Georgia vs. Florida: The Most Important Cocktail Party of the Mark Richt Era

David Boutin@David_M_BoutinContributor IIIOctober 25, 2012

October 29, 2011; Jacksonville FL, USA; Florida Gators offensive line and Georgia Bulldogs defensive line on the line of scrimmage during the second half at EverBank Field. Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Florida Gators 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The 2012 edition of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has suddenly become one of the most important games of Mark Richt’s tenure in Athens, not just for this season but for the future of the program as well.

Since Mark Richt became the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs in 2001, there have been some memorable Georgia-Florida games with big implications. Usually though, those big implications are for one team or the other.

In 2002, the Gators ruined Georgia’s perfect season, handing them their only loss and effectively keeping the Dawgs out of the BCS Championship Game.

In 2007, the year of the infamous end zone celebration, a Georgia victory denied Florida an SEC Championship Game berth.

This year, however, the Cocktail Party will make or break the 2012 title dreams for both squads.

A win for Florida sends them to the SEC Championship Game and keeps the Gators’ National Championship hopes alive. Florida still has in-state rival Florida State to contend with in the season finale. But even a close loss to the Seminoles followed by a win in the SEC Championship Game could be enough to propel the Gators to the BCS title game as a one-loss SEC Champion.

A win for Georgia moves the Bulldogs into the SEC East driver’s seat and likewise keeps the Dawgs in the hunt for a National Championship. The Bulldogs would still have to contend with Ole Miss and Auburn to get to Atlanta. But if the Dawgs can get it done against the Gators, they’ll have a ton of momentum and confidence and should roll to the Georgia Dome.

But for Georgia, this game has taken on another level of importance for the program.

The Bulldogs’ recent struggles against quality opponents have been well documented in the media lately. But just in case you missed it, here are a couple of disturbing stats: Despite a 10-win season last year, Georgia went 0-4 against teams that finished the season ranked in the Top 25. In fact, the Bulldogs are 2-16 against teams that finished in the Top 25 since 2008.

The Bulldog Nation is desperate for a quality win from the Dawgs, and this game is the last opportunity to get one this season.

But even more important than appeasing the Georgia faithful is the need for the Dawgs to get a win here. The risk of players and coaches beginning to buy into the “can’t win a big game” mentality, which so many of the fans already believe, would be crippling for the program.

Georgia needs this win to boost its confidence in big games and get back some of the swagger that’s been missing since 2005, when the Bulldogs last hefted the SEC Championship trophy.

Georgia can drop this game and still go on to a 10 or 11-win season, which is all fine and good. But if the stigma of not being able to perform in big games sticks, the beginning of 2013 has the potential to be very, very ugly for the Dawgs.

With games at Clemson and versus South Carolina and LSU in the first four weeks, the Bulldogs could easily be looking at a 1-3 record to start the season, putting Mark Richt and company right back into the dreaded hot seat conversation.

Still, I believe Georgia has a golden opportunity to change the mentality of its program with a victory on Saturday. A win against an excellent Gator team would create momentum that could potentially last a very long time.

There is a lot of young talent on this team that has the potential to do great things in Athens. But, again, if the mentality of “we can’t or don’t win big games” sets in, that potential may very well go unfulfilled.

At the end of the day, this is only one game. But I truly believe this one game could have a huge effect on the next few years of Georgia’s program. Let’s hope the Bulldogs show up for this one and get it done.