JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There are games in which the impact of losing and the fear of losing overshadow any joy that would come with winning.
This year’s Georgia-Florida game falls in that category.
These two teams limp into their annual clash, each of their seasons on the brink of bitter disappointment. The winner will salvage something and stay at least in mathematical contention for the SEC East title.
The loser will leave Jacksonville riding a three-game losing streak, with a 4-4 overall record and its season officially off the rails.
“The reason this game means so much is because it means so little,” said Gary Danielson, color analyst for CBS. “Both of these teams entered the season thinking they could compete for the national championship, and the loser of this game is going to have a devastated season. That creates a whole lot of pressure in this football game.”
CBS was hoping for more national impact when it decided before the season to televise this game, which is has done for years. Georgia and Florida were both preseason top-10 teams, and last year, Florida was unbeaten coming into the game, while Georgia only had one loss.
This time both teams are unranked, for only the second time in 34 years (the last time was 2010).
“This game’s probably more important to Florida and us than the rest of the country right now,” said Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who acknowledged that both teams are only “darkhorses” in the SEC East race.
The two rivals can commiserate over the same reason for their disappointing seasons -- injuries.
Since preseason practice began, the Gators have lost eight starters to injuries, the latest this week when left tackle D.J. Humphrey sprained his knee. Head coach Will Muschamp is on his second quarterback (junior Tyler Murphy) and also lost his top defensive player (defensive lineman Dominique Easley).
Georgia has played the past three weeks without its top two tailbacks, three of its top four receivers and its starting free safety.
But Georgia is getting healthier. Star tailback Todd Gurley is due to return, along with receiver Michael Bennett, although Bennett essentially just replaces Chris Conley, who was hurt on the final play of the Vanderbilt game. Free safety Tray Matthews is also due to return.
Gurley’s return looms the largest. Georgia’s offensive production has dipped the past three games, and teammates and coaches trace much of it to Gurley’s absence.
“He just adds so much to the offense and the run game obviously,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “It allowed us to do a little more in the play-action. And he just brings an excitement to the team. When he’s out there making plays, running guys over, stiff-arming guys, that just pumps everyone up. It pumps the defense up, and it gets everyone amped up and into the game.”
Assuming Georgia’s offense is rejuvenated, it sets up a stark contrast.
Florida’s defense is its strength, ranking fourth in the nation in total yards allowed. Georgia’s offense is its strength, ranking in the top 10 nationally before the injury to Gurley, Bennett and other offensive stars.
So those are two elite units facing each other.
On the other hand, Florida’s offense has been abysmal, ranking 109th nationally in total yards. Georgia’s defense also has struggled, although it showed signs of improvement in the loss to Vanderbilt.
So this is the game in which Georgia’s defense really should turn things around. If not, the heat will grow on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
But the matchup between the two elite units is what intrigues Danielson, who expects the Gators to load the box in an attempt to stop Gurley. Florida’s run defense is weaker than its pass defense, but if the safeties are focused on the run, it can open up the deep game for Murray.
Georgia will be looking for its first three-game win streak over the Gators since the late 1980s. The Bulldogs are slightly favored (three points, according to www.vegasinsider.com), and if they can get out of the stadium with a win, there is still a path to a decent season.
“Although there is a glimmer of hope, there is a little bit of hope,” Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “In the grand scheme of things, obviously there is a lot that has to happen for us to be where we want to be at the end of the year. But people want to win every game we play. We’re trying to finish the season 9-3.”