When the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs meet on Saturday in Jacksonville, they will do so as top-10 teams: Florida is currently No. 6 in both the AP Top 25 and USA TODAY coaches poll, while Georgia is No. 8 in the former and No. 7 in the latter.
And it will be the second straight year that both teams sit inside the top 10 nationally when they greet each other on the gridiron, as last year’s game — a 36-17 Georgia win — featured No. 7 Georgia and No. 9 Florida.
Believe it or not, that’s actually only the second time back-to-back meetings have featured top-10 teams in the history of the rivalry — one that has produced a lot of great teams over the years, but rarely showcased great Florida and Georgia teams at the same time. Here’s a history of the top-10 matchups between the Gators and Dawgs — with the caveat that we’re referring to AP rankings at the time of the game, as archived by Wikipedia, so we’re a bit dependent on others’ research here.
1976: Georgia 41, Florida 27
Yes, the first such meeting between these two flagship programs of the two most populous states that are unquestionably Southern (lo siento, Texas) didn’t happen until American’s bicentennial, despite both schools agreeing that the rivalry started before American involvement in World War I. Perhaps even stranger to the modern fan: Just 10 times had either team come in ranked at all prior to 1974, when Florida began a string of three straight appearances as a ranked team that was also unprecedented in series history.
Unfortunately for Florida, this first big-time skirmish was also an infamous loss for the Gators, with Doug Dickey’s building a 27-13 halftime lead, then falling apart after halftime and especially after failing on a fourth and one at their own 29 in the third quarter. Dickey took the blame after the game, and “Fourth and Dumb” entered the history of the rivalry.
You can watch the fateful fourth down at about the 27:00 mark of the above. Or not.
1983: Georgia 10, Florida 9
The 1982 Florida-Georgia game, uh, did not go Florida’s way: Herschel Walker, en route to the Heisman Trophy, ran for 219 yards as the Bulldogs pasted the Gators, 44-0. Only a loss to Penn State in the Orange Bowl in January 1983 prevented the Dawgs from winning a second national title in four years that season.
But in 1983, with Walker gone to the USFL and Florida ascendant, the Gators ... okay, they only made it close, with a 10-9 loss coming just a week after a loss at Auburn as a top-five team. A 17-play, 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter produced the only touchdown of the day for the Bulldogs, and Florida could not answer.
This is the rare loss to Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s that didn’t exactly derail SEC title hopes for Florida. But it might have kept the Gators from a national title, as Florida’s 1983 schedule included an opener against eventual national champion Miami — which the Gators won, 28-3 — in addition to that fortnight of Tigers (year-end AP No. 3) and Bulldogs (year-end AP No. 3), and so the 9-2-1 mark the Gators finished with was good for the No. 6 spot nationally. A 10-1-1 mark with wins over two top-five teams might have made for a different story.
1984: Florida 27, Georgia 0
But if 1983 was a year of getting close enough for heartbreak for Florida, 1984 was the breakthrough. The Gators went 9-1-1, losing an opener to Miami (in Tampa!) and tying their second game against Tennessee before winning their final nine games and never letting a foe get within seven points along the way.
The Georgia game was a particularly great exorcism: After years of faltering against the Bulldogs with a potential SEC crown on the line, Florida got a rainbowed 97-yard touchdown pass from Kerwin Bell to Ricky Nattiel to kick off the scoring in what would become a 27-0 rout that was then the third-largest win by Florida in the series.
The SEC crown Florida won that year would be snatched away by the NCAA, and the Gators’ dominance of Georgia would be short-lived, as the Bulldogs sprang an upset on newly-minted No. 1 Florida a year later.
But the period of both teams being national powers at the same time was almost as brief.
1999: Florida 30, Georgia 14
Florida, of course, would slip into the mire of NCAA sanctions at the end of the 1980s; Georgia would fail to find the glory it earned on occasion under Vince Dooley once the old lion gave way to Ray Goff — who had quarterbacked Georgia in that 1976 game — and Steve Spurrier remade Florida as a consistent national contender. And so it wouldn’t be for almost a decade and a half that Florida and Georgia met again as top-10 squads.
When the Bulldogs did get there under Jim Donnan — in the midst of Spurrier always bringing a ranked Florida to Jackonsville, and failing to sport a top-10 ranking for the game just once in his 11 years — in 1999, they were no match for the Gators, who saw Doug Johnson put in a real Doug Johnson day (17-for-32 for 234 yards, one touchdown, and two picks) and still won by two touchdowns.
2008: Florida 49, Georgia 10
The good news for Donnan’s successor, Mark Richt, was that after a 2001 win in what would prove to be Spurrier’s last game as part of the rivalry, Florida wouldn’t bring a top-10 team to Jacksonville in any of the next six seasons. That would have been a perfect window for Georgia to take back control of the series — but, then, Richt couldn’t manage a winning record against Ron Zook, so that didn’t happen.
What did happen when Georgia next brought a top-10 team to Gainesville was good — the 42-30 win in 2007 — but what happened next, when Florida brought its own to match, was historic.
Florida’s 49-10 thrashing of the Bulldogs in 2008 finished one point shy of Florida’s biggest win over Georgia — Spurrier’s 47-7 win in Jacksonville in 1996 remains the gold standard there — but is still tremendously hard to beat for sheer glee, from Brandon Spikes’s rude reintroduction of himself to Knowshon Moreno to the definitely very necessary timeouts used at game’s end by Urban Meyer.
Little did we know it would have to be savored for a full decade before another showdown of top-10 teams in the Cocktail Party.
(And yes, before you ask: Georgia was No. 11 at the time of the 2012 Cocktail Party, exempting it from this accounting.)
2018: Georgia 36, Florida 17
In retrospect, it’s pretty fortuitous — for the purposes of this weird accounting of the rivalry, anyway — Georgia that 2018 Florida was a top-10 team upon its arrival in Jacksonville. The Gators got there thanks to back-to-back wins over Mississippi State and LSU, but also needed a major comeback to beat Vanderbilt and had lost to Kentucky. Put a middle-class SEC team’s name on those accomplishments, and I’m not sure whether that team would have had a No. 9 ranking entering the week of Halloween, even if it were 6-1.
And Georgia put the Gators through the wringer after halftime, though Florida fought hard and briefly led 14-13 early in the third quarter. Jake Fromm threw three touchdown passes and D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield combined for 175 rushing yards as the Bulldogs finished the game on a 23-3 run and frustrated Feleipe Franks into one of his worst outings of 2018.
Will 2019’s game, the first top-10 rematch since the 1984 game Florida won 27-0, follow a similar script to the one used 35 years ago? Will it be another blowout, matching the trend of four of the five previous heavyweight slugfests? Will we see the first true thriller between top-10 Florida and Georgia teams?
Waiting until Saturday to find out is going to be painful.