In this space over the next few weeks, we will be delving into the Gators' rivalries. We begin with Georgia, arguably Florida's biggest rival.
The annual Florida-Georgia game will always be lovingly referred to by fans of both schools as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, no matter how much both universities' presidents would like to end the use of that moniker. (Well, most fans, anyway.) The two schools are very similar academically, athletically, and aesthetically, which is, perhaps, why the Florida-Georgia rivalry — always Florida-Georgia, though mostly for alphabetical reasons — can simultaneously breed contempt and respect between the two fan bases. That's a sentiment summed up with an anecdote.
At Florida, I participated on the College Bowl team. We regularly faced off against teams from the University of Georgia, and were friendly with their players. Before one particular match, a Georgia player, making small-talk, said, "I think it's really cool what you guys do at the end of the third quarter where you sing and sway."
Without missing a beat, my roommate, Mike, replied, "I think it's really cool what you guys do at the end of the third quarter – leave."
Founded in 1785, the University of Georgia is one of the oldest public universities in the United States. Its scenic 615-acre campus meets the college town of Athens at the Arch, modeled on the Georgia State Seal. While not a member of the American Association of Universities, Georgia is perennially ranked in the top 60 in the college rankings done by U.S. News and World Report.
Sanford Stadium, the Bulldogs' home field, is known for its field-side hedges, planted in the 1920s; playing at Sanford is playing "between the hedges" because of them. It is a 92,000-seat facility in the heart of the campus. Across the railroad tracks from the stadium is an old cemetery, where occasional pregame tailgating has shocked some uninitiated opponents.
Uga, Georgia's mascot, is an English bulldog who has patrolled the sidelines since 1956. Following the untimely death of Uga VIII, the university is without an official Uga. The policy that he be a pure white decedent of the original Uga has come under some criticism lately, and Uga IX will be the fourth Uga since 2008.
The Bulldogs spent the first half of the 20th century beating the Gators, and the next 40 years breaking the hearts of Gators fans. Often, the way the Gators lost was more crushing than the numbers on the scoreboard. During his Heisman Trophy-winning season, Steve Spurrier missed the opportunity to deliver Florida an SEC Championship with a 27-10 loss to the Dawgs. Emmitt Smith broke down in tears after never beating Georgia. Ask any Gator over 30 about the Lindsay Scott at your own peril. (In 1996, at the first Cocktail Party I attended, a pickup drove by with an inebriated Gators fan hanging out the passenger window yelling "F--k Buck Belue!") And then, there's Fourth-and-Dumb, where the Gators were controlling the game, and elected to go for it on fourth and short in their own territory ... and failed, giving Georgia the ball and the momentum.
And sometime, the numbers on the scoreboard were the indignity. In 1942, a Florida team depleted by World War II enlistments was hammered by a Georgia squad bolstered by their strong ROTC program, losing by a 75-0 margin that makes "rout" inadequate.
In recent years, though, the tide has turned toward the orange and blue. The last three Georgia coaches are a combined 4-16 in Jacksonville, and got pounded 104-31 in the two years the series returned to a home-and-home format due to renovations to the Gator Bowl (or whatever they call it now). And whereas Florida had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for three quarters of a century, the Bulldogs have lately found staggering ways to lose, like in 1992, when the Gators (who opened the season 1-2) beat Ray Goff's best Bulldog team 26-24. Or Ron Zook's first five-loss team giving the Dawgs their only loss in 2002. Or Steve Spurrier calling a flea-flicker late in the fourth quarter to hang "half a hundred" between the hedges. No Florida coach has lost to Georgia more than once since George H. W. Bush was inaugurated.
Georgia fans might also include something about a generic redneck comment about jorts or mullets, but let's face it: other than Vanderbilt, what SEC fan base doesn't include a significant number of the "gloriously unrefined"? (Editor's note: Those Vandy fans are just as bad in their snobbery as some of us our in our ... lack thereof.) The latest provocation? The hire of Will Muschamp, a Georgia grad whom some Bulldog fans had wanted to hire in Athens, to replace John Cooper Mark Richt.
Animosity between residents on opposing banks of the St. Mary's is nothing new. You could trace the roots of the rivalry to 1740, when James Oglethorpe led his debtors' colony south in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the Spanish out of Florida. The two universities can't even agree on when the first game was played. The University of Florida did not officially field a team until 1906, but Georgia's athletic department counts a 1904 game between the Bulldogs and a club team from one of the universities that was later merged to create the University of Florida. The first game played by teams officially recognized by both universities was a 37-0 Georgia win in Jacksonville. There were three more game before the two teams began meeting regularly in 1926.
In 1933, in an effort to combat the effects of the Great Depression, the city of Jacksonville invited the Gators and Dawgs to play annually in the River City. Prior to 1933, Georgia held an 8-2-1 advantage in the series; since 1933, the series is even at 38 wins a piece with one tie. Over the last 78 years, the game has been defined by streaks, with Georgia controlling the '30s, '40s, 70's and '80s, and Florida dominating the series in the '50s (when the Cocktail Party nickname was born), '60s, '90s and 2000s.
Entire books have been written about this rivalry, but for the quick and dirty list of games you should be aware of, see Wikipedia's helpful recaps or the St. Petersburg Times' list of memorable Florida-Georgia moments.
The rivalry with Georgia is, I think, Florida's most important rivalry, because the two schools are so evenly matched in many respects. As a division opponent, a win over Georgia is usually an important part of (if not prerequisite to) wining the SEC East. While a win in the series does not usually determine a division, conference or national championship, a loss ends those hopes. Geographic proximity and fertile recruiting grounds in both states lead the two schools to battle over the same elite athletes. And families, friends, and co-workers know well how much bragging rights in this rivalry are worth.
Other rivalries may get more bitter, or have more of an impact on championship aspirations, but no other rivalry means as much to Gator Nation as Florida-Georgia.