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When will Richt break through against Florida?

POSTED: October 31, 2007 5:07 a.m.

Inquiring minds always want to know the answer to the same question when Georgia football coach Mark Richt makes the rounds on the booster club banquet circuit.

Say, coach, when are we going to get around to beating Florida?

The plaintive query has become as much a part of Richt’s offseason speaking engagements as steak dinners, handshakes, backslaps and autographs.

"The fans want to know," Richt said. "Especially South Florida fans. They’re the ones that have to live closest to Gainesville and Jacksonville.

"But if I go to a booster club meeting in North Georgia, they want to know if I’m going to beat Tennessee."

Perhaps the North Georgian line of questioning results from nearly two decades of misery against Florida rather than geography. Undoubtedly imbued with a sense of dread cultivated by these last 17 years, those ardent Georgia loyalists have most likely written off the last weekend of October as a lost cause.

A 2-15 record against a league rival tends to erode fan confidence, but that history of agony has undoubtedly created a more crippling deficit of it on the field. The Bulldogs have featured the better roster more often than not since Richt showed up in 2001, but have gone just 1-5 against the Gators. It would be a tremendous boost to this program to beat a more talented and heralded Florida team now because, in the case of this rivalry the last six years, it has too often achieved lesser results with more resources on the last Saturday of October.

"A rival game needs to be more equal in who wins and loses, which it hasn’t been lately," Richt said.

The more the players insist they don’t think about those five narrow losses since 2001, the easier it is to believe the resulting emptiness has burrowed its way into their collective psyche through the earholes of their helmets.

"We can’t worry about "06 or "05 or as far back as this bad stretch has gone for us," Georgia tight end Tripp Chandler said. "It’s not about those other teams. It’s just about this team."

So, what about this 20th-ranked Georgia team?

What should we make of it after the 35-14 clubbing it took from Tennessee or its 20-17 escape at Vanderbilt?

It certainly does not qualify as the most intimidating ensemble Richt has ever brought to Jacksonville. Last year, the tipping point was Georgia’s unsettled situation at quarterback. This year, it could be the thinning herd at tailback.

The Bulldogs, reduced to one proven tailback due to injuries, are searching for continuity on offense. The defense, after failing to slow Tennessee and conceding 179 rushing yards to Vanderbilt, faces a huge problem in stopping Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

And yet, for all of their flaws, the 6-2 Bulldogs find themselves presented with an amazing opportunity on Saturday. Win and there exists the possibility that this team could stroll into the Georgia Dome in December. Stranger things have already happened in this SEC season, including South Carolina’s contention for the Eastern Division title, Vanderbilt’s proximity to its first bowl bid in 25 years, Kentucky’s upset of a No. 1-ranked LSU team and LSU’s last-second escape against an Auburn team that somehow lost to Mississippi State.

"We know that we don’t completely control our own destiny," Georgia wide receiver Mohammed Massaquoi said. "But if we do the things that we need to do, we can put ourselves in position to be right where we want to."

Here’s a hint: Their preferred location does not involve the Music City Bowl.

And yet, for all the significant strides Georgia has made by Richt’s side, including two SEC championships and regular January bowl appearances, Florida represents the flea the Bulldogs can’t dislodge from their fur.

Until they do, they can’t realistically aspire to challenge for a larger prize than the SEC.

The longer this Florida funk festers, the more uncomfortable those booster club questions will get.



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