Rivalries and mind games have been a part of SEC football for as long as the conference has existed. Perhaps no rivalry currently has as much riding on the mind as the annual tilt between Florida and Georgia.
Florida players are still drawing on Georgia's end zone dance of 2007 as motivation for the game, not wanting to making it "a one-year thing." This fact is not surprising since Urban Meyer made a big deal out of it in his biography, and considering he's been known to go so far as to invent fake disrespectful quotes from Kirk Herbstreit (before the Ohio State game) to get his team fired up.
Mark Richt, for his part, said on Tuesday that, "I don’t think this game needs anything extra from the past to get anybody excited to play." That's a nice sentiment, but it doesn't exactly mesh with his off season motivational tactics:
If you notice in the background of the poster, you can see a faint image of Meyer calling a timeout. You can believe that the Bulldogs haven't forgotten about the way last year's game ended. These things are just the recent stuff though. The psychology of this series runs a lot deeper than just what has gone on the past two years.
Part of it is that the two schools can't even agree on when the series started. Georgia claims 1904 as the official date, when UGA's team met a football team representing UF and won 52-0. Florida claims that the series didn't begin until 1915, throwing the '04 result out because it was before the complete university (a result of the merger of the Florida Agricultural College from Lake City and the East Florida Seminary in Gainesville, though FAC began calling itself "the University of Florida" in 1903) officially sanctioned football. It was just a club team that got, well, clubbed by Georgia the decade prior say the Gators.
That's just a small part though. If I had to guess why the rivalry is so mental, I'd pin it on the fact that it is so streaky. Florida has famously won 16 of the last 19 games since Steve Spurrier took over UF in 1990, but that's hardly the whole story. Georgia won the first seven games between the teams (including the 1904 game), at which point UF went 2-0-1 over the intervening three years. Georgia then won six in a row before Florida's next win, in 1937, but that merely ushered in an 11-2 stretch for the Bulldogs.
After that point, the series has gone roughly in 19 year cycles. Florida went 13-5-1 from 1952-1970. Georgia went 15-4 from 1971-1989. Now, Florida has gone 16-3 from 1990-2008. If Georgia wins on Saturday, it may mark the beginning of another 19 year period where UGA goes back on top. Or, it just mean that the Bulldogs got two of the last three. Or three of the last six. I remember last year some Georgia fans getting excited about the prospect of having won three of the last five. The streaks mean a lot in the rivalry.
Beyond that, you've got the personal stories that every rivalry has.
Georgia won 75-0 in 1942 when Florida' roster was depleted from players going off to war and UGA's roster was at full strength and included eventual Heisman winner Frank Sinkwich. Georgia's win in 1966 prevented Steve Spurrier from winning the SEC his senior year, which played into his vendetta (and 11-1 record) against Georgia as a coach. The Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott play from 1980 is always fresh in a Bulldog's mind, and it was just the first of three years that Herschel Walker terrorized Florida's defense. Vince Dooley successfully campaigned twice in the '80s to get Florida put on probation. Georgia also picked up a win in 2004 the very week that Ron Zook was fired.
In 1970, Florida's Jack Youngblood forced a key turnover in what would become known as the "Rip, Strip, and Grip" play, sparking a 24-17 Gator win after they had been down 17-10. Florida beat Georgia 27-0 in 1984 on the way to UF's first undefeated conference schedule and the team's first conference championship (which was stripped thanks in large part to Dooley). In 1995, while the old Gator Bowl was being renovated for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Spurrier's Gators became the first visiting team to score 50 points at Sanford Stadium. In 2002, Georgia's sole loss was to Florida.
At some point each year, nearly all of those incidents come to mind for Florida and Georgia fans. They can't help but not be reminded of them on their annual trek to Jacksonville. That site of the game, which has been the same since 1933 except for the two renovation years, even is part of the psychology. Some Georgia fans right now want the game moved because they think Florida has the mental edge there. Twenty years ago, as the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andrieu recounts, some Florida fans wanted it moved because they thought Georgia had the mental edge there. Nothing escapes the mind games in this rivalry.
It's hard to imagine any stunts that could be pulled this year that would stand up to what went on the past two years. I don't think either coach wants to get in an escalating war of theatrics. That doesn't mean it can't go up in the pantheon of games in the series. A Florida win wouldn't do it, since that would simply be the better team winning the game. A Georgia win though brings possibilities.
Georgia had to suffer the ignominy of never beating Florida's last golden boy, Danny Wuerffel. They've already defeated Tim Tebow once, but that was aided both by the dance stunt and the weakest Florida defense since 1979. This year though, the Bulldogs could ruin Tebow's perfect senior year and push their record against him as a starter to 2-1 in one fell swoop. They'd be doing it a as a lowly 4-3 team at game time too, which would be about the only thing sweet about being a 4-3 team in the first place. If you don't think such a win would take it's rightful place up there with the other memorable contests, you're nuts.
Ultimately, I have a feeling that the fact that Florida has a great defense and Georgia does not will be the deciding factor in the game. For all the Gators' offensive struggles both with turnovers and the red zone, they're still eighth in the nation in total yardage. They're now going up against a UGA defense that surrendered over 300 yards passing to Stephen Garcia and made Jonathan Crompton look like a Heisman candidate. Meanwhile, Florida's defense has allowed 300+ total yards to just one SEC team and has yet to allow more than 20 points.
If games in this series were won on paper though, the rivalry would look awfully different. And no matter what happens this season, it will be one more thing for Gators and Bulldogs to keep in mind as they go at it year after year.