Georgia is hip-deep in major rivalries — longstanding series that are played every year and get the fan bases on both sides revved up even more than the usual game.
I remember a few years back ESPN.com ranked the SEC’s top rivalries, and four of the Top 10 involved Georgia: The series with Florida was No. 2 (behind Alabama-Auburn), Georgia-Auburn was No. 6, Georgia-Tennessee was No. 7, and Georgia-South Carolina ranked No. 10.
Really, though, Tennessee and South Carolina occupy the second tier of Georgia’s rivalries — and these days you could make an argument that they’re no more important than any other SEC East game. Certainly, no one considers Missouri, Vanderbilt or Kentucky to be rivalry games.
No, when it comes to real rivalries, Georgia has a clear Big Three: Auburn, Georgia Tech and Florida (which used to be a Big Four when Clemson was an every-year opponent).
Auburn is UGA’s oldest football rival — and, for many fans, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is a sentimental favorite, with the two schools having played 120 times over the past 125 years.
UGA and the former Alabama Polytechnic Institute aren’t that far apart geographically, recruit the same territory, and have had many close connections — for years, Georgia’s coach was an Auburn grad and Auburn’s was a Georgia grad. They also both have fight songs based on the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The “feuding cousins” nature of the rivalry (as Vince Dooley once termed it) was perfectly reflected back in 1992 when Auburn coach Pat Dye, who played for UGA, attended a centennial commemoration of that first Georgia-Auburn game at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Although ostensibly there to represent Auburn, he recited the old rhyme about being “a Bulldog born and a Bulldog bred, and, when I die, I’ll be a Bulldog dead.”)
Auburn admittedly always has been my favorite of Georgia’s regular series. I think, in part, that’s because the Dawgs usually clinched their SEC titles against Auburn in years past, before the schedulers added another conference game for us between the Tigers and the Jackets.
It also helps that, overall, Georgia-Auburn has been an incredibly even series, with UGA currently having a two-game advantage (57-55-8) thanks to winning nine of the past dozen meetings.
The Tech series still matters, too. The clean, old-fashioned hate may have lost some of its meaning for Bulldog Nation back when the Jackets left the SEC, but even the occasional loss to the traditional in-state rival is considered just plain unacceptable.
Georgia fans may not obsess over the series 365 days a year, like many Jackets fans seem to do, but they absolutely hate seeing the Dawgs lose to Tech.
That wasn’t always the case. Back when my Dad was growing up, a lot of UGA fans considered Tech the second state school and would root for them, except when they played the Dawgs.
But, in my lifetime, the rivalry has sharpened to the point where many, if not most, fans for each school take great delight in any misfortune that befalls the other. The combination of a Georgia win and a Tech loss (preferably a blowout) makes for the finest kind of fall Saturday.
Still, perhaps because of the up-and-down, streaky nature of the Florida series in recent years — and its importance in determining who represents the SEC East in the championship game in Atlanta — the Gators now appear to occupy the top spot as the Dawgs’ greatest rival.
Georgia-Florida has been a big deal for a long time, and, with the picturesque Jacksonville setting and the well-lubricated crowd split 50/50 between red and black and blue and orange, it’s long been considered one of the nation’s most storied rivalries.
It’s a lock for a CBS national telecast every year, even if the schools now discourage use of the game’s popular nickname: World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. (Since 2009, the two programs have been playing for the Okefenokee Oar, though, frankly, that’s a tradition that hasn’t caught the imagination of the fan bases at large.)
Younger fans, including UGA students, definitely tend to identify the Gators in Jacksonville as the Dawgs’ biggest rivalry (“a bowl game in the middle of the year,” is the way one fan characterized it).
As a millennial fan told me a few years ago, “For the younger generation of fans, they are absolutely the team to beat, as they [have] dominated us, usually win a lot in general, and it’s a chippy, mean rivalry.”
Also contributing to the special status of the series are the Jacksonville party element, the recruiting battles between the two programs, and how comparable the universities are.
On the other hand, as recently as 2014, when I last surveyed Blawg readers and social media followers about Georgia’s rivals, older fans mostly ranked Auburn as the top rival.
After three consecutive losses in Jacksonville, though, even the older fans I’ve heard from this year seem to view the 2017 game against Florida as the season’s most important … the one they most want Georgia to win.
One lifelong Dawgs fan told me recently that there’s only one thing that matters to him this season, and it’s not winning the division or the conference or even making the College Football Playoff.
It’s all about beating Florida, he said.
I’ve heard pretty much the same thing from many fans I’ve queried about expectations for Kirby Smart’s second year as head coach.
Way back when, the main fan refrain used to be: “Run the damn ball.” Since 2005, it’s usually been “When are we going to win the SEC again?”
But, this year, it’s “Beat the Gators!”
Recent history is a major factor in Georgia fans’ focus on (and frustration with) the Florida rivalry.
Georgia still leads the overall series 50-43-2, but is 5-12 at Jacksonville since the turn of the millennium. UF fans — for whom football history seems to have rebooted in 1990, when Steve Spurrier started his tenure there as head coach — like to point out that, starting then, the Gators have won 21 to the Dawgs’ six. (It’s worth noting, however, that, during the Dooley years, Georgia was 17-7-1 against the Gators.)
What really seemed to elevate the Georgia-Florida rivalry during the Spurrier years was his love-to-hate-me obnoxious demeanor, and the way that string of wins over the Dawgs let loose the inner jerk in a lot of folks wearing jorts.
Actually, over the past six years, the series has been dead even. But, after seeming to have turned the tide with three wins in a row in 2011-2013, the Dawgs now have lost the past three — and, in two of those games, Georgia was the prohibitive favorite but wound up losing badly to inferior Florida teams. A good case can be made for the 2015 loss to Florida having gotten Mark Richt fired.
So, it’s not surprising that the mood of Bulldogs fandom has turned ugly when it comes to the Florida series.
Of course, it’s always possible it could be one of those crazy years in the SEC East, and the Dawgs somehow could manage to win the division and play for the conference championship while still losing again to Florida.
If that happened I’m sure it would be judged a successful year for Georgia by most college football observers.
But, for many in Bulldog Nation, there’d be a very large asterisk attached to that success