ESPN has rattled off its list of the “Most Important Games of 2014” for each SEC school, and it selected the Georgia game as most important for Florida. This is right, because, excluding championship games and bowls, it’s always right. To utilize a simple tautology, sometimes the “safe” pick is the right pick and often times that’s because the obvious pick is the “safe pick.”
The Georgia game is always Florida’s “biggest game”, despite the emotion involved in other matchups and the ever cyclical “big games” that also frequent the Gators’ schedule. Nonetheless, contrarian opinions somehow persist.
At Alligator Army, it was suggested yesterday that the Florida State game is most important. “It always is,” they write. “Recruiting being the #1 reason.”
That’s a reasonable contrarian opinion. It’s also flawed, rejected by loads of historical and empirical evidence. Let’s explore why, from weakest argument to strongest.
1) It’s the Oldest
Even though such stories are made to be written prior to SEC Media Days, when there’s really not anything else to talk about, I won’t spend a great deal of time on this point. Neil Shulman did a tremendous job of that while writing for Alligator Army– I’d suggest reading that piece.
Nonetheless, it is Florida’s oldest annual game. The two universities don’t even agree on how often it has been played: Georgia believes it holds a ten game edge in the series at 50-40-2, counting a 1904 game that was played against a school called “The University of Florida.” The actual University of Florida didn’t begin playing football until 1906, and as such, renders the 1904 game impossible. It suggests the series tally is 49-40-2 in favor of the red, silver and black. Either way, that’s 91 or 92 games played, entering this season, which makes the Florida-Georgia game UF’s oldest annual contest by some measure. That they can’t agree on how often they’ve played simply adds intrigue.
2) The Game has a Nickname.
“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” was the running nickname of the football game for fifty years. Oddly, this nickname wasn’t given to the game by anyone affiliated with either university or football program. It came from Bill Kastelz, a sportswriter for the Jacksonville-based Florida Times Union, who, legend has it, dubbed the game as such in the 1950’s after witnessing a stumbling Georgia fan offer a beer to an on-duty police officer. Whether the story is true matters not- the name stuck until 2006, when both universities asked the city of Jacksonville to drop the name for marketing purposes because they were concern about the optics.
The name itself makes little sense—there are plenty of cocktail parties bigger ever Saturday during college football season. Having just returned from Brazil, I can assure you that the “outdoor cocktail parties” in Rio and Sao Paulo were also larger during the World Cup. But misnamed or no, the game is the only Florida football game on the schedule that has a nickname. And that’s the case regardless of what your old NCAA Football video games call the “Florida-Miami” game or the “Florida-Florida State” game. No one attending those games says, “Hey, are you going to the Battle for the Seminole War Canoe this year?” Or, “You going to Tallahassee for the Governor’s Cup?” But you’ll easily find a friend or relative who asks “Are you going to the Cocktail Party?” And you won’t need context clues to understand that means Florida vs. Georgia.
3) The Game is A Bucket-List Destination for Fans of College Football Generally, not just Gators and Bulldogs
Among the diehards, much of the college football offseason is spent debating traditions, rivalries, and rattling off lists of things “every college football fan must do once in his or her lifetime.” Attending a Florida-Georgia game is on every legitimate list.
The neutral site is a compelling reason alone; there’s nothing in sport more fascinating than attending a game where a stadium is literally cut down the middle in different colors. Texas-Oklahoma at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, Army-Navy (though that is in and of itself a different and uniquely special animal), and Florida-Georgia are the three most prominent college football games that offer that type of fan experience.
Spend a weekend in Jacksonville for Florida-Georgia and soak it in if you haven’t. You’ll probably come back recognizing what is practically beyond debate: as a Gator or Georgia fan, there isn’t a regular season game you’ll attend that can generate more memories on a consistent basis. From the moment you get into town on Friday night, whether you head to the Jacksonville beaches or the Landing or a smaller party with friends, the anticipation is palpable and the atmosphere is unique. There’s no like for like on the schedule, and that includes road games at any of the other “rivals” Florida plays: LSU, Florida State, Tennessee (if that’s still a rivalry, or, in a historical sense, if it ever really was), Auburn. None consistently compare. I only emphasize consistently because you could easily make an argument for one of the other trips on a case-by-case basis, particularly when you are a student and you travel to one of the other sites, the game has high stakes and you have friends at the other school. But Florida-Georgia offers that sense of anticipation annually. That’s the reason it’s on those “fan bucket lists.”
