DESTIN, Fla. — ESPN analyst and SEC Network host Paul Finebaum has made a living talking to SEC fans the past three decades.
But Finebaum, who has just about heard it all, doesn’t know what to make of how the Georgia-Florida rivalry has taken a turn despite lopsided results of late.
The Gators’ swagger has been staggered by UGA coach Kirby Smart.
The Bulldogs have scored dominant back-to-back wins on the field, while taking top prospects out of Florida like 2018 signee Kenny McIntosh and 2019 quarterback commit Carson Beck.
“I believe right now, based on what I’ve heard, based one what I do every day listening to callers, I believe it’s the hottest rivalry in the SEC right now,” Finebaum told DawgNation in an exclusive interview at the SEC Spring Meetings last week.
“I think there’s a sense at Florida that they are gaining and literally breathing down Georgia’s neck, that’s been promoted by Dan Mullen, and I’ve heard it,” he said. “Georgia fans are like, ‘are you kidding me?’
“It’s like you’re at the company picnic on July 4 and a fly lands on your barbecue, and you shoo it away — that’s how I think Georgia fans feel about Florida.”
Smart, who played in the rivalry as an All-SEC safety with the Bulldogs, has not gotten caught up in the talk.
“We are not going to move up in the rankings by what I say, we are going to do it by how we play,” Smart said earlier this offseason. “We want to talk with our helmets. That is what we always talk about. We want to play a physical brand of football and not do it with our mouthpiece.”
The Bulldogs beat the Gators 36-19 last season and 42-7 the year before. The rivalry game is scheduled to be played in Jacksonville through 2021.
Finebaum said Mullen, who lost to Smart and Georgia 31-3 in 2017 in his final season as Mississippi State’s head coach, took shots at UGA behind closed doors this spring.
“I was in Mullen’s office a couple of weeks ago and that’s all he wanted to talk about, he showed me the three (national championship) trophies, asked me the last time Georgia got one, and it was on,” Finebaum told DawgNation. “It reminded me of 20 years ago when Steve Spurrier would try out SEC Media Days material when guys like us would call him to shoot the breeze in May and June.”
Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, had the walk to back up his talk. Florida won six SEC championships and a national title between 1991-2000 under Spurrier’s direction.
Mullen, in 10 years as an SEC head coach, has yet to reach the SEC Championship Game.
“He was just very cocky and arrogant about everything, like last year didn’t happen, and the year before when he was at (Mississippi) State,” Finebaum said, referencing Smart’s domination in the head-to-head meetings with Mullen.
“I don’t know if (Mullen) necessarily believes that they are that close, but he wants his people to believe it, and based on what I hear every day, Florida fans believe it,” Finebaum said.
“They believe because they dominated in the 1990s, Mullen has enabled Florida to believe that they are back.”
The Gators were ranked No. 8 in the final AP Top 25 poll last season after beating Michigan 41-15 in the Peach Bowl, finishing the 2018 campaign with a 10-3 mark.
Georgia was 11-3 and ranked No. 7 after a 28-21 Sugar Bowl loss to Texas. The Bulldogs’ players collectively lacked inspiration after missing the College Football Playoffs in controversial fashion.
A loaded CFP committee didn’t bode well for UGA. The 13-member committee included sitting athletic directors from rivals Georgia Tech and Florida, along with ADs from invested programs Ohio State and Oklahoma.
Florida’s bowl victory, combined with the Bulldogs’ letdown loss (first-round draft pick Deandre Baker sat out), plays into the narrative Mullen is creating.
“Florida fans are just so desperate and so hungry to be relevant again because it’s been so long, so Dan has come down there and he has given them that hope and that dream, and they have taken a big bite of it because they are Florida,” Finebaum said.
“Florida, in the eyes of Florida fans, is equal to Alabama, and Georgia is just someone to trample on the way to the championship game.”