In a few months, the Florida Gators will have to deal with one of the toughest schedules in the country. And while an early visit to Alabama or LSU visiting The Swamp probably stand out after a quick glance, it’s the game against the Georgia Bulldogs that will be the measuring stick for the Gators this season.
Despite losing quarterback Aaron Murray and three starting offensive linemen, the Bulldogs are in great shape to begin the year. Running back Todd Gurley will be ready to go in August, and a defense that ranked second in the SEC in sacks (33) loses only one starter.
Assuming Georgia can steer clear of the injury bug, this is a team that could find itself in the SEC Championship Game for the third time in four years.
But this isn’t about Florida proving itself against one of the top dogs. If it was, I could have gone the easier route and said the Gators have to upset Nick Saban and the Tide for this season to be successful. Nope. Instead, this is about recapturing a rivalry that the Gators dominated until recently.
Florida vs. Georgia is one of the few true neutral-site rivalries left in college football. Played in Jacksonville, Florida, it’s a game that both programs have circled on their calendar each and every season. Next to Florida State, there’s no other team the Gators want to beat more than Georgia.
And that usually wasn’t an issue. Since 1990, the Gators have won 18 of the last 24 meetings. The problem is that the last three matchups have gone the Bulldogs' way.
All three of those losses were decided by one possession, including a 17-9 loss in 2012 that ultimately prevented Florida from competing for a national championship. If you bleed blue and orange, you still have nightmares at least once a week about those six turnovers. That Jordan Reed fumble in the end zone could make a grown man cry…again.
Last season, despite all of Florida’s struggles, it still had a chance to knock off Georgia late in the game. However, with the Bulldogs up 23-20 in the fourth quarter, Georgia was able to run the final 8:15 off the clock and then received a personal foul penalty that finally sealed the game.
Who wins this year's matchup?
If that wasn’t enough to consider this year’s matchup a must-win, head coach Will Muschamp is a combined 1-5 against Georgia and Florida State in his first three seasons. The former Georgia defensive back has got to beat his alma mater sooner or later.
While the Gators should be much better than they were last season, a fourth loss to the Seminoles in five years is likely going to take place. In this day and age, winning rivalry games isn’t just a big deal among fans, but they can also be a bargaining chip in recruiting battles.
Muschamp has to start winning these big games, and there's no better time than now. Despite the major offensive concerns, Florida has more answers than questions across the board and will have a major say in who comes out of the SEC East.
It all comes down to ironing out a few wrinkles and getting players and coaches on the same page. All of that should be done by the time November rolls around.
Florida vs. Georgia is never an ordinary college football game, and that will hold true again this season. It’s not just another game on the schedule. It’s a game that the Gators must win this season.