Personally, I’ve been fortunate to attend at least one edition of most the enormous rivalries in college football. I saw Michigan play Ohio State in 2006, days after the death of Bo Schembechler. It was tremendous, but Florida-Georgia can hang. I’ve been to an Iron Bowl, in 2008, when Alabama finally ended Tuberville’s winning streak. Magnificent. Florida-Georgia can hang. Those are but two examples, but given those are probably the two most preeminent rivalries in the sport, they’re good ones. Only Florida-Georgia offers that experience to Gators fans.
4) Florida Football didn’t accomplish much of anything until it figured out how to beat Georgia
This gets into the meat of it, and it isn’t even the strongest argument. But it’s where genuine comparative analysis can begin with the “Florida State” claims.
Florida played football 78 years before it captured its first SEC Championship, in 1984. That championship, as well as an “Alabama would count it” National Championship, awarded to Florida by the New York Times, were vacated following an NCAA Investigation that found a host of violations by departed head coach Charley Pell and his coaching staff. Florida would win the SEC again the following year, but forfeit that title as well due to the same violations. The same thing would occur, but with different head coaches, in 1990, when Steve Spurrier won the SEC in his first year but the team forfeited the trophy and a bowl game due to NCAA violations under previous head coach Galen Hall. Needless to say, when Florida finally won the SEC in 1991, it had been a painful wait for Gators everywhere. And there was much rejoicing.
Here’s the thing, though- prior to 1991, Florida had a handful of opportunities to not have to wait that long. Those hopes were vanquished by Georgia at every turn. The Ray Graves Gators of the 1960’s delivered Florida’s winningest decade of football until the 1990’s, but failed to win two SEC Championships because they couldn’t defeat Georgia. Steve Spurrier would cash in on the positive side of this story a quarter of a century later when he took the reigns at his alma mater, but that didn’t, and for Spurrier, doesn’t, take the pain away.
The Gators under Doug Dickey in the 1970’s were an inconsistent, disappointing lot as a whole, but they did have a chance to win the SEC two consecutive years in 1975 and 1976, only to be foiled in each attempt by Georgia. The 1976 game is particularly infamous, in that it began the downslide of the Dickey tenure and ruined what was ultimately a Sugar Bowl team’s season in a game that was “the Choke at Doak” before there was ever a “Choke at Doak”. The Gators led 27-13 late in the third quarter, only to see Georgia, led by a quarterback named Ray Goff (more on him shortly), score and cut the lead to a touchdown despite Florida’s seeming dominance throughout. On the ensuing possession, fearing momentum was slipping away, Dickey decided to go for a first down on his own 29 yard line. The Bulldogs stuffed the play, scored thereafter and rolled to a 41-27 victory. Sportswriters coined a phrase that lives just on the edge of older Gator alums lips to this day at pregame Florida-Georgia tailgates: “Fourth and Dumb.” Both my parents, University of Florida students at the time, still can’t discuss the game without a shudder.
Even when there was less at stake, the Gators found Georgia an unconquerable foil. In 1980, coming off an 0-10-1 campaign, Charley Pell’s vastly improved Florida team led #2 Georgia late in the fourth quarter, and had the Bulldogs backed up on their own seven yard line. The ‘Dawgs, seeking their first national championship since they utilized ROTC exemptions to prevent stars from being deployed for combat in World War II and steamrolled to a national crown against talent-depleted schools whose stars were busy fighting the war1942, faced third and long.
What happened next was and is the most famous play in the history of the rivalry, and, if you’ve ever listened to a college football talk radio show where they pump in famous broadcast calls, one of the more famous plays in the history of college football. Typing does little justice, so I’ll let the late, great Larry Munson, of the Georgia football network do the rest:
There’s more. In 1985, ranked # 1 during the regular season for the first time in school history after punishing Bo Jackson and Auburn a week prior, the Gators entered Jacksonville heavily favored over a Georgia team they’d defeated 27-0 the year prior. Nothing went right. The Gators vaunted defense gave up over 250 yards rushing and the offensive line, dubbed “The Great Wall of Florida” by Gators football historian Norm Carlson, held no blocks for Kerwin Bell and Florida’s offense. The ‘Dawgs hammered Florida 24-3. Florida would not be # 1 again until five years into the Steve Spurrier regime.
Five years later, in the aftermath of more probation and mediocrity, God finally smiled on the Gators when athletic director Bill Arnsparger hired Steve Spurrier away from Duke to coach his alma mater’s football team. At Spurrier’s first press conference, the new coach emphasized defeating one opponent above all: Georgia. The emphasis helped usher in the golden era of Florida football.
