Even Florida's worst times of the past quarter century have had silver linings. Ron Zook won two of three rivalry games against Georgia, both victories coming against top-five Bulldogs squads. Will Muschamp went 4-0 against Tennessee and beat a top-10 Georgia team by 18 points two weeks before getting fired. Jim McElwain's offenses were lousy his first two years, and yet the Gators won the SEC East both seasons anyway.
No matter how bad things have occasionally gotten for Florida, it has often been able to lean on the fact that it has either maintained control of the SEC East or played spoiler for one or both of its division rivals.
Although Florida already beat Tennessee, this season is hinting that the balance of power may finally change.
Back on Sept. 16, Florida topped Tennessee in a thrilling finish, with Tyrie Cleveland catching a 63-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks with no time left to give the Gators their 12th win over the Volunteers in the past 13 season. Despite the fun ending, it was a sloppy game in which neither team played well and neither team looked like an SEC contender. Two weeks later, Georgia went to Neyland Stadium and dismantled Tennessee, 41-0, in one of the most humiliating defeats in Vols history. It was, potentially, the beginning of a two-part statement made by the Bulldogs.
The expectation is that Part II will come when Florida, which is 3-3, meets No. 3 Georgia, which is 7-0, in Jacksonville on Saturday in the rivalry formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Despite losing three straight games to subpar Florida offenses by double digits, Georgia is unsurprisingly a two-touchdown favorite. It's an opportunity for revenge, and it's an opportunity for Georgia to emphasize its status as a reborn powerhouse contending for a College Football Playoff spot under second-year coach Kirby Smart.
It's also an opportunity for Georgia to ensure that this Florida football season is known as a failure, which is exactly what rivals in games like this hope to accomplish.
Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have combined to win 22 of 25 East Division championships. Only Missouri (2013, '14) and South Carolina ('10) have also managed to climb atop the division and punch a ticket to Atlanta to play for the conference title. Although the Bulldogs and Vols have earned several division titles, there's no question that the East has belonged to Florida, which has gone to Atlanta 12 times in 25 seasons and has swept Georgia and Tennessee in 14 of 25 seasons -- Tennessee has only four sweeps of the other two and Georgia has only three.
The SEC East has been Florida in one tier, Georgia and Tennessee in the next and then everybody else. For all of Florida's faults in recent years since the graduation of Tim Tebow after 2009 and the departure of Urban Meyer in 2010, it is 6-1 against the Vols, post-Meyer, and it has rebounded from three straight losses to Georgia to win three games in a row. It's the one thing that Florida can still hang its hat on entering Saturday's game: No matter how much frustration there's been the past three years, it has still managed to inflict massive angst upon the rival Bulldogs.
For decades, Georgia mostly owned this rivalry. Before Steve Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, the Bulldogs had won 15 of the previous 19 games. Since the Spurrier and SEC East eras began, however, Georgia has often struggled, even as a substantial favorite.
In the past 25 years, Georgia has entered the Cocktail Party game ranked in the AP top 10 eight times. It is just 1-7 in those games, with five of those seven losses coming in games in which Florida had a lower ranking or no ranking.
In 1992, Florida and Georgia both finished 6-2 in the SEC, but the Gators played in the inaugural SEC title game because they upset the No. 7 Bulldogs. In 2002, Georgia suffered its only loss of the season to an unranked Florida. In 2003, No. 4 Georgia fell to No. 23 Florida by a field goal. In 2005, undefeated Georgia had its perfect season spoiled by the Gators. In 2014, the beginning of the end of the Mark Richt era effectively came when No. 9 Georgia lost 38-20 to a 3-3 Florida team -- sound familiar? -- that completed three passes all game.
It all adds up to make Saturday's game one of the biggest in the rivalry in years because, no matter how far behind Florida appears, Georgia can't help but measure itself based on how it performs against the Gators. Even when it's having a great season, it often still has a Florida problem. If it wants to flip the balance of power in the SEC East, it has to take care of business against a struggling Florida team and emphasize that the pecking order truly is changing.
If there's ever been a time to make a statement in the Cocktail Party, this is it.
With Kirby Smart recruiting at a high level in a state of Georgia that continues to grow as a talent-producing powerhouse -- it produced nearly as much blue-chip talent as California in the class of 2017 -- the Bulldogs are positioned to make a run at long-awaited sustained success. Meanwhile, Florida continues to crumble. After the Muschamp hire didn't work out, the McElwain era is trending in the wrong direction, too. McElwain won two SEC East titles in his first two seasons, but despite having an offensive background, he's continued the trend of lackluster Florida offenses since Tebow left. Hurt by a wave of suspensions, Florida is 68th in yards per play and 69th in passer rating. It hasn't finished a season ranked in the top 50 of either category since 2009, a horrifying slump on offense for a team that won big behind the innovative offensive minds of Meyer and Spurrier.
Little that has happened in the 2017 season thus far has indicated that Florida stands a chance against Georgia, which has a physical offense and a superior defense and has won every game by at least three touchdowns, except for the trip to Notre Dame. But what's happened before the Cocktail Party often hasn't mattered much when the teams actually take the field in Jacksonville. That recent history can't help but be in the back of one's mind before kickoff on Saturday.
Thus, in what's looking like a failed Florida season and a breakthrough Georgia season, the pressure is on the Bulldogs to ensure that the rivalry does not become another silver lining for the Gators.
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