ATHENS -- John Jenkins grew up in Connecticut, where he never heard much about how badly Georgia fans wanted to beat Florida. Then he played junior college football in Mississippi, where he still didn’t hear how Florida was the most important game on Georgia’s schedule every year.
Now the Georgia nose tackle has been brought up to speed.
“I hear it’s probably the biggest rivalry game or such. ‘Cocktail Party,’ I guess that’s what they call it,” he said, adding later, “From the intel I’m getting, it’s a big game.”
It could end up being the biggest one for Jenkins’ head coach.
Six weeks ago, when Georgia was getting ready to play South Carolina, it was all the rage to say it was a must-win for Mark Richt. I was there to say, “Whoa there.” Sure enough, Georgia did lose, but here we are. A quick check of the game notes reveal that Richt is still the head coach.
Back then, it was premature and downright silly to say the second game of the season was a must-win.
Now, it seems a bit more believable.
This game represents so much, not just in terms of the rivalry between the two teams, but the direction of this vitally important season for the Georgia football program.
No, it’s not the be-all, end-all. Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity pushed back on that notion Monday when asked how important the Florida game was to judging a coach.
“I think, at the end of the day, you look at the entire body of work,” McGarity said.
But then McGarity transitioned to why this game is so important, especially this year.
“Our goals are to get to Atlanta,” he said. “So a win is a win in the East. They’re all big. I think what happens is, this is the sixth game in the league of the year for both teams. And you only have two left. So this game carries so much weight, and usually has.”
It used to carry more national weight, but not the past couple years. Last year was the first time in 31 years neither Georgia or Florida was ranked when they met. This year, only Georgia is in the AP poll, at No. 22.
So we are left with division implications, and on that front they are clear: Florida is out with a loss; Georgia could afford a loss, but the road would be much more difficult.
And for Richt, if he can’t beat Florida in a year when the Gators are a) under a first-year coach, and b) dealing with quarterback injuries, then another loss to the arch-rival would be further proof to critics that he can’t get Georgia over the hump.
The struggles against Florida didn’t really start until Steve Spurrier arrived on the scene. Before that, Georgia held an 44-22-2 advantage in the series. But the problem for Richt is that he also has losing records against Urban Meyer and, shudder, Ron Zook.
Is the Florida outcome pivotal when Georgia loses that one but wins the rest, as it did in 2002? Of course not. Would it have saved his job this year if, hypothetically, the team was 2-5 entering this game but the Bulldogs beat the Gators? Probably not.
But the outcome under the present circumstances is setting up to be vital, precisely because it could dictate whether Georgia wins the division.
South Carolina needs to lose one more time than Georgia the rest of the way. That might seem likely with Marcus Lattimore and Stephen Garcia gone for the rest of the season. But a look at their schedule makes a 2-1 finish still seem within reach: Winning at Arkansas will be difficult, but at reeling Tennessee and at home against Florida are doable.
So Georgia’s most likely path is to finish 3-0. Kentucky at home should be close to a gimme. The Bulldogs should be favored, although not by much, against Auburn. That leaves Florida as the potential deciding game.
Win this, and the division is Georgia’s to lose, the fan base feels great, and Richt’s hot-seat status almost seems like yesterday’s news.
Lose this game, and Georgia’s road to Atlanta is tougher, the fans are convinced Richt just doesn’t have it, and his bosses might be wondering, too.
“It is bigger in the minds of Georgia fans,” Georgia junior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We’ve just gotta do what we’ve been doing. It’s big. It’s the next game. The excitement builds every time you win. Because the next one’s better. We’ve done (it since) Mississippi State and working our way up, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, to where this is a really big game and has implications afterwards.”