As part of an ongoing series for the spring and summer months, SEC Country offers a point/counterpoint breakdown of some of the SEC’s biggest games on the 2016 calendar — in terms of subjectively clarifying which program needs a victory more than the other.
Today’s must-win debate: SEC Country writers Jay Clemons and Knox Bardeen tackle the Florida vs. UGA clash on Oct. 29, with Clemons taking the Gators argument and Bardeen siding with the Dawgs.
For Bardeen’s pro-UGA breakdown, click here:
WHY FLORIDA MUST BEAT UGA …
1. Head coach Jim McElwain has a tradition to uphold against newbie UGA leaders
In their respective first seasons of leading the UGA program, head coaches Mark Richt (2001) and Jim Donnan (1996) both incurred losses to Florida.
Granted, it’s not a large sample size covering the last 25-plus years, but it’s enough for McElwain and his current staff to realize they never can pass on a chance to humble the Bulldogs. As such, Richt and Donnan sustained double-digit losses to the Gators in Year 1, with Steve Spurrier overseeing the carnage both times.
For what it’s worth, the last six UGA head coaches (Richt, Donnan, Ray Goff, Vince Dooley, Johnny Griffith, Wally Butts) were a combined 3-3 against Florida in Year 1.
On the flip side, the last eight Florida head coaches (McElwain, Spurrier, Will Muschamp, Urban Meyer, Ron Zook, Galen Hall, Charley Pell, Doug Dickey) boast a 5-3 record against UGA in Year 1.
2. Among the SEC East’s Big Three, Florida has the largest scheduling disadvantage with head-to-head meetings
The Gators have regular-season tilts scheduled in only three states: Florida (seven home games, one neutral-site clash with UGA and a trip to Florida State), Tennessee (roadies with Vanderbilt and the Volunteers) and Arkansas.
That’s the good news.
On the negative front, when tracking Tennessee, UGA and Florida — the heavy favorites for the SEC East crown — only the Gators partake in the round-robin series without a game at treacherous Florida Field, aka The Swamp.
Of course, since 1990, the Gators own an 18-6 lead over the Bulldogs when playing in Jacksonville, excluding the two years when the Gator Bowl/EverBank Field underwent a massive renovation to support an NFL team (Jaguars).
During that span, Florida swept the home-and-home series with UGA (1994-95), by a combined score of 104-31.
In essence, Florida fans probably don’t miss entertaining UGA at The Swamp, provided they still can party all week on Amelia Island … and then remain confident of a Saturday victory. After all, last we checked, Jacksonville and Gainesville are separated by just 71 miles.
Meanwhile, Tennessee hosts Florida on Sept. 24 … and then travels to UGA the following Saturday. That’s a rough seven-day experience.
The Dawgs have it slightly easier, hosting the Volunteers on the first Saturday of October, and then meeting the Gators in Jacksonville four weeks later.
3. The Gators might require consistent bragging rights on the recruiting trail, before Kirby Smart’s own patented ‘process’ kicks in
According to 247Sports.com, only four of the state of Georgia’s top 13 prospects have committed to a school for the fall of 2017, meaning coveted 5-star talents — like cornerback Deangelo Gibbs — are still open for persuasion in the high-stakes, dog-eat-dog world of recruiting.
Granted, Florida doesn’t have a long track record of stealing the state of Georgia’s greatest prep stars, but that could change on McElwain’s watch, presuming he can break the glass ceiling of beating Tennessee, UGA, Florida State and the SEC West champion (likely Alabama or LSU) in the same season — en route to national-title contention.
And citing 247 Sports, Georgia boasts 30 4-star prospects for the Class of 2017 … just in case McElwain doesn’t get his fair share of Florida’s 47 4-plus-star prospects for next signing day.
4. Florida likely won’t reach the College Football Playoff without a victory over UGA
Look at Tennessee’s schedule before the Oct. 22 bye:
In a three-week, four-Saturday span (Sept. 24 to Oct. 15), the Volunteers encounter Florida, (home), UGA (road), Texas A&M (road) and Alabama (home) — four teams that plausibly could claim the SEC championship and a subsequent berth in the College Football Playoff this fall.
As such, Tennessee could be sitting at 2-2 after its first four SEC weekends, even if everything goes right against the aforementioned powers.
Which brings us to this: It wouldn’t be a stretch to identify the UGA-Florida winner as the clear favorite for the SEC East crown.
On paper, the Bulldogs have daunting conference clashes with Ole Miss (road), Tennessee (home), Florida (neutral field) and Auburn (home) — along with potential ‘trap’ meetings against Vanderbilt (home) and Kentucky (road).
But it’s too early to decipher whether Ole Miss (lost superstars Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche to the NFL draft) or Auburn (quarterback struggles) will be elite teams; and as mentioned above, UGA doesn’t have on-campus road games with Tennessee or Florida.
Simply put, the Dawgs’ schedule appears to be easier than the rival Vols. Plus, it’s impossible to imagine the Gators losing to UGA … and still winning the SEC East.
In fact, that’s never happened, when charting Florida’s six defeats to UGA since 1992 — when the SEC split into two divisions.
Here’s another precedent to ponder: The College Football Playoff committee has never included a non-conference champion into its national semifinals (two-year sample).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.