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Florida, Georgia in different positions, but same SEC East goal is within reach

Mark Richt chuckled on Tuesday when a reporter mentioned that Jim McElwain is Florida's fifth head coach since Richt took over at Georgia in 2001.

“Most of them have whupped me, so I don’t know if it means a whole lot,” Richt cracked.

Well, he’s not wrong. Florida icons Steve Spurrier (1-0) and Urban Meyer (5-1) both had winning records in Jacksonville against the Richt-led Bulldogs, but so did Ron Zook (2-1). Even Will Muschamp (1-3) was able to salvage his last chance against Georgia before he was run out of town, whupping the Bulldogs 38-20 last season.

Now with McElwain leading No. 11 Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC) to the top of the SEC East standings, Richt finds himself in the all-too-familiar position of taking the Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2) to Northeast Florida as an underdog.

After years of futility against the Gators, a three-game winning streak between 2011 and 2013 finally seemed to tilt the rivalry in Richt’s favor. Then came last year’s beatdown, when Florida’s floundering offense rushed for 418 yards – its most in one game since the 1980s – and temporarily saved Muschamp’s job.

This time around, a Georgia loss to the Gators would all but secure Florida’s first berth in the SEC championship game since 2009. Vanderbilt would still be mathematically alive, but let’s be serious. If the Gators win on Saturday, they will wear the SEC East crown at season’s end.

Even McElwain seems unsure how his team will respond to playing in such a high-stakes game. He said some of his players put too much pressure on themselves early in their last game, as LSU built a commanding lead before holding on to win 35-28, but handled the moment better as the contest continued.

“I thought we got out of sorts at times, and yet I thought we bounced back decently,” McElwain said. “So it’s exciting. This is a lot of fun. We put ourselves in a position to where what we do is relevant and that’s kind of a neat thing, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take of what we need to do today to get ready for Saturday.”

As McElwain reminds us, let’s not crown Florida just yet.

Even if winning out seems unlikely for a team that sneaked past free-falling Missouri 9-6 in its last game, the same scenario exists for Georgia. Victories against remaining SEC opponents Florida, Kentucky and Auburn would send the Bulldogs to Atlanta for the first time since 2012.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Florida twice as good a chance as Georgia of winning out – it says the Gators have a 9.6 percent chance, Georgia 4.3 percent – but this is not an impossible scenario for Georgia.

Even if losses to Alabama and Tennessee, plus a season-ending injury to star running back Nick Chubb, took some wind out of Georgia’s sails, Richt reminded reporters Tuesday that most of the Bulldogs’ goals remain within reach.

“We are this deep into the season and we’re playing Florida and we’re in a very meaningful game,” Richt said. “We know if we win the next three games, we’re in. Obviously, Florida wins the next three games, they’re in, or however many they’ve got left.

“We’re the two teams in the East that kind of control our destiny, so that’s where you hope to be. To me, there’s still a lot to be written this season.”

The biggest question is whether Georgia’s struggling offense can do enough against Florida’s powerful defense to give the Bulldogs a chance. With lingering quarterback questions concerning whether to stick with ineffective starter Greyson Lambert or turn to backup Brice Ramsey, glaring holes at receiver and now Chubb’s absence, Georgia hardly looks like a safe bet to pull the upset.

Nor did Florida last year, and nor did the multiple underdog teams that have emerged victorious in Jacksonville in recent years. It’s a well-circulated opinion within Georgia circles that if the Bulldogs hadn’t won this game in 2011 – a 24-20 victory where they scored two touchdowns on fourth down – and eventually claimed the SEC East title, Richt and his staff might not have survived that offseason.

But they did win and survive, and they nearly played for a BCS title the following year. The mood around this rivalry feels similar to that 2011 season as Georgia and Florida prepare to meet again, and the stakes might be similar, too.

What Richt knows is that Florida isn’t the only team that can still play in Atlanta in early December. Now it’s up to his coaching staff and players to make sure that remains the case.

“When you think about it, going into the eighth game of the year and we’re still right in the heart of it, that’s a good thing. So I’m pleased with that,” Richt said. “But now we’ve got to do it.”