JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There’s happiness when Georgia people are asked their impressions of this game. The sights and sounds around the stadium. The scene upon the players and coaches when the bus crests over the Hart Street Bridge and they see the stadium.
“The Georgia-Florida game is great,” Georgia senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “Seeing the stadium split red and blue is amazing, there’s nothing like it.”
Then Carter added something else.
“I just want to be on the winning end this time,” he said.
When the game atmosphere is dispensed with and the actual game is brought up, the sense among Georgia people often turns the other way: Dread. They’ve seen this before. Heavily-favored Georgia coming in on the top of its game. Florida on the ropes.
And then a stunning result that, the Georgia people say later, shouldn’t have been that stunning when history was taken into account.
This Georgia team is hoping to avoid the pitfalls of 2002, 2005 and 2014, among other years. It may be favored by two touchdowns, the highest spread in a UGA team’s favor in decades. But Kirby Smart has spent the past two weeks reminding his players that none of them have ever beaten Florida.
And practices, according to players, have reflected a different situation than the unbeaten and No. 3 Bulldogs actually find themselves in.
“It’s crazy to say, but we don’t feel like we’re undefeated,” senior tailback Sony Michel said this week. “The way we practice, the way we’re being coached. It seems like we’ve lost games. The ways we’re being coached, the way we’re being pushed so hard. Guys still have focus of, I want to win my set instead of being more complacent. We’ve got a good atmosphere going into this game. We’ve got a good mindset.”
Here’s what Georgia has on its side heading into the game some still call the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party:
- The hotter quarterback. Jake Fromm leads the SEC in yards-per-pass attempt while Florida’s Felipe Franks is tied for seventh.
- The hotter defense. Georgia is second statistically in the SEC while Florida is seventh.
- The hotter offense. Georgia, while not reliant on the offense, has still risen to third in the SEC in yards-per-play, while Florida is eighth.
- Better special teams, as measured by the statistical categories, as well as a better turnover margin and better pass blocking.
Here’s what Florida has going for it:
- It’s beaten Georgia three years in a row.
Smart said he hasn’t emphasized past games much, other asking his players to stand if they had beaten Florida. Nobody could. (Fifth-year seniors with the program in 2013, when Georgia last won, did not see any action in that game.)
The main emphasis, at least publicly, has been on maintaining Georgia’s intensity level, pretending they’re not unbeaten. Or as senior nose tackle John Atkins put it: “You want to be the hunter and not the hunted.”
Smart has been through these Georgia-Florida games as a player, assistant coach and head coach. But he’s also been on teams that were going through season-long runs for a championship.
“Most teams, right now they peak out,” Smart said. “Some of them start dinged up. Kids get tired of it, they don’t get better, and very few teams in the country continue to get better throughout the season. A lot of teams lose focus. We’ve got to do a great job of staying away from that. The easiest thing to do is focus on each day, and that’s what we try to do.”
That begins on Saturday, in a game that the closer it stays, the more that dread will creep in for one side of the stadium. But the more Georgia leads, if that happens, the less that history would seem to matter.
“I feel like with the series being where it’s at now, the streak has to be broken,” Atkins said. “We just have to come out every day and keep getting better.”