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Why the Georgia football-Florida rivalry intensifying might be good for Bulldogs
It’s safe to that at this point beating Georgia is the No.1 priority for Dan Mullen. He’s accomplished a lot in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He’s won double-digit games in both seasons, won a Peach and Orange Bowl and gone 3-0 against in-state foes Miami and Florida State.
The offensive guru has also seen his team finish with 17 points in each of the two games against Georgia and Kirby Smart. Both games have resulted in losses against the rival Bulldogs. Following Georgia wins, we’ve seen pretty spirited celebrations from Smart and his team in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Georgia-Florida game also clearly means a lot to Smart and his team. It’s the most celebrated regular-season game. And the Bulldogs have won each of the past three contests. They’ve also won the SEC East in each of those seasons. This isn’t a coincidence.
But success for Smart at Georgia isn’t at this point in time measured by division title wins or victories over the rival Gators. So long as the 1980 jokes loom over fans like a guillotine, Smart is always going to be judged by whether or not he wins a national title or at the very least an SEC championship.
To that point, the Bulldogs have only one truly successful season, which came back in 2017. That means a season like this past year, in which Georgia went 12-2, beat its three biggest rivals and won the Sugar Bowl, are considered a failure or at the very lest a disappointment.
And given the offensive woes Georgia had at times in 2019, it felt in real-time that it was down season. Even with a win over a top-10 Florida.
That’s why maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world for Smart to embrace the way Mullen looks at and treats the rivalry. Maybe it’s easier for Mullen to do it that way given he hasn’t had to worry about winning titles to this point. But only focusing on winning titles can be incredibly draining on just about everyone.
Obviously you don’t want to lose the forest through the trees. Given the way Smart operates, we know he isn’t going to say one opponent is more important than any other. The Bulldogs have dominated the Gators as of late and it won’t always be the worst thing in the world to savor that a little more.
Especially given Florida’s success in this rivalry dating back to 1990. Should Georgia beat Florida for a fourth-straight time, it would mark Georgia’s first four-game winning streak against the Gators since the early ’80s.
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From a perception standpoint, this is the closest Georgia and Florida have been since Smart’s first season when the Gators came away with a 24-10 victory. Both teams figure to be ranked in the top-10, with some even making the case Florida should be ranked ahead of Georgia once the 2020 polls open.
That is largely due to Kyle Trask returning for the Gators after a strong 2019 season. Conversely, Georgia is overhauling just about its entire offense. And while there is some reason to be excited for what quarterback Jamie Newman and offensive coordinator Todd Monken will bring to the Bulldogs, penciling them in as the next Joe Burrow and Joe Brady is incredibly premature.
Florida won’t be the only preseason top-10 team on Georgia’s schedule this coming season, given the Sept. 19 contest against Alabama. And with the past relationship between Smart and Nick Saban, along with Georgia’s struggles against Alabama in the past decade-plus, it’s easy to get why that game will certainly be more hyped in the coming months.
But there’s very much a world where Georgia can lose that matchup and still make the SEC title game and possibly the College Football Playoff so long as it beats Florida. The Bulldogs have had entered the Florida game with a loss in each of the past two seasons and gone on to win that game and more or less lock up the SEC East.
That’s why the Florida game, this year more than any, is so important to Georgia. The Bulldogs have had no problem operating without a safety net against the Gators. But should the Bulldogs against Mullen, it’s a long way to the ground given the recent highs the Bulldogs have enjoyed.
Smart is fond of saying pressure is a privilege. And right now there’s a lot more pressure on Smart than Mullen, even though Mullen has continued to lose to Smart. That pressure, I think, comes from putting so much into winning titles. It’s understandable given that’s what Smart was brought to Georgia to do.
Though placing greater importance on beating your biggest rival and celebrating that game and the baggage that comes without, might go along way in assuaging the Georgia fan base about those national title pressures.
It’s part of what makes Mullen’s tactics so brilliant. No one is measuring you to national title expectations if you spend so much time talking about beating Georgia. That way in the event that you do beat your rival, you can brand this season as a success, even if the Gators get no farther than Georgia.
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