Despite rough starts, rivalry still has big effect in East

Buck Belue’s pass to Lindsay Scott 30 years ago for a 93-yard touchdown to beat Florida in Georgia’s 1980 national championship season has gone down among the greatest plays in college football history.

John Raoux/AP Florida has lost three straight for the first time under coach Urban Meyer. The Gators are coming off a bye week.
Associated Press

The game Belue played the year before in Jacksonville when he threw three touchdown passes in a 33-10 Bulldogs victory?

That’s easily forgotten.

“I still have the trophy they handed out for the player of the game,” Belue, an afternoon sports radio talk show host in Atlanta, said this week. “People say, ‘Hey, is that for ’80?’

“No that’s for ’79,” Belue tells them.

” ’79? I don’t even remember what happened in that one,” he hears.

The 1979 Georgia-Florida game is relevant once again because the Bulldogs and Gators are playing again as unranked teams for the first time since back then.

Appropriately enough, the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” was atop the charts then when the 0-6-1 Gators played the 4-4 Bulldogs.

Both Georgia (4-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) and Florida (4-3, 2-3) have had more than their share of heartache this season, but they are playing not only for a chance to stick it to their rivals, but to stick around for a shot to win the SEC East title and get to Atlanta for the league’s title game.

The Bulldogs lost four in a row for the first time in 20 years before surging back with convincing wins against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

The Gators limp in off their first three-game regular season losing streak in 22 years – dropping games to Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State, but hope the bye week gave them a chance to fix what ailed them offensively.

Must-see TV? Maybe not.

National TV? Yes sir.

CBS guaranteed the clash would air in its 3:30 p.m. showcase SEC game of the week during the length of its 15-year contract with the league. Both Florida and Georgia want the game played during the day. It doesn’t hurt that the schools draw viewers from the top SEC markets of Atlanta, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne.

“It’s one of those traditional games that’s always going to have some significance,” CBS executive vice president Mike Aresco said. “It’s just a good rivalry game. In terms of this year, it does have significance for the East, and that’s how we’ll promote the game, obviously.

“I think people are kind of curious to see if Florida can bounce back, whether the week off has allowed them to get themselves straightened out and Georgia is a sleeper at the moment. They’ve come on and played really well the last three weeks, scoring a lot and probably looking like the team people thought they’d be at the beginning of the year had they had A.J. Green from the outset. It’s kind of an intriguing matchup.”

Who would have figured back in the summer that an SEC game involving a ranked team this week would be Mississippi State-Kentucky, not Georgia-Florida?

“We’re still Georgia and they’re still Florida,” Georgia receiver Tavarres King said. “Everybody knows what the deal is.”

“I would think there’s some luster lost off the game because of the records, but it’s just such an aura about the game, I would think there’s a lot of people (who) are still going to tune in just to see what happens,” Belue said.

This Georgia-Florida game is the first since 1989 that at least one team isn’t ranked in the top 10.

“Georgia-Florida, it always has a big-game feel and it will have importance,” Aresco said. “I’m glad that Georgia’s stabilized and got back on its feet and that the game has some significance for both teams, not just for Florida. Who would have expected Florida to lose three in a row?”

Florida will win the SEC East by winning its remaining SEC games against Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

Georgia will win the East by beating Florida and Auburn and if South Carolina, which is 3-2 in the SEC, loses two of three to Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida.

“I know if we handle our part, hopefully the Good Lord will take care of the rest,” King said.

“If we can get this victory, it opens the door for us to get to Atlanta,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

“Just knowing that going into the ballgame is an exciting thing for our players and coaches, I’m sure our fan base, too. I’m just thankful that we’ve gotten to this game and there is true meaning for us in the Eastern Division race.”

Florida coach Urban Meyer said someone handed him the SEC East standings last week and it reminded him just how much still remains on the table.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “It lifted my spirits and I think it lifted a lot of guys’ spirits around here.”

Said Gators center Mike Pouncey: “It felt good knowing that we could win out and with three losses still go to the SEC championship.”

Rankings or not, both these teams want to pull rank on the other.

“It’s always going to be a big game between us even though the rankings don’t show it,” Georgia outside linebacker Darryl Gamble said.

“This week is a very critical game for us,” Pouncey said. “If we don’t win this game there’s going to be a lot of disappointed faces, but we’re practicing hard and we really need this win.”

Georgia was a three-point favorite at midweek.

“I don’t know if any of them have an advantage,” said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, whose team lost to both Georgia and Florida this season. “I think it will be a physical game. They both are two physical teams. They’re big, fast. Have got playmakers on both sides of the ball. I think it will be an exciting game.”

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