It’s fitting that before this year’s Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, even the city’s Mathews Bridge was on the mend.
AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (86) scores a touchdown on a 25 yard catch during the second half of the NCAA college football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Louisiana State Tigers in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.
A cargo ship damaged a support beam for the structure over the St. Johns River in late September. It was repaired and reopened this week in time to handle traffic for today’s annual rivalry game.
If only the Bulldogs and Gators could get all their injured players back as fast.
Both teams are decimated by injuries and their seasons aren’t what they expected it to be.
Florida has lost eight players to season-ending injuries. From a broken leg for starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to knee injuries to defensive tackle Dominique Easley, receiver/returner Andre Debose and running back Matt Jones.
Georgia’s offense has taken major hits at the skill positions in the last month, with their top two tailbacks and top four receivers all injured.
Tailback Keith Marshall and wide receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell are out for the season with knee injuries and receiver Chris Conley isn’t expected to play today due to an injured ankle.
“I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t think there’s any other team besides the [New England] Patriots that are more beat up than us and Florida,” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said.
Two teams that began the season ranked in the top 10 meet today at EverBank Field with 4-3 overall records under strange circumstances for the series.
For starters, Georgia and Florida will go up against each other with both unranked for just the second time since 1979.
They come in on two-game losing streaks where their offenses looked feeble last time out before both had bye weeks.
Florida generated just 151 yards of total offense against Missouri and ranks last in the SEC in that category. Georgia managed just 221 against Vanderbilt, quite a comedown for an offense that topped 530 in the first three games of the season.
Oh, and the loser is just about toast in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division race.
“This is what you have to call a make it or break it game,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said.
“Both teams probably expected to be undefeated and have a better record coming into this game,” said Tyler Murphy, who took over as Florida’s starting quarterback to unimpressive results. “Both teams have high hopes of finishing the season off well. It’s kind of like a one-game playoff. If you lose, your season is kind of done or down in the dumps. Both teams are going to come out hungry and ready to go.”
The winner can keep hopes alive thanks to Missouri’s double overtime loss to South Carolina last week.
“This game just on its own is enough,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “When we play Florida, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to our team, it’s a big deal to our coaches, it’s a big deal to our fans. It means a lot. That in itself is high motivation, but we certainly have a whole lot less of a shot at winning the East if we don’t win this one and Florida’s in the same boat. … If we lose it, you’re just about certain to be out of it.”
Both teams are getting back some reinforcements.
Georgia will return not only star tailback Todd Gurley from an ankle injury that kept him out three games but one of its top receivers in Michael Bennett, who has missed two games with a knee injury.
Safety Tray Matthews may play for the first time since Sept. 28 after being sidelined with a pulled hamstring. Safety/nickel back Josh Harvey-Clemons is coming off a foot injury against Vanderbilt, but could play.
Florida linebacker Ronald Powell (ankle) is expected to return for the game and defensive tackle Damien Jacobs (head injury) and linebacker Darrin Kitchens (shoulder) could return.
Georgia is still missing three of its top four receivers (Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and Conley) and Richt had to reach for a depth chart to remember exactly who he has catching passes from Aaron Murray this week.
“It seems like this year you’re hearing more and more, more than usual I guess around the league … names that are more recognizable maybe, guys that are starters,” Richt said of injuries league-wide. “It just seems more starters maybe, more guys who have made a lot of plays in their career. I don’t know why that is. It’s just one of those years.”
The rivalry might have its share of hatred, but Georgia defensive lineman Garrison Smith said he said a prayer when he heard Florida’s Easley was lost for the season.
“It’s bigger than football,” Smith said. “When that guy went down, he plays my position of defensive line, so I said a prayer for him right then. I asked God let him be healed and let him come back stronger than he was before.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, college teammates at Georgia and old friends, haven’t commiserated with each other about all the talent they’ve lost.
Bobo said they haven’t talked since the offseason.
“You can relate,” Bobo said. “Anybody that’s in coaching knows when you’ve had some tough breaks that are hard to overcome, but that’s the nature of the business and why you’re the coach and it’s your job to get the next guy ready. We’re all in it together and all keep a close eye on everybody and hope they do well and have some success, but at the end of the day, you really ain’t got time. You’re worried about your team and trying to get your team ready.”
Said Muschamp: “I hurt for young men. These guys put a lot of time and effort into playing college football. It’s hard no matter where you are. The amount of time you put in offseason workouts, spring practice, summer workouts. People don’t realize the amount of time and effort they put into playing college football.”
Even with Bennett back, Georgia won’t have Conley due to an ankle injury.
Conley leads Georgia with 30 catches, 418 yards and four touchdowns.
The Bulldogs are so thin at receiver that walk-on quarterback Greg Bingham is pitching in a scout-team receiver.
“Our whole receiving corps is just about gone,” Jenkins said.
“It’s just one of those years,” Muschamp said. “It’s unfortunate and it’s part of the game and you’ve got to coach through it and you’ve got to play through it and we don’t make any excuses around here. We’ve got to play better.”
Georgia was missing receivers two years ago heading to Jacksonville and came away with a 24-20 win, something that receiver Rhett McGowan brought up this week as a reminder that the Bulldogs have been here before.
Mitchell and Rantavious Wooten were out then, not quite the depleted receiving corps this time around.
“We’ve got who we got,” Bobo said. “I think the off week came at a good time for those guys to get better and hone in on the little things of being a receiver. The little thing is what’s going to help you win against a defense like Florida that plays as much tight coverage as they do. … We’ve got to trust the guys and cut it loose.”
Georgia hopes the injuries aren’t the dominant topic after the game ends today.
“We don’t want to make it the story of the year,” Richt said. “We want to win ballgames.”