Even more so than the rest of the college football world, the SEC is steeped in the kind of traditions you can mark your calendar by. Around mid-September, once the first few conference games have been played, Bama fans start talking about how they're going to do in the national championship game. By November, South Carolina fans are asking each other why their team always seems to flame out in the final month of the season. And in between, the same downtrodden fan base gases up its cars, heads toward Jacksonville, and murmurs the same plaintive question.
Say it with me, Florida fans, because it's become your mantra: Is this the year we finally beat Georgia in the Cocktail Party?
Forgive me if I sound like I'm rubbing it in here, Gators, but I have to go ahead and run the numbers, and they're as ugly as your uniforms: Georgia is 61-26-2 all-time in the Cocktail Party rivalry, 30-7 since 1974, and 17-4 since 1990. It's not that Florida can't win, obviously, but any success they have in Jacksonville is fleeting -- the Gators haven't won back-to-back games against the Bulldogs since the Kennedy administration, whereas the Dawgs recently tied their mark for longest win streak in the series with seven in a row from 2002 to '08. Of all the teams Georgia calls rivals, only Georgia Tech gets victimized with anywhere near this kind of regularity.
It hasn't mattered who the coach is. Steve Spurrier rolled into Gainesville with a lot of tough talk and designs on dominating the team that had been his nemesis when he was Florida's QB in the '60s, and he managed a Cocktail Party win in just his second season, but by the end of his tenure he was only 3-9 against Georgia. So demoralized was he by Georgia's dominance that when he broke a four-year losing streak in 2001, he decided to quit while he was (marginally) ahead and subject himself to the rigors of the NFL rather than have to face the Dawgs again. His replacement, Ron Zook, was fired tout de suite after going 0-3 against Georgia, at which point Urban Meyer was brought in -- and had not one but two national-title runs ruined by losses in Jacksonville.
The talent on the field hasn't even been a deciding factor. Numerous times the Gators have walked into Jacksonville with more overall talent and bigger names, only to go home disappointed. Danny Wuerffel won a Heisman Trophy and a national title at Florida, yet could do no better than a single win in the four games he played against the Bulldogs, and spent the fourth quarter of one of those losses on the bench, watching in astonishment as the Dawgs became the first (and so far only) team to hang "half-a-hundred" on Spurrier in the Swamp. Same deal with Tim Tebow: Won a Heisman yet had to wait until his senior year for his lone win against Georgia -- and was seen weeping openly on the sideline in 2008 at what was then called Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, as the final seconds ticked down on the 34-17 Georgia victory that would put the final nail in the coffin for the Gators' national title campaign.
And still Gator Nation hopes. Every year they have another reason for insisting that the tide in the Cocktail Party is on the verge of turning for good. In 1990 it was Spurrier; in 1998 it was Georgia's erratic QB, Quincy Carter; in 2007 it was Tebow. Georgia ended up winning all three years, by an average of 19 points.
This year, that "X factor," that great white hope, was new head coach Will Muschamp. Or it was until May, when Muschamp was asked at a meeting of the Atlanta Gator Club to guarantee a win over the Dawgs -- and stammered awkwardly for a few moments before mumbling that he "wasn't in the business of predicting wins and losses." The vitriol with which Gator Nation treated Muschamp's noncommittal response went way over the top, in my opinion; all he did was decline to give bulletin-board material to an arch-rival program, it wasn't like he got up on the podium and revealed himself as a sleeper agent installed by the Georgia athletic department to leave Florida's football program in ruins. Then again, if I were a Florida fan -- who'd seen my team win only once in its last nine tries in the Cocktail Party and was desperate for my coach to inspire some sort of confidence -- I might've gotten on the message boards and railed against Muschamp as a coward, too.
Of course, if you talk to those same Florida fans now, they'll deny they ever said any of that. Just like they'll deny that Tebow was actually crying on the sideline in '08, or that they've been grousing for years about wanting to move the game to a home-and-home because Jacksonville has somehow become irrevocably "tainted" by Georgia's dominance. (Some of them, as a "compromise" measure, have suggested alternating between Jacksonville and Atlanta to offer a change of scenery while maintaining the neutral-site flavor of the rivalry. The fact that those Florida fans would actually prefer watching this game from a red-and-black seat in a stadium called the Georgia Dome tells you everything you need to know about what this rivalry has come to.)
But those complaints ignore a central fact about the rivalry that Georgia fans have known for years now: It's not the venue. It's not the number of stars in the players' Rivals ratings, and it's not about the uniforms, even though Florida insists on tweaking them every year as if that's going to make a difference. You could put Georgia's players in Pro Combats or burlap sacks and leather helmets and it wouldn't make a difference, because either way, they walk out onto that field in Jacksonville on an annual basis knowing they're going to win -- whereas their counterparts in blue and orange only think they can. That mental block, that reflexive intimidation, is what Florida's going to have to get over if they're ever going to reverse their sorry fortunes in this rivalry.
The Gator fans, and I dare say their players, are talking like they already have. But it's the same bluster and braggadocio we hear from them every year around this time. Dawg fans, here's something to try next time you run into a Gator jawing about how this is their year and Georgia's time is at an end: Stop him, put a hand on his shoulder, look him square in the eye and ask him, "Do you really believe all that?"
Watch closely -- it'll be subtle, almost imperceptible, but they'll hesitate before they reply. Because whatever their answer is, they know deep down the true answer is "no." They're playing a role at this point, same as the Washington Generals played theirs.
It's cute in its own fashion, but it sure is a good way to suck the life out of one of college football's last remaining neutral-site rivalries.And that may be the saddest thing of all.