Byline: Michael DiRocco, Times-Union sports writer
GAINESVILLE -- Steve Spurrier faced the group of assistant coaches he had brought together to form his first staff at the University of Florida in 1990, shook his head, and delivered the line that began one of the most amazing runs in school history:
"We've got to beat Georgia."
Easier said than done. The Bulldogs had won 15 of the past 20 games in the annual matchup of the Southeastern Conference schools in Jacksonville. They had broken Gator hearts often, especially in 1974, 1975 and 1989, when unranked Georgia upset highly ranked Florida, and 1985, when 17th-ranked Georgia beat Florida, which was basking in the glow of the first No. 1 ranking in school history.
But, heck, Spurrier had led Duke to an Atlantic Coast Conference title in 1989, so beating Georgia couldn't be that hard, could it?
Georgia fans snickered. Florida fans hoped.
Now the Bulldogs are playing catch-up.
Spurrier's passing offense not only transformed the series but also the SEC, and the Gators have dominated the Bulldogs like they have the conference. While beating the Bulldogs all but once since Spurrier returned to his alma mater in 1990, the Gators also have won six SEC championships and one national title.
Spurrier arguably had more effect on the annual series than any other coach in the series -- including Georgia's Vince Dooley, who went 17-7-1 against Florida.
In fact, he's dominated the Bulldogs so effectively that the game, while still important to the fans that pack Alltel Stadium, has slipped on Florida's list of important games. Now the Gators' biggest SEC game is Tennessee, a game played early in the season -- except this year because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- and one that usually determines the SEC's Eastern Division champion.
"I wouldn't say it's the biggest game now because Tennessee has developed into our biggest rival in the SEC, but Georgia is certainly right there next," Spurrier said. "But since Georgia has already beaten Tennessee [earlier this season], you might could say they are the biggest rival we have now."
Saturday's game could be the most intense in years because it could decide the Eastern Division champion. The Bulldogs know, as Spurrier and the Gators knew then, they have to win this game to become one of the SEC's elite teams.
"Obviously the first few years in the '90s it was important to beat Georgia and hopefully beat them on a consistent basis because they won 15 of the last 20 games," Spurrier said. "They were a little down in '90 that first year, so it was important to start winning and hopefully get in a habit of beating Georgia. The reason we needed to start winning that game is because we lost it so much, and if we were going to compete for the SEC championship every year, we had to beat Auburn and Georgia. We had to win that two-game stretch."
Spurrier wasted no time in backing up what he said. Florida destroyed Georgia 38-7 behind 344 yards passing and three touchdowns from Shane Matthews and a sack, interception return for a touchdown, and a caused fumble by linebacker Tim Paulk. Georgia did not record a first down in the second or third quarters.
As bad as it was for Georgia, it could have been worse. Florida drove inside the Georgia 20-yard line five times in the first half and came up with zero points.
"Coach [Gene] Ellenson, who is our motivational guy, he was our defensive coordinator when I played in the '60s and he usually gave a little motivational talk maybe four or five games a year when it was a really important game. When I was hired in 1990, I said, 'Coach, your game this year is going to be the Georgia game,' " Spurrier said. "Georgia was a bad team that year. They were ninth in the conference in defense, 10th in offense, and we went over [to Jacksonville] first in offense and defense. …