It isn’t necessarily the toughest game, either. The Gators travel to Alabama and Florida State this season, both games that they will be considered underdogs for. They’ll host LSU and South Carolina, other tough matchups on the difficult Florida schedule.
But there’s no question it’s the Georgia game that is the most important.
It was always important, even before Florida started its current three-game losing streak to the Bulldogs. The rivalry has gone in waves, but before the last three meetings, the Gators were in control. The expectation now is for Florida to get control back, but it’s not going to be easy.
Will Muschamp hasn’t left Jacksonville on the victorious side of the rivalry. He lost all four matchups during his time as a safety at Georgia and has lost his first three meetings with the Bulldogs since becoming the Florida coach.
That has to change this year. The Gators aren’t going to be expected to win at Alabama or Florida State by the national media, and the jury is still out for the expectations against LSU and South Carolina. The Bulldogs won’t be a slouch, but the Gators have to find a way to get it done.
Georgia is getting plenty of national hype this offseason. Phil Steele, who specializes in his season preview material, is calling the Bulldogs his sleeper team to play for a national championship that will start the season ranked outside the top 10.
The returning players on the Georgia roster make it easy to see why. Running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will anchor the offense while most of the production at receiver returns. Hutson Mason has the pressure to replace Aaron Murray at quarterback, but he started the last two games of the 2013 season when Murray tore his ACL. Mason looked capable of handling the offense and returning multiple starters around him will help ease the transition.
The defensive side of the ball could go either way for Georgia. The Bulldogs struggled to get stops through last season because of their youth and inexperience. That won’t be an excuse this year. However, they will be going into the first season under defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. A new coordinator could be seen as a hindrance to a productive season, but Florida State won the national title in Pruitt’s first year as defensive coordinator.
It’s an important game for the Florida program, but it might be even more important for Muschamp. He goes into the 2014 season on the hot seat after last season’s 4-8 record. Against Florida’s two biggest rivals, Florida State and Georgia, Muschamp is 1-5. Those rivalry games were dominated by some of Florida’s best coaches in recent memory and getting things back near even would be an important step in the right direction for Muschamp.
It would also ease up some of the heat from those calling for his job. With every loss that happens during the 2014 season, the talks of replacing Muschamp will only grow. But a win over Georgia could be the perfect amount of good will that he needs to calm the fan base and show that the program is heading in the right direction.
Whether it actually happens or not is another question. This rivalry has gone through runs where one team dominates it for an extended period of time. The pressure is now on the Gators to flip the momentum back to Gainesville, and it needs to happen this fall.