The Stage is Set

JACKSONVILLE – Everything about this year is different.

The annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla. has always been big, but it has rarely been quite this big. For only the fifth time in history, the two teams are both ranked in the top 10 for the game.

The stakes for this game are always high, but this year, the fate of both teams rides on the outcome. The winner seizes control of the SEC East and keeps its hopes of a national title alive. The loser will wait until next year.

The rivalry has always been intense, but after a year of hand-wringing and badmouthing following Georgia's infamous end-zone celebration, the bitterness between the two teams and their fans has reached its zenith.

For the Bulldogs, however, the most drastic change this time around is that they don't feel like underdogs. After nearly two decades that featured Florida as the distinct favorite, this time Georgia thinks it is the team to beat.

That's a big change from when head coach Mark Richt first arrived in 2001 from Florida State, where his Seminoles maintained an intense but evenly matched rivalry with the Gators.

"I didn't really understand the mind-set of the Georgia people and even the Georgia players to a certain degree," Richt said of his first Georgia-Florida game. "I didn't really feel like it needed to be treated like there was something different about it, but I do think that the players needed to really believe, and I was a little bit surprised by that."

As Georgia prepares for today's border rivalry, Richt said he has a team of believers this time around. It's confidence that comes from winning.

Last year, Georgia entered the game as the heavy underdog, but the Bulldogs didn't buy into the label. On their first drive of the game, they ran the ball nine straight times, capping the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Knowshon Moreno and a full-team celebration in the end zone that resulted in two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties being assessed.

It was a ploy Richt designed to energize his team, and that's exactly what it did. The Bulldogs went on to win the game 42-30, only their third win over the Gators since 1990.

"It definitely brought a lot of confidence back to our program and took away that intimidation factor that Florida had on us," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "You talk to the guys that played before, and that was one thing that they said was how they had the talent to beat Florida, but there was always that type of intimidation or type of fear you couldn't overcome. I think we overcame it last year."

The Bulldogs also succeeded in changing the tone of the series.

The celebration resonated with Florida fans, who suddenly looked at Georgia as arrogant underdogs who no longer knew their place in the SEC pecking order. Florida head coach Urban Meyer complained about the move in his book. Many Florida players promised retaliation.

As kickoff approached this season, both coaches issued gag orders on talk about the celebration. They wanted to focus on the game, and for good reason.

While the rivalry has changed during the past year, so too has the talent on the field.

A year ago, Florida's offense revolved around quarterback Tim Tebow and not much else. Tebow entered last year's game nursing an injury and struggled at times. This year, he's healthy.

"He might (have been) banged up, but they're going to say anything," Georgia defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. "He might be banged up now, but we don't care. We don't get into that. I don't care if he's banged up or not, Georgia's going to be there and we're going to be ready to play."

The Bulldogs will have more to deal with than just Tebow this time around. Meyer's goal of making Florida the fastest team in the country looks like it may have come true. Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps give the Gators a multi-faceted attack that has a few more wrinkles than Georgia faced last season.

"That's the big thing with their offense from last year to this year – you could focus on Tebow and Harvin and stopping them, but now they have those two running backs – Chris Rainey and Demps – and their line definitely looks impressive," Curran said. "When you're watching film it looks like they're in fast forward."

The key to slowing them down, Curran said, is playing fundamental and playing physical.

While Georgia's defenders may not be able to match Florida's speed on offense, Curran said sound preparation and fundamental play – taking good angles to the ball and making tackles – can negate the speed advantage.

The next step, he said, is to make sure the Gators think twice before getting hit.

"As a defense you always want to go into the game – especially like this – just being the more physical team and setting the tempo from the beginning," Curran said. "We feel like if we can continue to hit them, it's going to slow them down."

Florida will have its own problems to deal with when Georgia's offense is on the field. While the Bulldogs relied on a heavy dose of Moreno to win a year ago – he carried the ball 33 times for a career-high 188 yards – the Bulldogs' attack is far more balanced this time around.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is completing 62 percent of his passes and has thrown 12 touchdowns, while freshman receiver A.J. Green has become one of the conference's top playmakers, leading the SEC in receiving.

"I think both teams are playing great and have shown the ability to put up big points and play great defense," Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland said. "I think the stage is set. Both teams have one loss and are looking for control in the East. I know Florida will give it everything they've got and we're giving it everything we've got."

That singular focus is another change for the Bulldogs. The last time they played a game against another top-10 team with huge implications, Alabama jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead and gave Georgia the only blemish on its 7-1 record.

The team had been caught up in the hype, but that won't happen again, Curran said. These are different Bulldogs.

"It's impossible to look at Alabama and what we came from and get caught up in the hype again," Curran said. "We really matured as a team since that experience and just the leadership has improved. We have no reason to get caught up in the hype. We just focus on getting in the film room and preparing for whatever they might throw at us and what could happen if we win this game."

Last year's game showed the Bulldogs what can happen with just one win. It changed the dynamic of the rivalry and spurred Georgia on to a season that ended with a No. 2 ranking.

This year, the Bulldogs' sights are set even higher, and winning today is the biggest hurdle between the old Georgia and even broader horizons.

"I think everyone has an idea of the big picture at the end," Southerland said. "Everyone wants to ultimately make it to the national championship game. But we can't do that without going to Atlanta (for the SEC championship) and it would be much harder to get to Atlanta if we lost (today)."

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