Georgia vs. Florida
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jacksonville, Florida
On TV: CBS
ATHENS, Ga. — With or without Todd Gurley, the Georgia Bulldogs are big favorites to hand Florida another defeat.
The tide has definitely turned in this heated rivalry.
No. 9 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) will be going for its fourth straight win over the struggling Gators in Jacksonville, a game expected to push the Bulldogs another step closer to the league championship — and perhaps finish off embattled Florida coach Will Muschamp.
For the seniors in red and black, the idea of going through an entire college career without ever getting chomped is quite appealing.
"That would mean a lot," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said Tuesday. "We did something a lot of teams don't do."
While the Bulldogs continued to await word from the NCAA on Gurley's status, it was another business-like day for a program that controls its own fate in the conference race.
Gurley is practicing with the team and will be ready to go Saturday if Georgia gets a favorable ruling from the NCAA. The school applied for the running back's reinstatement after he was suspended the last two games during an investigation of improper benefits for autographs.
"We've giving him a good bit of reps," coach Mark Richt said. "We just want to get him in the kind of condition he needs to play the game. All he can do is keep practicing and focusing on his opportunities and kind of wait and see."
In a series of streaks, Georgia's last four-game winning streak over the Gators dates way back to the 1980s, when Vince Dooley was coaching the Bulldogs.
After Steve Spurrier took over in Gainesville in 1990, Florida won 18 of the next 21 meetings against Georgia, a run of dominance that continued through Urban Meyer and, in between, even survived Ron Zook's short-lived tenure as coach (he won two of three over the Bulldogs, most notably denying them a perfect record and a shot at the national title in 2002).
Georgia regained the upper hand after Muschamp replaced Meyer in 2011, winning the last three games though by an average margin of just five points. The Bulldogs are projected to have a much easier time of it Saturday, going in as a whopping 13-point favorite — their largest spread over the Gators in at least the last two decades.
Richt is doing his best to make sure the Bulldogs don't take anything for granted, especially after they seized command of the SEC East with impressive victories over Missouri and Arkansas, shaking off Gurley's jarring suspension.
"This team was improving whether Todd played or not," Richt said. "We were getting better defensively. We were getting better offensively. A lot of people say Todd not being there gave the team incentive to play harder. There may be some truth to that. They love Todd. They wanted to honor him, especially when he missed some games. They wanted to give him a little sign like, 'Hey, we're with you.' But we were getting better regardless."
While freshman Nick Chubb has justifiably received plenty of accolades for the job he's done filling in for Gurley, the Bulldogs' biggest improvement has been on the other side of the line under first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Georgia has forced nine turnovers the last two games, leading to a 34-0 rout of Missouri and an easy win over Arkansas in which the Bulldogs led 38-6 at halftime.
Pruitt tried to keep things simple early on, but changed that philosophy after a 38-35 loss to South Carolina. The players are still adjusting to the new scheme, but it's clear they're becoming more confident in what they've learned — and, perhaps more important, that the guys around them know what they're doing, too.
"There's been a lot of progress," Herrera said. "We're getting a lot of turnovers now. That's one thing we did not have last year. That's something we've focused on all year, something that we focus on in practice every day. It's good that it's paying off now."
The improved defense and stellar running game — even with Gurley on the sidelines — has allowed the Bulldogs to keep winning without a 200-yard passing game from quarterback Hutson Mason.
"If you don't turn the ball over, you don't beat yourself with penalties, you don't really have to be number one statistically in every category," Mason said. "We're going to hit you in the mouth. We're going run it down your throat. A lot of teams can't handle that for four quarters."