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Bulldogs face big nemesis in Jacksonville

POSTED: October 28, 2007 5:07 a.m.
ATHENS — Kelin Johnson doesn’t need to look at a schedule to know who Georgia is playing this week.

Florida must be next, judging from all those desperate Bulldog fans yapping in Johnson’s ear, urging him and his teammates to find some way — any way — to beat their hated south-of-the-border rival.

"It’s a real problem," the senior safety moaned. "We have a lot of fans who are just so focused on Florida. You have to be focused on every game on the schedule, especially if you care about Georgia football and the Georgia nation. But here, (it seems) you can lose all your games in a season, but if you beat Florida I guess you’ve had a good season."

The single-mindedness of the red-and-black faithful may be annoying, but it’s easy to understand. Every year about this time, the Bulldogs must cope with their albatross, which just happens to take the form of a Gator.

Coinciding (not so coincidentally) with Steve Spurrier’s arrival in 1990, Florida took one of college football’s greatest rivalries by the tail. Seventeen years later and two coaches removed from Spurrier, the Gators still haven’t let go.

The Bulldogs have managed all of two wins within that timeframe, turning the "Cocktail Party" into one long Gator hoe-down. Even on its way to winning two Southeastern Conference championships over the past five years, Georgia’s season was marred both times by losses to Florida.

Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs’ frustration has grown to epic proportions, especially among the older fans who remember Georgia dominating this series under former coach Vince Dooley.

"A lot of Georgia fans can’t stand Florida," fullback Brannan Southerland said. "They want to put their two cents worth in and tell you what you need to do to beat them."

Georgia went 1-11 against Spurrier, including a 52-17 loss between the hedges when the Ol’ Ballcoach called a trick play in the final minutes because he wanted his team to be the first to hang "half a hundred" on the Bulldogs in their own stadium.

But Spurrier’s ill-fated departure for the NFL did little to change the complexion of this series. Even Ron Zook beat Georgia twice before losing in 2004, just days after Florida announced that he wouldn’t be back for another season.

The 2002 loss might have been the most painful of all for the Bulldogs. They entered with an 8-0 record and ranked No. 4 in the country, but Florida — which was 5-3 and struggling in Zook’s first year — pulled off a stunning 20-13 upset.

It was Georgia’s only loss of the season.

Urban Meyer picked up the whipping stick and knocked off the Bulldogs in his first two tries, rubbing even more salt in the wound by going on to win the national championship last season.

"We hear a lot of grief from the fans and from the Florida guys," Georgia linebacker Marcus Washington said. "They’re always giving us a hard time. We don’t want to put up with that anymore. We need to come out here and do our best to make sure we get a victory."

Not surprisingly, oddsmakers are going with Florida to make it 16 out of 18.

Even though the teams are tied for first in the SEC with identical records (5-2, 3-2), the Gators opened as a nine-point favorite for Saturday’s neutral-site game in Jacksonville, Fla., where the tickets are divided 50-50 but the home-state team clearly has a decided edge.

"You can’t ignore it," Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi conceded. "It’s out there. You get tired of hearing about it."

Florida’s dominance has led to all sorts of soul searching on the Georgia side of the border, while the Gators, not surprisingly, sound as though they point to other games on their schedule more than this one.

"I know it is a rivalry," freshman Duke Lemmens said, "but compared to Tennessee and Florida State, I think this is a friendlier rivalry where the fans can really enjoy it."

Ouch.

During his long tenure as an assistant at Florida State, Mark Richt had plenty of success against the Gators. Not so as a head coach; he’s lost five out of six since taking over at Georgia, even though he arguably had stronger teams at least half the time.

"The last five games, shoot, every one of them has been a touchdown or less," Richt said. "You’ve got to win your share of close ones, and we just haven’t done that."

Georgia fans have come up with all sorts of reasons for Florida’s dominance, including:

— The Gators have a home-field advantage because the game is played every year just 90 miles from their campus.

— Florida often takes an off week before the Georgia game, allowing the Gators to come in refreshed with extra time to work on their game plan.

Georgia defensive back C.J. Byrd brushed off the first theory.

"It feels like a road game, but I don’t think anybody has an advantage over the other," he said. "It’s not that much of an advantage for them or us. I think it’s an evenly matched game."

The off week may carry more credence. Everyone will get a chance to find out Saturday, with Florida coming off an emotional victory at Kentucky while Georgia took last week off, getting a chance to heal up some injured players on the defensive side.

"I do think there’s some definite benefits," Richt said. "There’s not a coach in America who will say that an open date is not a good thing."

Maybe it just comes down to Florida having better teams most years. Or maybe it’s something that can’t be measured at all, unless you’re Austin Powers.



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