JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — They’re here. All the Georgia fans that usually come down this time of year are here. Some UGA students are making their first trips and getting their first tastes of The Landing downtown or Frat Beach up on St. Simons Island. They’re reporting high-occupancy rates in the condos up and down the Golden Isles, as usual, so everybody’s still showing up.
That part of the Georgia-Florida rivalry never changes. The Bulldog faithful always turn out in droves for this annual fall break that culminates with a football game on the banks of the St. Johns River. To them, it remains and always will be the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” regardless of what politically-correct name the Jacksonville City Council tries to put on it (an informal social media survey indicates “River City Showdown” has not been well-received).
How their team looks when they get here annually varies greatly, and that might be as much of a mystery this year as any.
The Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3 SEC) are big underdogs to the 14th-ranked Florida Gators (5-1, 3-1) for Saturday’s contest (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). That was probably going to be the case even before Georgia dropped a 17-16 decision to Vanderbilt at home in its last outing. But while that defeat sent shivers down backs of Bulldogs everywhere, it might’ve provided some perspective as well.
No, this is not a very good team Kirby Smart is fielding in Year 1 of his UGA coaching tenure. Never mind improving on Mark Richt’s old-and-tired refrain of 10 wins but no championships. At this point, bowl eligibility is not a given for the Bulldogs.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Perhaps a little desperation is just what the Dogs need.
“I certainly think you can do that,” Smart said of playing desperately against Florida. “I mean, I’m not looking at it like we’re desperate or anything like that. I just think maybe (the Gators) play uptight. They’re the ones (that if) they lose, Tennessee gets them. But we’re really not focused on that as much as we are trying to play our best game. If we play our best game, we’ve got every opportunity to win this game.”
Perhaps an underdog mentality will serve Georgia well. Certainly, the “we’re going to line up and whip you up front” philosophy hasn’t.
The Bulldogs struggled in that regard against Nicholls State, Missouri, South Carolina and Vandy. To think running the ball straight down the throats of the Gators would seem an exercise in futility.
Florida brings into Saturday’s contest the best defense Georgia has faced yet. Actually, it’s the best defense in the SEC statistically, leading the league — and, yes, Alabama — in points allowed (12.0 per game), total yardage allowed (252.5 per game) and passing yardage allowed (132.8 per game). As for defending the run, the Gators are giving up a relatively modest 119.2 yards per game, but that’s still fourth in the conference.
“You look at them and they’re very physical,” Georgia senior tackle Greg Pyke said. “They’re number one in all the stats in the SEC. So we know they’re a very, very good defense. As an offensive line you know it’s going to be a tough job, but you like that challenge. You know you have to bring you’re A-game.”
But that’s where the breakdown of these two teams gets interesting. While Georgia hasn’t exactly played the AFC West this season, neither have the Gators. They have the likes of UMass, Kentucky and North Texas dotting their slate. And of the three common opponents, they eked out a 13-6 win at Vanderbilt and also lost to Tennessee (38-28 in Knoxville). The lone exception is Missouri, which Florida throttled 40-14 in its last outing two weeks ago in Gainesville. Georgia needed a last-minute touchdown pass from Jacob Eason to edge the Tigers 28-27 in Columbia.
With the exception of Tennessee (5-2, 2-2), which beat it on a Hail Mary, Georgia has played the worst of the worst from both sides of the SEC. Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss are 3-13 between them in conference play, and only the 4-4 Commodores are at least .500 overall.
Such comparisons are always maddening and rarely translate logically. Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs come into this contest believing not only that they can win the game, but not needing to manufacture confidence to do so.
“I feel like talent-wise we’ve been equal to anyone we’ve played; we’ve just kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” senior Davin Bellamy said this week. “Coach Smart made a statement saying all the games we lost, we lost those games ourselves. We know we had a lot of mistakes on our end. It wasn’t what the opposing team was doing; it was us. That kind of comes with getting better over time.
“I don’t see a lack of confidence in this team at all because we’ve been in every game this year. We’ve just got to eliminate some of the mistakes that we have.”
Indeed, no one has seen the Bulldogs play anything close to a complete game yet. Special teams catastrophes, penalties and defensive busts have characterized their play all season.
That’s what did them in last season against the Gators. A muffed punt on the goal line by Georgia’s Reggie Davis on the last play of the first quarter gave Florida a cheap touchdown and opened the floodgates en route to a 27-3 defeat. The thinking is the Bulldogs don’t need to spectacular as much as sensible.
The Bulldogs held a players-only meeting during the bye week to discuss it.
“We just talked about we needed everybody to buy in and do everything right,” junior receiver and kick returner Isaiah McKenzie said. “We know we’re not undefeated. We’re not going to sit here and act like we don’t need to get better. Everybody always needs to get better. That’s what we spoke about, keeping our heads up and being positive and keep the negativity out of the locker room.”
Said Bellamy: “I have confidence in all these guys, our coaches have confidence in us. We know that if we come and play our game there’s not a team on our schedule that we can’t beat or compete with.”
Especially if the Dogs play with a little desperation.