, so I don’t think that’s an issue. … Everything gets magnified in games like this. We have some experience with it. At South Carolina we didn’t handle it well. Hopefully we’ll handle it this time around.”
The Gators have revenge on their side, having blown a 17-3 lead last year to lose in coach Will Muschamp’s first season. But the UGA graduate echoed Richt’s sentiments that no special antics are warranted.
“You don’t need a bunch of pep talks this week to get them going,” said Muschamp, who went 7-6 on his first season at Florida. “What’s oftentimes lost in a game of this magnitude is the importance of making sure players don’t get too hyped too early.”
That might be the biggest concern for the Bulldogs. Senior safety Shawn Williams ignited Georgia’s fan base — and its locker room — when he ranted after Monday’s practice about the Bulldogs’ defense “playing too soft” and without passion. That’s the reason, Williams concluded, that after finishing fifth in the nation in total defense last season, Georgia is not among the top 50 in most statistical categories coming into Saturday’s game.
Williams’ comments touched off an impassioned response from his teammates. Tuesday’s practice was said to be one of the more spirited and physical of the season. At least two players came out of it with concussions.
“I feel like that woke a lot of guys up,” said All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who is returning this week from an ankle injury. “I think guys understand where Shawn’s coming from, and we all definitely respect him. We feel like it was just a challenge for us to go out there and re-focus ourselves and get back on the right track and play the defense we’re known for playing. That’s smash-mouth football.”
Georgia certainly does not sound like a tight team heading into Saturday’s game. While everyone around has been peppering them with questions about their record against Top 10 teams (1-9 since 2008) and their record against Florida (4-18 since 1991), the Bulldogs have spoken confidently and excitedly about getting to measure themselves against the mighty Gators once again in Jacksonville.
“I think our guys will be ready,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I don’t think it matters what a team is ranked or if a team is ranked or not ranked in this game. There’s going to be so many emotions. Guys will be playing harder than they’ve played all season long. It’s a fun game and I love being a part of it. I know I’ll be ready to go and I know my teammates will be ready to go.”
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