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Bulldogs, Gators still in running for SEC East title

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Georgia’s slide happened in September. Florida’s plunge came in October.
    Now, they’re out of the national championship picture, out of the polls and nearly out of chances to make the season special.
    Thanks to the Southeastern Conference’s topsy-turvy Eastern Division, though, both remain in the hunt for a spot in the league title game — at least until Saturday.
    When the Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3 SEC) and Gators (4-3, 2-3) meet in Jacksonville for the 75th time in the last 78 years, it will essentially be an elimination game in the East. Sure, the loser still will be technically alive in the division race. But it would need plenty of help down the stretch to get to Atlanta.
    “If we don’t win this game, then we’re going to be in a lot of ... there’s going to be a lot of disappointed faces,” Florida center Mike Pouncey said. “We really need this win.”
    Even though the Gators have won 17 of the last 20 in the series, they seem to be the more desperate team.
    Florida has lost three consecutive games for the first time since 1999, a slump that dropped coach Urban Meyer’s team from the rankings, left his staff searching for answers to its inept offense and had most of college football wondering what happened to a program that won two of the last four national championships.
    “People like for us to lose, people like us to be down,” safety Ahmad Black said. “Everybody’s bashing us right now.”
    The Gators, coming off a bye week, spent the extra time evaluating their offensive problems. The unit ranks ninth in the SEC and 89th in the nation.
    Meyer blamed the “severe issues” on turnovers, a lack of big plays, dropped passes, missed blocking assignments and inefficiency in the red zone.
    “It doesn’t look like us out there,” he said.
    But can the Gators really fix their problems in two weeks?
    “We have modified quite a bit,” Meyer said.
    Meyer is 31-3 in his coaching career, including 15-1 at Florida, with more than a week to prepare. His record includes season openers, bowls and games after open dates. He’s 2-0 against the Bulldogs with an extra week.
    Not coincidentally, Georgia’s last win in the series (2007) followed a bye week.
    “If you’re going to try to make a fairly radical change, that’s the time to do it,” Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. “I’m not saying they’re going to do that.
    “But you can definitely do a lot more in an open date because you have more time to think things though and then you have more time to prepare your players and get the reps that you might need if you’re going to make a change. ... We know that there may be a little bit different look, and we’re trying to predict what the new looks might be.”
    Chris Rainey will be one wrinkle. Rainey was suspended the last five games after he was charged with aggravated stalking. Meyer partially reinstated Rainey two weeks ago — after the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor — then cleared him to play Thursday.
    The Bulldogs, meanwhile, could have a different look at tailback. Starter Washaun Ealey sprained a ligament in his right knee last week and has been slowed in practice since. Caleb King, coming off a two-game suspension for failing to take care of a speeding ticket, could play a pivotal role against the Gators.
    Georgia doesn’t want to change much else. After a four-game losing streak early in the season, the Bulldogs have won three straight conference games to get back in the mix in the East.
    With quarterback Aaron Murray playing efficient and error-free, and receiver A.J. Green back from a four-game suspension, the Bulldogs have averaged 42.7 points during their winning streak — more than Florida has scored (42 points) in its losing streak.
    “All the things we’ve been doing the last three weeks we want to continue to do,” Richt said. “We’ve grabbed a lot of positive momentum and we just want to keep it going.”
    If so, the Bulldogs could end up salvaging what looked like a lost season and getting to Atlanta for a shot at something special.
    If not, the Gators would get a chance to turn things around and possibly win the East for a third straight year.
    “The moment I put the standings of the SEC East and they (saw) what’s going on ... it lifted my spirits and I think it lifted a lot of guys’ spirits around here,” Meyer said.