Venue Makes Florida-Georgia Game Unique

Brandon Siler remembers taking the field for the first time at AllTel Stadium in Jacksonville. He was already aware of the importance of the Florida-Georgia game to Gator Nation but nothing could prepare him for what he saw when he came out of the tunnel.

"I looked around and half the stadium is in orange and blue and the other half is in red," said Florida's sophomore middle linebacker from Orlando. "Nobody had told me that it was like that. I mean I knew it was a neutral site and all that, but nobody told me that they divide the stadium right down the middle and one half is Gator and the other half is Georgia.

"And then once the game starts, you make a big play and half the stadium goes crazy and then they make a big play and the other half goes crazy. I don't think there's anything like that anywhere in college football."

Coach Urban Meyer is discovering in bits and pieces this week what Siler already knows about the Florida-Georgia rivalry. Right now he's only getting it in bits and pieces from his players, staff members, friends and alumni but he'll be front and center in a couple more days.

There is a common theme with everything thrown Meyer's way about this rivalry. Everyone has taken the time to inform him how playing the game in Jacksonville at a neutral stadium makes the rivalry unique. They have also made him how aware just how his perspective will change when he crosses the bridge for the first time and sees the stadium surrounded by fans of both schools.

Unlike any other game in the Southeastern Conference, this neutral field game divides the fans half and half. Once inside the stadium, it becomes a sea of orange and blue on one side and a sea of red and black on the other. It's like a line is drawn halfway down the middle. The way the venue is set up only fuels the passions of the game.

"Everybody talks about the venue," said Meyer. "That seems to be the thing people want to talk about. Wait till you come over the bridge in Jacksonville. I've had many players tell me about that."

Meyer has been part of some of college football's greatest rivalry games. As a graduate assistant at Ohio State, he was part of the Ohio State-Michigan game both in Columbus and in Ann Arbor. As a Notre Dame assistant, he experienced the Southern Cal game in both South Bend and Los Angeles and he also experienced the Michigan game. As Utah's head coach, he was part of Utah-Brigham Young.

Those are big rivalry games and the fans are passionate about their teams at each of those schools. But those games are always played on a home and home basis on campus. What sets the Florida-Georgia game apart is the neutral site with the crowd divided equally. The game has such a social setting around it as well that fans begin arriving in Jacksonville on Monday, a full five days before the game is played. Back in the 1950s it was dubbed "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" by Bill Kastelz of the Florida Times-Union, an appropriate nickname that has stuck throughout the years.

So often, the game has taken on national implications that go far beyond the rivalry. During the years Vince Dooley was coaching Georgia, the Bulldogs quite often used the Florida game as the springboard to championships and to deny Florida chances to win its first SEC title. Georgia's run to the 1980 national championship was fueled by the Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott pass in the final seconds that went for a touchdown and preserved an undefeated season.

During the 12 years Steve Spurrier was Florida's coach, the Gators won seven SEC championships and one national title. Florida won 11 of the 12 Georgia games. Spurrier's dominance was followed by Ron Zook winning two of three. Zooker's win over Georgia in 2002 cost Georgia a shot at a national title.

The national and conference implications combined with the social aspects of the game make it a unique rivalry.

"I've followed this game a long time," said Meyer, "and this is truly one of the great rivalries. When I was hired here it was very clear there are three rivalries on this campus (Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State) and you can feel this one. I think the thing that makes this one unique is the fact it's a unique venue that it's played in.

"Our guys are excited about playing it. What separates this one on top of the fact you have two very healthy great programs with great success is the fact that it's played on a neutral site. I know watching it from afar for so many years, I thought that's what made the rivalry so special and made it different. It will be a tremendous atmosphere in Jacksonville."

The Gators will travel over to Jacksonville on Friday and do a walk-through at the stadium. That will be Meyer's first chance to go over the bridge and see the stadium beside the river with the RV's already lined up and the boats docked along the St. John's River. Magnify that many times Saturday on game day.

"I think once we get there and everything, one takes a whole different meaning when you drive over that bridge," said Meyer. "That's what everybody tells me and I'm anxious to see that. That's all everybody talks about when you come over that bridge and you see that atmosphere."

Meyer is aware of how Florida fans feel about the game.

"I think that if you took a poll this is the one that everybody in Gator Nation accepts as a major, major rivalry," he said.

RAY MC UPDATE: It's not all good news with defensive end Ray McDonald, still trying to get back to 100 percent after knee surgery a few weeks ago. McDonald will be playing in the Georgia game, but expect his role to be limited.

"I don't think he's well enough to play a full game but I think he's going to get in there," said Meyer. "He had another good day today. Monday he obviously pulled himself out because it [knee] was bothering him. I'd say he'll go at 80-85 percent of his ability but this is the Florida-Georgia game so he's going to play if he can."

Meyer said Jemalle Cornelius continues to improve from the high ankle sprain he suffered in the Alabama game. "He's probably about 85-90 percent," said Meyer.

Getting injured players back even if it is for limited action, however, is a boost for the Gators.

"it's a boost anytime you have a good player come back," said Meyer. "It's a confidence boost for each side of the ball."

THOUGHTS ABOUT GEORGIA: Georgia is expected to play without quarterback D.J. Shockley. In his place should be Joe Tereshinski, a fourth-year junior who has also played special teams as a protector in the punt formation and also as a long snapper.

Tereshinski has attempted 23 passes this season so he's a virtual unknown. Everybody is aware of how bright he is, though. He scored more than 1,500 on his SAT.

"I don't know much about him," said Meyer. "Obviously he's been in that system awhile. I'm sure he's an intelligent guy that knows where to go with it."

Meyer is far more concerned about Georgia's defense, ranked fifth in the Southeastern Conference and 14th overall.

"I think they're a really good defense and probably a little more healthy than they were," said Meyer. "That's an SEC defense, very fast."

Georgia will be playing without defensive tackle Kedric Gholston in this game, but the Bulldogs will welcome back tackle Gerald Anderson and middle linebacker Tony Taylor.

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