5) Spurrier changes the fortunes of the Georgia rivalry, and the Gators start winning championships
Spurrier emphasized beating Georgia, and partly due to this, and the retirement of Bulldogs coaching legend Vince Dooley, he was immediately successful. Ray Goff, the quarterback who had crushed Florida dreams playing for Dooley in the 70’s, proved no match for Spurrier’s innovative offensive schemes and was crushed by Spurrier in their first two meetings. The second meeting assured Florida would play for its first “official” SEC Championship in 1990. Over the next twelve years, Spurrier would lose to Georgia only once, a bizarre game in 1997 when Robert Edwards ran wild and Doug Johnson threw critical interceptions. All in all, Spurrier defeated three different UGA head coaches (Goff, Jim Donnan, and Mark Richt), and ushered Georgia towards Florida’s typical spot in the SEC pecking order—that of “good, but not quite able to get over the hump.”
Spurrier won six “official” SEC Championships, beating Georgia in each of those seasons. For five of those titles, the win over Georgia was instrumental in creating “space” in the new “division” formatting of the SEC- whether the space be a functional two game edge over Georgia (2000) or a standings and record edge over Tennessee (1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999). In four of those seasons, a loss to Georgia could have either prevented Florida from winning the SEC East (2000, 1999, 1993) or prevented Florida from winning the SEC outright (1991). In two more of those seasons, Florida risked a perfect record against the Bulldogs, and all that involves (1995, 1996). Spurrier’s ability to alter the mental landscape of that rivalry has long been appreciated by more seasoned Gators fans who understood the frustrations of the previous eight decades of football; the empirical evidence, however, is a testament to the game’s continued importance from a season-outcomes perspective.
6) It’s a Division Game; It’s A Conference Game
Easily the most devastating indictment of any argument that Florida State is a more important game; there is overlap between this point and the one above. Spurrier’s differential treatment of the FSU game vis-à-vis the Florida game is instructive. In 1993 and 1994, and again in 2000, Spurrier shook off losses to Florida State with the media, suggesting to Pat Dooley, among others, that “the bigger game was the SEC Championship” game the following week, and he certainly wasn’t going to risk the house on Florida State when he had a championship to play for the following week.
Take that as you will, as optically, there’s certainly an argument that Spurrier only said those things because he didn’t win the Florida State game. And maybe the same is true for FSU, who admitted to pulling key starters earlier than usual against Florida in the early 2000’s due to their participation in the ACC Championship game the following week. To be frank, it’s easier to accept the argument from Spurrier, because he’s so candidly honest in general, and because in the grander sense, as a Gator alumnus, he’s correct that the University of Florida playing for championships trumps beating an in-state rival on any occasion. But it’s also telling that he would say these things about the Florida State game, given the perceived importance off the game for recruiting purposes, and given the national implications often at stake when the Gators and Noles got together in the 1990’s.
Beating Florida State is certainly nice. In 1997, a year removed from the school’s first national title (at the expense, of course, of Florida State), the Gators defeated the # 1 Seminoles at home in what most consider to be the greatest game ever played at “The Swamp.” The win was thrilling and it wouldn’t be difficult to walk around tailgates this fall and find an alum or ten who still have a copy of the game on a VHS cassette somewhere. Sean McDonough’s call of the final drive: “They went 80 yards in three plays”, remains one of the most iconic calls in Florida football history and a painful moment for any FSU fan.
But take that game and consider the painful alternatives. Florida played heroically in 1993, but Warrick Dunn’s late swing pass and run to glory put the game out of reach in “The Swamp,” handing Florida its first home loss under Steve Spurrier. The Gators wallowed so deeply in pain thereafter that they beat an outstanding Alabama team the following week to win a championship. In 1994, “the Choke at Doak” was doubtlessly painful for fans, but for the Gator players, it was simply the game before they won a second consecutive SEC Title, again defeating a stout Alabama team. In 1999, Florida lost to eventual national champion FSU at home again, this time in a 30-23 game that wasn’t as close as the score, but was easily the Seminoles closest affair of their wire-to-wire national title. The Gators loss to Alabama the following week remains far more painful. In any of those campaigns, a loss to Georgia wouldn’t have just been emotionally devastating, it would have been potentially championship denying.
That logic continued into the Urban Meyer era. The “Endzone Party” loss to Georgia in 2007 eliminated Florida from tiebreakers in the SEC East a year after they won the national championship. A win in that game and Georgia wins nothing that season, and stops making arguments that it should have played for a national championship despite two losses. In 2008, Florida avenged that defeat in remarkable fashion, handing a UGA team that began the year # 1 a crushing defeat and assuring it would win the SEC East despite losing to Ole Miss at home. A loss in that game and there is no Atlanta for Meyer’s team, and no Tebow heroics in that epic SEC Championship tilt with Alabama. Of course Florida also beat FSU to play for national titles in two of those seasons, but in-state recruits saw a “by itself” advertisement for Florida vis-à-vis FSU when they watched the SEC Championship game Florida had to beat Georgia to play in. That’s more than enough marketing power.
