We've talked about which rival Dawg fans most enjoy beating (Florida, evidently) and which one they most hate losing to (that would be Georgia Tech). With those questions, we were mostly talking about individual games. Now it's time to expand the scope a little. Which Georgia rival is the biggest key to a great season?
This one's tricky, because let's face it -- going undefeated in college football is a pretty lofty feat, one that only 10 major-conference teams have accomplished since the start of the BCS (just four of them hailing from the SEC). So chances are you're gonna lose to someone over the course of a season. For that reason, this question shouldn't be construed as "Which rival do the Bulldogs absolutely have to beat year in and year out or else their season is shot."
But for whatever reason -- maybe the team in question is consistently good, or maybe their game just happens to pop up at a pivotal point in the season -- some games annually seem to have more emotion swirling around them than others. That emotion doesn't have to be "hate," even -- you can respect or even like a given rival and still think, "Man oh man, do we need to beat these guys." That's the team we're looking for this week.
The candidates, in order of appearance in the typical Georgia season:
South Carolina. A lot of teams spend September snacking on cupcakes before diving into the critical conference season. Not Georgia -- in week two we always get a fair test from a division rival that hates us something fierce, and it's a pretty critical indicator of how the rest of the season's going to go. It's not an infallible indicator, mind you -- Georgia incurred a frustrating loss to the Gamecocks in the second week of 2007, yet managed to finish the season #2 in the country while the 'Cocks somehow ended up 6-6 and bowlless -- but the outcome of this game definitely has an impact on the rest of the season's momentum. (And that's certainly going to be the case this year.)
Alabama. The Crimson Tide don't show up annually on Georgia's schedule, but when they do make an appearance, it's always important. In 2002, of course, we had the "Man Enough" game, where the Dawgs answered Pat Dye's challenge and proved their mettle in Tuscaloosa after sleepwalking through the first month of the season. Five years later, Georgia played the first road game of the season in Tuscaloosa and atoned for the sloppy early-season loss to South Carolina by hanging Nick Saban his very first L as coach of the Tide. The following year, a potential national-title campaign went pear-shaped in Athens as Saban's Tide cruised to a shocking 31-0 halftime lead. Basically, whenever these two teams get together, you know it's automatically a big deal, and more than likely something memorable is about to happen.
Florida. This one's a no-brainer. Georgia can still have a good season without a win in Jacksonville (and thank God for that), but a victory over the Gators automatically turns any season into a great one regardless of what else happens.
Auburn. By the time the Tigers roll around on the schedule, it's late in the season, the Dawgs know what goals they're shooting for, and we're either saying "We just lost to Florida, we've got to get some momentum back" or "We just beat Florida, let's keep this going and try to punch our ticket to the SEC title game." Even in an otherwise disappointing season without a lot on the line -- I'm thinking specifically of the 2006 and '09 campaigns here -- a win over Auburn can go a long way toward perking up the fan base's spirits and restoring a little hope.
Georgia Tech. Also a no-brainer, because a) the game is always the last of the regular season and b) we've already established that Tech is the team Dawg fans most hate to lose to. in 2008, Georgia finished 10-3 but the fans still felt lousy because we'd managed to lose to the Jackets; in 2006 and '09, disappointing seasons found a measure of redemption because the Dawgs managed to knock off Tech teams headed to the ACC championship game.
For me, at least, this may be the toughest question to answer yet -- so I'm going to have to let my personal biases take over and say Auburn. I've been to the Georgia-Auburn game every year since 1997, so the sample size here is a bit larger than it is for the other teams, but the outcome of that game always seems to have a pretty big impact on how I look back at the season as a whole. I've already talked about how the 2006 and 2009 seasons were frustrating campaigns that were redeemed to some extent by wins over Auburn in situations where we could've easily lost. In 2007, the win over Auburn was the biggest blowout of the Dawgs' late-season surge, and proved that the early-season losses to South Carolina and Tennessee had truly been put behind us.
Of course, it cuts both ways -- in 1997 and 2004, Georgia got huge emotional lifts after beating Florida, only to end up deflated again in short order after losses to very good Auburn teams. And in Richt's first year, the Dawgs came into the Auburn game a very impressive 5-2 but lost to the Tigers after a couple questionable late-game play calls, forcing the team to do some soul-searching whose impact would be felt for the next couple seasons.
But nothing quite sums up the import of this game quite like the 2002 matchup. As memorable as this game was, people forget that the Dawgs' loss to Florida two weeks before meant the Dawgs were only a game ahead of the Gators in the SEC East race, and had Georgia fallen to Auburn on the Plains, Florida and Georgia would've finished the season technically tied in the division standings but with the Gators holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. But Jon Stinchcomb made his stirring locker-room speech at halftime, David Greene tossed the "Prayer on the Plains" to Michael Johnson, and a little bit of Georgia football history was etched in stone. That, to me, will always be the textbook "Dream Season" -- and the Auburn game sits right at the heart of it.