The Florida showdown is actually setting up even better than Kirby Smart could have asked for
Picture this scenario.
“Unbeaten Georgia enters Saturday’s game against an unranked Florida team that’s been inconsistent in Year 1 of the Dan Mullen era having gotten off to a 4-3 start. Mullen praised Kirby Smart’s program throughout the offseason and said that they were clearly the team to beat in the SEC East. Florida players gave credit to Georgia for last year’s 42-7 beatdown in Jacksonville and refused to offer up any guarantees ahead of this year’s showdown.”
OK, so yeah. I made that all up. That universe doesn’t exist.
That’s a good thing for Smart because I’m sure he wouldn’t trade places to live in that universe instead of this current one. This current universe is — dare I say — exactly how Smart would draw it up?
Obviously that’s not to say that Smart has everyone at 100 percent playing their best ball of the season. We saw how much the Dawgs struggled a couple weeks ago at LSU when they suffered their first loss of the season.
We also saw Florida beat that same LSU team a week earlier in the midst of the first 5-game winning streak of the Mullen era. The Gators are confident and miraculously ranked in the top 10 just 2 spots behind Georgia, despite the fact that they started off SEC play with the home loss to Kentucky.
And in case you forgot, Mullen didn’t exactly spend his offseason “praising” Georgia. He might’ve said the other day that “most people believe Georgia is one of the top 2 teams in the country,” but he wasn’t exactly sipping the UGA Kool Aid when he spoke to Florida fans at an event after National Signing Day in February.
“Listen, winning one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” Mullen said with a laugh via 247sports. “In two of the last three years, we’ve been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
A few months later, Florida defensive lineman Cece Jefferson said at SEC Media Days that while he was impressed with the year that Georgia had, he added a pseudo guarantee:
"First off, hats off to Georgia on a great season…when we beat them this year it's going to feel good." —#Gators DL CeCe Jefferson
— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) July 17, 2018
Naturally, both quotes made their way to the Georgia weight room. Why wouldn’t they?
The preseason stuff like that is almost better because it’s had a chance to marinate. A casual reminder of hey, “these guys clearly don’t respect you” will go a long way with a group of 18-22 year-olds.
Mentally, Smart’s team has every reason to get fired up for this one. And don’t give me the “everyone should always get up for a rivalry game.” That’s just not always the case, especially for a team that won 42-7 in the matchup last year.
There aren’t any mind games needed this time around. You can bet there’s a little something personal for Smart, too. He wouldn’t mind showing the new offensive-minded head coach in the division that he didn’t just get lucky and “find a nut” to win last year’s SEC Championship.
In his perfect universe, his team repeats its post-first loss performance from last year. That is, after Auburn “whipped the dog crap” out of Georgia, as Gus Malzahn so eloquently said. All Georgia did was rattle off 3 consecutive blowout wins to claim the SEC title and avenge the Auburn loss.
And yeah, it sounded like the “dog crap” comment stayed with Smart’s squad through the SEC Championship:
— 11Alive Sports (@11AliveSports) December 3, 2017
If the Dawgs win Saturday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them clap back a little bit. If that’s helping keep their focus this week, we should expect to see a little postgame ammo added to this rivalry. There should be.
It’s one of the best there is in the sport, regardless of the fact that this is the first time they’ll meet as top-10 teams since 2008. Both teams are trying to play their way to Atlanta, where the winner of this game has gone each of the past 3 years. Even though Kentucky can still be the fly in the ointment for both teams, this game will be one of the pivotal games not only in the SEC, but in all of college football.
I mean, College GameDay is going to Jacksonville for the first time since 2005. This game has more juice than Smart could have ever hoped for. For a team that maybe hasn’t played to its potential yet, that’s all you want.
This will be a heavyweight fight, and both teams will get each other’s best shot. Whether that’s Jachai Polite blitzing off the edge on “Third and Grantham” or Deandre Baker picking off an errant Feleipe Franks throw, both of these teams are capable of keeping pressure on each other for 60 minutes.
That’s how it should be. Let’s not forget that as great as this rivalry has been historically, each of the past 4 matchups have been decided by at least 14 points. And even though he wasn’t there for it, you can bet Mullen hasn’t had to remind his team how lopsided last year was.
Or as Mullen probably put it “that time the blind squirrel found a nut.”