After detouring through Columbia, Mo., the past two seasons, the SEC East’s road to Atlanta once again goes through Jacksonville.
The winner of the annual game between Georgia and Florida at EverBank Field on Saturday will gain the inside track, as it often has through the years, to represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome.
“So much is at risk here, mostly the rest of the season,” Georgia nose tackle Chris Mayes said. “We know if we take this game and the next two games after that we’re definitely kings of the East.”
And if they don’t, they’re likely headed for a middling bowl game, at best.
In seven seasons from 2006 through 2012, the Georgia-Florida winner reached the SEC Championship game five times — Florida thrice and Georgia twice. Neither team made it to the Dome the past two seasons, marking the first two-year stretch since 1997-98 without the Gators or Bulldogs playing for the SEC title. But with Missouri, which represented the East in the title game the past two seasons, eliminated from this year’s race, the spotlight once again narrows to Georgia-Florida.
Florida enters the game with a 6-1 (4-1 SEC) record, one game ahead of Georgia (5-2, 3-2). The Gators are ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, the Bulldogs unranked. How the game’s outcome will shape the East race:
- If Georgia wins, the Bulldogs would move into a tie with Florida for first place in the division and would gain the tiebreaker advantage. That means Georgia could clinch a spot in the SEC title game by beating Kentucky and Auburn the next two weeks.
- If Florida wins, the Gators would take a two-game lead and put themselves in position to clinch a spot in the league title game with a homecoming win over Vanderbilt next week.
“We want to win the East. That’s it every year. I mean, that’s our focus; that’s our goal,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “When you think about it, going into the eighth game of the year and we’re still right in the heart of it, that’s a good thing. So I’m pleased with that. But now we’ve got to do it.”
Back-to-back losses to Alabama and Tennessee damaged Georgia’s hopes of a division title, but three subsequent results — Florida’s loss to LSU, Georgia’s win over Missouri and Tennessee’s loss to Alabama — made the game against Florida again crucial for the Bulldogs.
“It was out of our control, but now with … everything that happened, the situation is back in our power,” Mayes said.
“Regardless of that, this game has juice anyway,” UGA receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “That’s just the way it is.”
“If we come out and handle our business, we return (home) in control of our own destiny, and that’s a good thing,” tight end Jay Rome said.
About the best thing the Bulldogs can say about their season to date is that they’re still in the running for the Dome. Yet, they arrive at this juncture with all kinds of issues — rampant quarterback questions, no Nick Chubb and a defense facing a Florida team that piled up 418 rushing yards in last year’s meeting, just to name a few.
Florida tailback Kelvin Taylor, who ran for 197 yards against Georgia last season, again will challenge the Bulldogs’ defense, although Matt Jones, who ran for 192 in last year’s game, has moved on to the NFL. Treon Harris, who threw just six passes against Georgia last season, is back at quarterback for the Gators because Will Grier, who had beaten him out for the starting job, was suspended by the NCAA for using a performance-enhancing drug. And the Florida defense, which returned seven starters from last season, remains stout.
Even last year, despite Missouri ultimately prevailing in the SEC East, the Georgia-Florida game figured prominently in the division race. If Georgia had beaten Florida, the Bulldogs would have finished in a tie with Missouri and would have reached the conference championship game by virtue of their win over the Tigers. But Florida, en route to a 7-5 (4-4) season and a coaching change, inexplicably routed Georgia, enabling Missouri to win the East outright.
Georgia reached the SEC title game in 2002, 2003 and 2005 despite losses to Florida. But this season, a loss would eliminate the Bulldogs from contention and deflate their season.
“Obviously, we know what’s at stake,” linebacker Jake Ganus said. “Everyone does.”