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A Jacksonville gem: Florida-Georgia is something special

AP Photo/John Raoux

If you’ve just arrived from Mars and you want to know about college football — what makes it so passionate, colorful and fun? — you should head to Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon.

It’s the Florida-Georgia game.

Or is it the Georgia-Florida game?

It’s called the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party’’ for a reason. Half of the crowd is dressed in orange and blue with the other half in red and black.

It’s a great game to win.

But the intense atmosphere also teaches you this: It’s a game you can’t afford to lose.

The Florida Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) need it to remain in contention for the SEC East.

The Georgia Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3) just need it — period.

Kirby Smart’s first season as Georgia head coach is on the verge of unraveling, but nothing makes fans happier than a win against the Gators. Smart knows that well.

In 1997, with Steve Spurrier’s Gators on a seven-game winning streak in the series, Smart helped turn it around. As a junior safety for Georgia, Smart had two interceptions as the Bulldogs prevailed, 37-17.

Now the Dawgs need someone else to step up in similar fashion.

Will it be true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason? If so, Eason will become the first Georgia quarterback to defeat Florida in his first start against the Gators since Greg Talley in 1989.

The Gators, meanwhile, are hoping that quarterback Luke Del Rio, playing in his hometown, can provide the firepower to defeat the Bulldogs. Florida showed some offensive muscle in last season’s 27-3 victory against the Bulldogs, which was Jim McElwain’s introduction to the rivalry and perhaps the beginning of the end for Mark Richt at Georgia.

McElwain said he has been part of many great rivalries, including the Montana State-Montana game in his home state, but the evenly divided neutral-site crowd — and the high-stakes SEC ramifications — put Florida-Georgia in a league of its own.

“Shoot, I got goosebumps just thinking about it,’’ McElwain said.

It would be a chill down his spine had McElwain lost the game last year.

The Florida-Georgia game will introduce the McElwain-versus-Smart era, a matchup of two coaches who became close friends when they were coordinators on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.

McElwain called it a “great chess match,’’ pointing out the close relationship and knowledge of each other, which makes for some memorable competition.
“You become almost like family,’’ McElwain said.

That relationship will only be relevant before and after the game. It’s about the players — and the ability to make plays.

Smart once was one of those players, and the biggest moment of his playing career was stopping the Gators’ winning streak.

The Gators have endured immense pain during a rivalry that brought us the likes of “Run Lindsay Run’’ (when Georgia receiver Lindsay Scott dashed 93 yards with a short pass, enabling the Bulldogs to preserve their national-championship season in 1980), “Fourth-and-Dumb’’ (when Florida was repelled on fourth-and-1 from its 29-yard line in the third quarter, allowing Georgia to rally for a victory in 1976) and the “Gator Stomp’’ (when the entire Georgia team left the sideline to celebrate in the end zone following a touchdown, when Richt pleaded for more emotion, in 2007).

Modern history has been more kind for the Gators.

But that doesn’t decrease the urgency.

Florida needs to keep alive its championship hopes. Georgia needs to salvage Smart’s initial season.

Those are details you might not realize if you just arrived from Mars, but they aren’t really needed to understand the rivalry. Just a quick sampling of the sounds, smells and sensations from the memorable scene in Jacksonville and you’re left with one impression.

This is something special.

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