Georgia and Florida, which started out with championship aspirations, have been ravaged by injuries and head into their annual game in Jacksonville staring at one last gasp to salvage something from their disappointing seasons.
Thanks to Missouri’s overtime loss to South Carolina, the winner will still have a shot in the Southeastern Conference East.
The loser is all but done.
“Both teams are a lot alike this year,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “Both of us are fighting to try to stay in the race for the East title.”
Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC) has lost back-to-back games, including a stunning defeat at Vanderbilt. Florida (4-3, 3-2) is also mired in a two-game losing streak, falling to LSU and Missouri by double-digit margins.
Neither team is ranked, after both began the season in the top 10. That has taken some of the luster off one of college football’s great rivalries, though neither side is willing to concede any less passion for beating the other.
“If you can’t get excited about playing Florida in that venue, you shouldn’t be a Bulldog. Period,” Richt said. “Everybody gets their blood pumping for that one.”
Injuries have been a major factor in the downfall of both teams.
Georgia got an idea of what was to come early in the season opener, when top receiver Malcolm Mitchell sustained a season-ending knee injury. Two more key offensive players — tailback Keith Marshall and speedy receiver Justin Scott-Wesley — have since gone down for the year.
In addition, star running back Todd Gurley has missed three games with a sprained ankle, though it looks as though he’ll play Saturday against the Gators. The Bulldogs are also hoping for the return of yet another receiver, Michael Bennett, who underwent arthroscopic surgery three weeks ago.
Don’t count of getting any sympathy from the Gators.
A staggering eight Florida players are out for the season, a list that includes starting quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken leg), defensive behemoth Dominique Easley (knee) and dynamic kick returner Andre Dubose (knee). Three more defensive starters missed Florida’s last game, a 36-17 loss to Missouri in which the Gators surrendered 500 yards — their most since 2007.
“Both teams probably expected to be undefeated or have a better record coming into this game,” said Florida’s Tyler Murphy, who has been ineffective at quarterback since taking over for Driskel. “But both teams still have high hopes of finishing the season off well. It’s kind of like a one-game playoff.”
Early in the season, Georgia was scoring enough points to overcome its leaky defense, beating South Carolina 41-30 and knocking off LSU 44-41. But, as the injuries have mounted, quarterback Aaron Murray has struggled to come up with enough weapons to keep the offense moving.
Clearly limited by all the injuries at receiver, Murray threw for just 114 yards against the Commodores, his longest completion going for a mere 17 yards.
Richt conceded that Georgia should’ve taken more shots downfield, even if they weren’t completed. But he said Murray, a fifth-year senior, has maintained the same work ethic and upbeat attitude. During an off week after the Vandy loss, for instance, the coach spotted his quarterback getting in some extra work after most of his teammates had already headed home for a long weekend.
“He’s just wired that way,” Richt said. “He’s not feeling sorry for himself or anything like that. He’s very happy to be here with us and he wants to finish strong.”
Murray passed on entering the NFL draft the last two years, a decision that was especially surprising after he nearly led the Bulldogs to the national championship game a season ago. But any hope of finishing No. 1 this year is long gone.
Still, he has no regrets about delaying his professional career.
“Obviously, I came back to try to give us a chance to win a championship,” Murray said. “It didn’t happen. So what? Let’s move on. Let’s continue working hard and having fun.”
Both teams got an emotional boost when Missouri lost.
At least now, there’s a glimmer of hope.
“I went crazy. I was jumping around the house,” Florida safety Cody Riggs said. “We’re back in it. We still have a chance.”