ATHENS — Mark Richt wouldn’t come out and say he was happy that Alabama rallied to beat Tennessee on Saturday, thus ensuring that Georgia can win its division without any help.
“I was watching a good bit of that game. Yeah I saw the end of that game,” Richt said. “I mean I was a good college fan yesterday.”
The result means this for Georgia: It’s eliminated from the SEC East race with a loss to Florida, but a win puts it in prime position, though still needing to beat Kentucky and Auburn to win the division.
So essentially Saturday’s game against Florida is a last stand for Georgia, an attempt to keep alive its chances at a meaningful season. Even then, Richt didn’t inject anything emotional into his comments, other than stating the obvious.
“Yeah it’s a big game, certainly. We think they’re all big,” Richt said. “But certainly this one’s one that everybody gets excited about regardless of the record. But now it has a lot of meaning when it comes to the Eastern Division race as well.”
Right now Florida (6-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC) is in the better position and seems like the better team. Even in losing for the first time this season, last week at LSU, the Gators fared well, keeping the final score within a touchdown.
Georgia (5-2, 3-2) is coming off a 9-6 home win over struggling Missouri, a win that followed losses to Alabama and Tennessee. The bye week seemed to come at a good time for a Bulldog team that needed to be regroup.
The memory of last year’s debacle, at least from Georgia’s perspective, is also still fresh. Florida entered on the verge of firing its coach while Georgia had just one loss, but the Gators still won resoundingly, 38-20.
And yet last week Georgia opened as a slight favorite over Florida. Perhaps Las Vegas was aware that this rivalry has a history of going the opposite way as expected. The team that was either unranked or lower-ranked entering the game has won six of the past 13 seasons, including two of the last three.
The venue could have something to do with it. A neutral crowd takes away the home crowd for whichever comes in playing best. Early in his tenure, Richt made clear he wasn’t crazy about a neutral game in the other team’s state, which happened to be about six hours away from Athens.
But Richt hasn’t used that as an excuse lately, saying only on Sunday that the offense has to be ready to deal with the noise.
“In some ways you feel like you’re at home, in some ways you feel like you’re away,” Richt said, adding later: “It’s a great crowd, it’s a great venue, it’s electric, like no other game. Whoever’s got the ball somebody’s getting rowdy on the other side.”
Jim McElwain will be the fifth Florida coach that Richt has faced as Georgia’s coach. The two don’t know each other well.
“It’s obvious that he’s doing a great job, getting everybody on the same page, and playing as hard as they can,” Richt said. “Been winning. Been winning some big games. Just been doing a great job, I think.”
Both teams have had big jolts to their offense in the past few weeks: Georgia lost star tailback Nick Chubb for the season two games ago, and a couple days later Florida quarterback Will Grier was suspended for a year for taking a banned substance.
That leaves Florida starting Treon Harris, who knows Georgia well: Last year Harris was the starter when the Gators had 418 rushing yards. Harris only needed to throw it three times.
Based on what Richt has seen on film, he didn’t think Florida’s offense is that different with Harris instead of Grier.
“They do a good job of moving the point where the quarterback sets (and throws). They don’t just always have him in the pocket in the same spot. They’ll move him through bootlegs, and nakeds, and sprint-outs,” Richt said. “We’re seeing a lot of the same types of thoughts. But Treon obviously is a very athletic guy and has made a lot of plays on the move, throwing and running.”