BY FRANZ BEARD
The experts who made Georgia an overwhelming favorite to dethrone Alabama as the premier football program in the Southeastern Conference got one thing right – the SEC East championship would be decided in Jacksonville when Florida and Georgia meet in their annual showdown. With a loss to unranked South Carolina and an underwhelming win over Kentucky in its last two games, Georgia looks anything but invincible. Florida, which has a loss to #1 LSU on the road at Tiger Stadium, looks like a team gathering momentum yet the Gators are underdogs heading into Saturday's game with Georgia.
Dan Mullen, who has learned so well how to put a chip on Florida's shoulder that is as large as some of the aircraft carriers that call Mayport home, will certainly play the underdog card to the hilt as the Gators prep for this game that has the feeling of an SEC East Division Championship Game, but he is downplaying the rivalry aspect.
"Nah, I don't have to, you know what I mean?” Mullen responded when asked if he had any Urban Meyer-like tricks in his bag to fire up the 6th-ranked Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) to take on their rival from north of the Florida border.
Meyer, if you recall, defined Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State as Florida's chief rivals when he arrived on campus in 2005. The Gators went 16-2 against those three in Meyer's six years on campus. One of the losses was to Georgia in 2007 when the Bulldogs stormed the field after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter. Meyer spent the entire next year making certain the Gators never forgot what had happened and the Gators avenged their only loss to Georgia during the Meyer era in 2008.
So while he learned from the master of motivation, Mullen – at least for public consumption – doesn't seem to think he needs anything special to rally his troops for this Saturday showdown at EverBank Field.
“This is a big game,” Mullen said. “If our guys aren't juiced to play in the game, they've got problems. You come to Florida to play in big games, to play in rivalry games like this. If I have to go motivate our team, it ain't much of a rivalry game then."
Perhaps, but Mullen is well aware of the implications of scoring a win over Georgia will have for the Florida program. It starts with winning the SEC East and while the Gators will still have conference games remaining with Vanderbilt and Missouri, they will hold a one-game edge on Georgia and the tiebreaker in case the two end up tying for the division lead.
Getting that one-game edge and control of a tiebreaker has some experts call this a de facto playoff game, but Mullen fails to see it that way.
“I don’t view it really as a playoff game because whoever wins doesn’t go on to the playoffs,” he said. There’s a lot more football ahead of us before any of that stuff.”
Such as beating Vanderbilt and Missouri to claim the SEC East championship outright. That's important because Florida has been on the short end of a tie for the East Division with Georgia in the past. That was 2012 when Florida and Georgia both finished with identical 7-1 conference records. By virtue of its 17-9 win over Florida, Georgia got to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
So, while a win Saturday won't ensure the Gators will win the SEC East, it will at least give them the advantage Georgia had in 2012 by putting them in complete control of their SEC Championship dreams.
“Well, I think at this point in the season it’s for first place in the SEC East,” Mullen said. “All you can really control is winning the East. If you do that, you get an opportunity to go to Atlanta and play one game there. Beyond that, everybody is voting for you. So, you know, I think that’s important, you get into November and be in first place in the East is a great position to be in because that’s what you can control.”
The approach Mullen seems to be selling is consistent with the way he preaches winning to his football team. The single most important game in Mullen's mind is the next one the Gators are playing and this one happens to be Georgia which is Florida's most important rival in that it's the team that has to be beaten to have a shot at getting to Atlanta.
When he was asked if the Gators have Georgia circled on his calendar, quarterback Kyle Trask echoed Mullen's season-long decree that what is most important is to win the game that's next on the schedule.
“We don’t necessarily circle any game,” Trask said without so much as cracking a smile. “If you asked me who we’re playing in whatever it is, week eight, if you asked me that week one, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who we’re playing because we’re all focused on the team we’re playing that week.”
Trask makes it seem like just another day at the office for the Gators but he is indeed well aware of the implications if the Gators win this second game of what is essentially a four-game playoff for the right to represent the SEC East in Atlanta. Senior wide receiver Josh Hammond, like Trask, didn't overdo it when it came to emotion regarding Georgia but he made it clear that playing in a top ten matchup adds a measure of excitement to the week of preparation.
It isn't madness, but there is definitely method to Mullen's approach to Georgia. He knows the history of the rivalry and is quick to point out that with the exception of two years, Florida-Georgia has been played in Jacksonville dating all the way back to 1933. He knows the feeling of being in the team bus when it hits the downslope of the bridge and the stadium comes into view and how walking onto the field when half the stadium is clad in Florida's orange and blue, half in Georgia's red and black, causes the hair on the back of his neck and arms to rise and his skin to tingle.
No one has to remind Mullen of how unique this game is, but he is ever so quick to point out that this is one game and the moment he puts too much emphasis on one game focus can be lost on what's up ahead. If Florida beats Georgia Saturday, the Gators still have those games with Vanderbilt and Missouri ahead and they, also, are important.
“I never try to measure anything off one individual game because all of a sudden, you win one game and you think you have arrived, and then you lose another one and it’s a disaster,” Mullen said. “And neither of those two are true. You are as good as your last play and what is next week going to bring to you.”