Hyosub Shin/AJC
Kirby Smart, right, and the Georgia Bulldogs are hoping the game Saturday against Florida results in Gators coach Jim McElwain saying 'good game.'

Paranoia is palpable for Georgia fans when it comes to Florida series

ATHENS – The anxiety is palpable. It has been evident in almost every discussion I’ve had with Georgia fans the last week or so about the upcoming game against Florida in Jacksonville.

“No way we lose this game, right?”

“Weren’t we a big favorite when we lost in 2014?”

“I bet they bring back all those suspended guys for this game, won’t they?”

The paranoia of UGA’s fan base is understandable, considering the tortuous existence they’ve endured when it comes to the Florida series the last couple of decades. Fortunately for them, the players themselves don’t share this same psychosis.

Georgia is the better team in 2017. Significantly better. There’s a reason the Bulldogs are 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country. It’s because they’re an excellent team built on a strong running game, defense and special teams. That’s why they’ve won four SEC games by an average of 31 points.

And there’s a reason Florida is 3-3 this year. The Gators have one of the worst offenses in college football. They have a decent defense and they’re terrible on special teams. They’re a highly flawed team, fundamentally and psychologically.

They shouldn’t be this bad, mind you. But any time a team suspends nine players – including the leading rusher and receiver from the previous season – it’s probably going to have an impact. That’s been the case for the Gators, who have seen star receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett swept up in a credit-card fraud investigation. The other players were defensive end Jordan Smith, wide receiver Rick Wells, defensive lineman Richerd Desir-Jones, linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston, defensive lineman Keivonnis Davis and offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort. No returning starters there, but some might’ve been, and it’s an obvious hit to depth.

And they’re not coming back. Not this season. And even if they did today, none of them have practiced all season. Think about that.

Still, the Gators aren’t awful. They’ve lost their last two SEC games by a total of three points to a pair of pretty good teams: LSU (17-16) and Texas A&M (19-17). Georgia fans have no doubt seen that, and that has given them the heebie-jeebies.

This is, after all, a Georgia program against which quarterback Treon Harris is 2-0. Harris, if you haven’t kept up, is now at Tennessee State.

So it’s understandable if Georgia fans are gun shy. They’ve been burned too many times not be wary as they head south again to their beach condos for the 86th renewal of this series in Jacksonville. While there are a lot of good memories down there on the banks of the ol’ St. Johns River, there are more bad ones in recent years.

The Gators have won 21 of the last 27 since Steve Spurrier showed up in 1990. The series has evened up in recent years, with the teams knotted at 3-3 in the last six games. Then again, it has been Florida that has won the last three, and it could be argued that it didn’t have the best team in each of those years. In fact, it hasn’t had the proverbial best team a lot of times it has won.

The Gators certainly didn’t in 2014. In fact, they were 11.5-point underdogs that season. You might recall that Florida rushed 60 times for 418 yards in that game, with Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones going for 197 and 192, respectively. Yeah, that one smarted. And it was also extremely costly. It sent Missouri, which Georgia had beaten 34-0 earlier in the year, to the SEC Championship Game. The Gators finished 7-5 with a .500 conference record and coach Will Muschamp got fired.

I hate to bring it up, but the Bulldogs even managed to lose two times to Ron Zook in the three short years he was Florida’s coach. And Georgia went 34-6 and played for two SEC championships during that span.

The most painful loss this century for sure was 2002. Terrence Edwards is unfortunately remembered for the drop of a wide-open pass with a little over two minutes to play. That should have at least tied a game that Georgia eventually lost 20-13. That was a game of many missed opportunities for the Bulldogs, including two missed field goals by Billy Bennett, a D.J. Shockley pick-6 and a costly personal foul by George Foster.

The loss did not cost Georgia the chance of winning the SEC championship. It did capture the overall league title. But ultimately it did cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for a national title. They finished 13-1.

The Bulldogs also were favored when they lost 26-24 in 1992 and again in 2005 when Shockley had to sit out with an injured knee. Otherwise, though, Florida usually had the better team.

That was the case last year when the No. 14 Gators prevailed 24-10. Again, Florida proved the more physical team when it came to running the football. While the Gators had only 100 yards on the ground that day, the Bulldogs managed just 21 on 19 carries.

And that’s pretty much what it always comes down to in this series. The tougher, more physical team is going to emerge victorious.

Get this stat: During the current three-game losing streak, Georgia has recorded 8 rushing first downs. Eight. In three seasons. That means the Bulldogs have been facing a lot of third-and-medium downs and third-and-longs on offense.

That cannot happen this season. And it will not happen this year.

The difference in the 2017 matchup and so many of those others in this series is the Bulldogs’ senior leadership. For me this game comes down to those seven seniors who mean so much to Georgia: Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Aaron Davis, Sony Michel, Dominick Sanders and Isaiah Wynn.

Chief among them is the tailback Chubb. He hasn’t had great career numbers against Gators – though he did gain 156 yards in 2014 – he certainly didn’t walk away from NFL money and come back for his final year of eligibility to leave 0-4 against Florida. He had 20 yards on 9 carries in Jacksonville last season.

I know Chubb and his teammates are going to be laser-focused on him finishing with at least five times that number of rushing yards this season. And if Chubb does run for 100 yards, I’ll guarantee you here and now the Bulldogs will leave victorious.

The fact is, Georgia is a much better football team. We’ve seen that with our eyes, and we see it on the stat sheet. We’re seeing now that the Bulldogs’ win at Notre Dame was a certified big deal. Mississippi State’s 45-7 victory over Kentucky last Saturday validates as impressive what Georgia did to the Maroons earlier this year.

But don’t go telling your Georgia friends that. They don’t want to hear it. They’ll believe it when they see it.

And, you know what? They’ll see it Saturday.