JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The winner remains in contention in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. The loser heads home with a three-game losing streak.
So the stakes are high even though border-state rivals Florida and Georgia are unranked heading into Saturday’s annual game in Jacksonville. It’s the second time in four years that both schools are unranked by the end of October, but it’s the first time since 1926 that both programs enter the neutral-site game riding multi-game losing streaks.
Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC) dropped consecutive games against Missouri and Vanderbilt, plummeting from No. 7 in the country. Florida’s fall was equally surprising. The Gators (4-3, 3-2) lost at LSU and at Missouri by double-digit margins, continuing to fade after starting the season at No. 10.
Now, they’re trying to avoid weeks of talk about playing for pride and becoming bowl eligible.
“Both teams are in the same boat,” Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy said. “We’re both 4-3. Both teams probably expected to be undefeated or have a better record coming into this game. But both teams still have high hopes of finishing the season off well.
“It’s kinda like a one-game playoff. If you lose, your season’s kinda done and down in the dumps.”
Both teams appeared done two weeks ago, but then South Carolina rallied to knock off Missouri in double overtime last Saturday and give the Gators and Bulldogs a glimmer of hope.
“I think everybody got a good little bit of juice from that,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “This game is obviously important, no matter what the situation is, but we still feel like we’re in the race for the East, so it makes it a little bit more meaningful to everybody.”
Florida may have a little extra motivation stemming from the last two years.
Georgia has won two in a row in the series, converting two huge fourth-down calls to win 24-20 in 2011 and taking advantage of six turnovers to eke out a 17-9 victory last year.
“We have a lot of anger from the last two years,” cornerback Marcus Roberson said.
That 2012 loss prevented Florida from winning the East and possibly getting a shot at the national title. The Gators plastered the final score in their weight room for incentive.
Georgia will have running back Todd Gurley on the field for the first time in a month. Gurley, who has rushed for 450 yards and four touchdowns, missed the last three games with a sprained left ankle. Florida, meanwhile, has named freshman running back Kelvin Taylor the starter following a season-ending injury to Matt Jones. Taylor, the son of retired NFL standout Fred Taylor, is averaging 6.1 yards a carry and could ignite a lackluster offense.
Both teams started out with championship aspirations, but have been ravaged by injuries. Georgia is playing without top receiver Malcolm Mitchell, tailback Keith Marshall and speedy wideout Justin Scott-Wesley. Florida is far from sympathetic, having lost a staggering eight Florida players for the season. The list includes Jones, starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, disruptive defensive tackle Dominique Easley, right tackle Chaz Green, kick returner Andre Dubose. The Gators also will be without starting left tackle D.J. Humphries for several weeks.
The Bulldogs have done a decent job of protecting Murray, allowing just five sacks since a season-opening loss at Clemson. The Gators, meanwhile, have been vulnerable to odd defensive fronts and blitzes. Murphy was sacked a combined 10 times in Florida’s back-to-back losses – one more than Georgia has given up all season – and could be under more pressure Saturday. With Humphries out, the Gators are giving junior college transfer Trenton Brown his first career start and inserting benched right tackle Tyler Moore back in the lineup to protect Murphy’s blind side.
No one needs a win more than Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is 0-6 in the series. He went 0-4 as a player at Georgia, dropping all four meetings between 1991 and 1994. He’s 0-2 with the Gators, and all those whispers from fans and booster surely would get louder with another loss.
BETTER AFTER BYE?
This is only the second time in series history that both teams had off weeks before the annual game. The other came in 2011. Florida is 15-5 against the Bulldogs following a bye week. Georgia is 4-3 against the Gators when given two weeks to prepare.