Most college football fans don't have to think too long to decide who their team's biggest rival is. But we all know it's not quite that simple in the SEC, and certainly not at Georgia, where at any moment a half-dozen rivals might be vying for the title of "most hated."
Florida and Georgia Tech are no-brainers, but Georgia and Auburn go back a long ways as regular antagonists, and Tennessee has rocketed up the list, too, since 1992's conference realignment dropped the Vols and Dawgs into the same division.
Sometimes it all comes down to where you live. Back when Mark Richt first became Georgia's coach and started making the rounds of local Bulldog Club meetings, he said it seemed like he heard a new "biggest rival" with each city he went to; fans in south Georgia said Florida was a must-win, fans in Columbus said it was Auburn, and fans in Augusta even told him they couldn't show their faces in public if the Dawgs didn't beat South Carolina.
Over the next few weeks we're going to try to answer that question by breaking it down into different categories, because when you've got as many big rivals as the Dawgs have, a rivalry means different things to different people. With each category I'll list a few candidates, then cast my vote and allow you to cast yours. By the time this is all over with, we'll have a pretty good idea of which programs keep popping up in the various categories, and maybe we'll be able to make a judgment about who's the biggest. And even if we don't, maybe we'll be able to slot them into a hierarchy somehow.
We'll start off by asking the question: Which rival do Georgia fans most enjoy beating?
Keep in mind, this isn't the same thing as which rival does UGA beat the most. If that were the only criterion, then we could say "Vanderbilt" or "Kentucky" and be done with it. No, this is about the game you circle on the calendar way back in March. This is about the game you can't wait to get home from so that you can get online, log on to the other team's message boards and guzzle 180-proof schadenfreude the rest of the weekend.
This is about glee that lasts the rest of the season, through subsequent wins and losses, for 364 days and nights -- until that rival comes back around on the schedule again.
Which team fits that description? Here are some candidates:
Florida. This one doesn't need explanation, because not only are the Gators typically a good team -- when you beat them, you know you've accomplished something -- but they always seem to ratchet up their obnoxiousness when the final week in October rolls around. The fact that the Gators are a humbling 18-3 against the Dawgs since 1990 has only ratcheted up the endorphin output when Georgia notches a rare victory in Jacksonville.
Georgia Tech. The Dawgs beating up on the Yellow Jackets is kind of like whaling on your little brother when the two of you were little: You always beat his ass, yet the inevitability did absolutely nothing to detract from the feeling of satisfaction you got. (Just imagining the veins popping out on Techies' foreheads as they read that characterization only proves the point.)
Tennessee. No team has ever put together a longer winning streak against the Dawgs than the Vols did under Phil Fulmer from 1989 to '99; the fact that the rivalry has become more or less evenly matched has done nothing to cool down the feud between the two fan bases. The wild card is Derek Dooley's presence on the Tennessee sideline -- for some, that's tempered the hate level somewhat; others, however, only want to punish the "traitor" that much worse.
Auburn. Depending on whom you ask, this is one of the friendlier rivalries on Georgia's annual slate -- or was, until Tommy Tuberville turned on the smarm and made the Tigers a team you love to hate. And after last year's game, which took place amidst the swirling Cam Newton eligibility controversy and featured Nick Fairley's late-hit repertoire besides, it's safe to say quite a few Dawg fans have put mental bullseyes on the Tigers' backs.
Alabama. No, they're not an annual rival, but to be the best you've got to beat the best -- and Nick Saban has pretty firmly re-established the Crimson Tide as one of the nation's elite programs. And for some reason, Bama fans have been particularly derisive toward Mark Richt lately. Is it because of the ill-advised "blackout" game in 2008? Or because he wanted to lure Kirby Smart over to Athens as his new defensive coordinator the following year? Considering that the Tide came out on the winning end of both of those situations, you kind of wonder why they'd reserve so much animosity for little ol' Richt, but whatever the reason, there's no denying that a victory over the Tide has become an achievement worth celebrating.
My vote goes to the Florida Gators. That doesn't exactly qualify as stepping out on a limb, of course, but that just proves the point -- perhaps no win on the schedule feels as good as the one the Dawgs pick up in Jacksonville. It gives the Dawgs a critical leg up in the SEC East standings, and since the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is one of the few remaining neutral-site rivalries on the annual CFB slate, it always gets plenty of airtime on "SportsCenter" and the other highlight shows.
But perhaps most importantly, it shuts up the Gator fans for 12 blissful months. Even the most loyal (or blinkered) Georgia fan has to concede that the Gators have had our number for the last 20 years, so any reprieve from that is a blessing.
(And if you think about it, it's actually a two-fer, because any Georgia victory over Florida also shuts up the Tech fans who have to live vicariously through the programs that actually beat the Bulldogs more than a couple times a decade.)