Finally, even when Florida was struggling to win championships—largely because they couldn’t beat Georgia—they were handling Florida State. That UF held an overwhelming edge of the pre-Bowden Seminoles is well-documented. That Bowden was turning FSU into a power that would, for fourteen remarkable years, finish in the top five in college football, while losing to Florida consistently in the early portion of the 1980’s, demonstrates two things. First, Bowden was able to recruit around those losses, including a 53-14 one in 1983 and a 35-14 one in 1985. Second, while Bowden wanted to win those games badly, Florida lamented its failures in conference. And those failures were all related to an inability to either follow the NCAA rules or defeat the Georgia Bulldogs.
7) The Recruiting Argument fails the following Pepsi Challenge
I hate Pepsi, but it’s all over campus in Gainesville, so here’s the Pepsi Challenge: name five ultimately great Florida or Florida State players who chose Florida over Florida State or vice-versa because the Gators beat the Noles or the Noles beat the Gators. We’ll wait for that in the comments section.
The reality is that Gator fans are blessed to have multiple fascinating rivalry games, but rivalries are constantly rethinking and reshaping themselves. An argument could be made that Tennessee was Florida’s biggest rival in the 1990’s, and that’s a strong take when you consider Phil Fulmer and Peyton Manning’s Vols were among the only schools who responded quickly to what Paul Finebaum has called the SEC’s “Spurrier Revolution.” On the basis of about a ten year stretch of Florida-Tennessee games, that game remains a rivalry in nomenclature today. But it’s hardly a rivalry anymore. Auburn and Florida was always a huge game, and the geography of it makes sense (it is the closest SEC school to Florida in terms of miles.) The SEC Office eliminated that game almost entirely when it switched to the two rotating opponents format, and now to the one rotating opponent format.
Florida vs. Florida State is always going to be a rivalry because it features the two most prominent universities in the state and the two most recognizable football programs. But for some time in the 2000’s, the game lost luster because the Seminoles and Gators were both “down” intermittently. Television responded in accord, slotting some games at high noon—a slot typically reserved for less critical national television viewing. Yes, the 1990’s Bowden-Spurrier battles almost always involved national stakes. And yes, Florida directly played to maintain national title hopes against great Seminoles teams in three of those seasons: 1995, 1996 and 1998—with FSU playing for its national title hopes in 1993 and 1995-2000. That’s not lost on this writer. But following that, the game didn’t hold any such stakes for either side until 2006, when Florida squeaked by a bad FSU team at high noon in Tallahassee, and 2008, when Florida ran riot over a bad FSU team in the famous Tebow endzone/war paint in the rain game at Doak Campbell Stadium. In one of those years, the Georgia game had larger national stakes (2008), and in both years, Florida needed to beat Georgia to assure its spot in Atlanta was secure. Without Atlanta, no national titles. Unless you are Alabama. Point being? The Georgia game is almost always equally important, and often far more important.
Recruiting is such a national enterprise right now that in-state rivalries are no longer the referendums on “which program is better” they used to be. More than that, the SEC as brand has so far surpassed the ACC and other leagues that the league recruits itself: you can identify players recruited by FSU who chose SEC schools instead simply to play against that type of competition weekly instead of two or three times a season in the ACC. This is a huge structural advantage the Gators have that functions to minimize the importance of the FSU game, at least for the SEC school. The reality is that the recruiting argument is far more important to FSU than it is to Florida, where a conference helps recruit for it.
Younger Gator fans remember the FSU-Florida games of the 1990’s and immediately suggest that’s the bigger game, despite the history. And others simply want to beat FSU because they have no genuine personal animosity, outside of a football game, for the University of Georgia. As a Gator alum from Atlanta, that makes little sense to me personally, but it is a feeling I understand. But don’t make the “recruiting” argument. It’s simply not strong enough. And it’s far more relatable to simply suggest that FSU is a bigger game because you want to have bragging rights over an in-state rival for a year. If so, good for you.
Just remember that you won’t see Florida-Georgia start at high noon on cable television anytime in the next fifty years. But I guess a nationally-televised football game with division, conference and often national implications that is the university’s oldest football series and the source of eight decades, and now three years, of frustration, isn’t as important as bragging rights.