In 2002, finally freed from the tyranny of Steve Spurrier, Georgia went down to Jacksonville hoping to make a statement that things had changed in the Georgia-Florida rivalry . . . and lost an ugly game to Ron Zook. Three years later, a Bulldog team heading toward an SEC title returned to Jacksonville to face a Gator team struggling with the transition to the spread offense . . . and lost an ugly game to Urban Meyer. Time and time again, the Dawgs have had a chance to reverse their inexplicable recent fortunes in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, only to screw it up and hand another victory to the hated Gators. Now, with Florida being led by a first-time head coach (a Georgia grad, no less) and the Gator program in a bit of disarray, Georgia has a chance again . . . but will they take it?
BETTER KNOW THE GATORS
Coach: Will Muschamp, first year
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 SEC; finished 2nd in the SEC East
Returning starters for 2011: 13 (seven offense, six defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Jeff Demps, WR Trey Burton, DT Omar Hunter, QB John Brantley
Key losses: C Mike Pouncey, CB Janoris Jenkins, WR Carl Moore, OG Maurice Hurt
Best-case scenario: Aaron Murray heads an uprising against the depleted Florida defense and leads the Dawgs to an emphatic victory, signaling a shift in what has been a one-sided rivalry for two decades now. Last season excepted, one of the common threads running through Georgia's string of losses in Jacksonville is that they just can't seem to score any points. This year, though, Florida returns only two starters in the back seven, and probably their best defensive player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, was just kicked off the team for a third marijuana arrest. Granted, Florida still has an incredibly physically gifted stable of athletes back there, even if they're not the most experienced, and a Will Muschamp defense is never something to be taken lightly. But with the Florida offense adding a total overhaul under Charlie Weis' pro-style scheme to their list of recent upheavals, the time is right for Murray to show there's a new sheriff in town.
Worst-case scenario: The running game continues to struggle, the entire offense has another one of its familiar Jacksonville mental meltdowns, and Muschamp's defense dooms the Dawgs to their third loss in their last 22 tries against the Gators. It's become a depressingly familiar script by now, but the fact is the Gators have had a mental hex on the Dawgs for a while now, one that Murray and the coaching staff will have to prove they can break. No question, the Gators are a team in transition at the moment, but that didn't seem to matter against the Dawgs in 2002 or '05, and those were two of the best teams Mark Richt has fielded in Athens. A squad coming off a 6-7 season and still struggling to put the right pieces in place on defense simply can't take anything for granted here.