ATHENS — It’s not as if there needs to be more at stake today.
For Georgia, this game could be a healthy dose of medicine for a season on life support.
For Florida, the Bulldogs represent one of a few remaining obstacles on a return trip to the SEC title game.
And yet, for the second straight year, the game is less about rankings and rivalries and more about retribution.
On one hand, the Gators still haven’t forgotten about the end-zone celebration that ensued following Georgia’s first touchdown in 2007.
“We feel as if it’s a slap in the face,” Florida defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. “We can’t just let it be a one-year thing where we feel like we took care of it. We always have to look back at it as disrespect.”
On the other side, Georgia still feels disrespected after Florida head coach Urban Meyer called two timeouts in the final minute of last year’s game to savor a blowout victory.
“That whole timeout thing, it’s just a reflection of their team,” Georgia defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “Maybe they thought us running out on the field was a big thing to them. It rubbed us the wrong way, but it’s a rivalry, so it’s just more fire under our belts.”
And on it goes, more bad blood in a rivalry that has never lacked for animosity.
What the rivalry has lacked for nearly two decades is balance. Florida has won and won and won some more. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have just three victories in the series since 1991.
So when the Bulldogs celebrated on the field in 2007, it wasn’t just an example of bad sportsmanship, head coach Mark Richt insists. It was true elation.
And when Florida called those timeouts, it wasn’t as much about rubbing it in, their players have said. It was about reminding the Bulldogs who was on top.
Or so they all say. The truth is, the venom between the two programs simply demands an ongoing series of gamesmanship that isn’t likely to die down any time soon.
“We danced on the field and won, and they probably felt pretty bad about that. They called the timeouts, and we felt pretty bad about that,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “I don’t know who felt worse.”
While Florida has continued to relish the added motivation this year, however, Cox and his fellow Bulldogs have made a point of downplaying any attempts at revenge.
True, they aren’t happy about what Meyer did, but they’re not exactly calling him out for it either.
“No one likes to be embarrassed like that, but it’s not like we’ve been planning an elaborate scheme to get them back and do something better,” Cox said. “They had the right to do that after we did what we did the year before, and now it’s just another football game.”
Well, not exactly.
The Bulldogs may not be out to serve a lukewarm dish of retribution for the timeouts, but the perceived slap in the face has kept them motivated through a long offseason and a grueling early schedule.
“It’s going to motivate you as a team because you don’t want to let it happen again,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “Just like in ‘07, they used it as motivation to have a fiery offseason and make sure they weren’t embarrassed like that again. It’s the same thing. We’ve used it as part of our motivation this offseason to let us know that we can’t make those mistakes.”
Of course, there’s more to the motivation than a couple of timeouts, too.
For Georgia, a 4-3 start has the Bulldogs preparing for Florida with their worst record since the two teams faced off in 1996. This year also marks just the second occasion in which Georgia has been unranked when the two played. And with the Gators ranked No. 1 and poised for another trip to the SEC championship game, Georgia finds itself a 15-point underdog. The 2001 game against the Gators was the only time since Richt took over at Georgia that the Bulldogs have been bigger underdogs.
It all adds up to a huge challenge for the Bulldogs but also an immense opportunity.
“You’re playing a team no one has beaten in 17 tries,” Richt said. “They’re No. 1 in the nation and defending national champs. If you win that, it’s huge.”
So while revenge may have been on the minds of the players throughout the offseason, this week has been more about redemption.
Georgia sees this week’s game as a chance to erase some of the painful memories of ugly losses this year.
It’s a chance to prove that the past two months have been a stumbling block rather than a sign of things to come for the program.
It’s a chance to earn back some respect following last year’s defeat. After all, the timeouts were simply the final exclamation point on the game. The numbers on the scoreboard told the true story of Georgia’s despair.
“That was the most embarrassing part about last year,” Cox said. “It wasn’t the fact that they called timeout. It was the fact that they beat us so bad. We don’t want to be embarrassed like that again.”
Whatever the cause, emotions will be high for Georgia today. An SEC East title may not be on the line, but that doesn’t mean this game won’t help define the Bulldogs’ season.
And when it comes to retribution, no elaborate plans are needed, Dobbs said. The best dose of revenge the Bulldogs could offer would simply be thwarting Florida’s hopes for another national title by pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the series.
“It’s another game, but it’s also one of the biggest games of the season,” Dobbs said. “Florida is one of the best teams, and that’s why they’re No. 1. It gives you butterflies just thinking about the game. Having them at No. 1, it’s a big platform and a great opportunity.”