By Garry Smits
JACKSONVILLE — Florida vs. Georgia has meant the world to Tim Tebow, starting when he played Pop Warner football at Lakeshore.
“We’d finish a game, hop in the car and get here about the second quarter,” Tebow said on Friday of the pattern his father and brothers set. “We’d try to find a parking spot and buy tickets from people walking out of the stadium. It was amazing. One of my favorite memories of my football career was being able to do that.”
Tebow adds another chapter in his personal Florida-Georgia history when he takes the set for the SEC Network’s “SEC Nation” pregame show on Saturday from 10 a.m.-noon, a few hours before the ninth-ranked Gators face the seventh-ranked Bulldgs (both 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC) at TIAA Bank Field.
Across the street in Metropolitan Park, ESPN’s “GameDay” will have already been in progress (9 a.m.-noon), with Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard, former Georgia player David Pollack and Maria Taylor. CBS, with Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson, airs the game live at 3:30 p.m.
It’s the first time that all three SEC broadcast partners are in the same city, at the same game. It’s also the first time that GameDay and SEC Nation are at a regular-season game at the same time.
“It’s awesome,” said Tebow, who will join Laura Rutledge, Paul Finebaum and Marcus Spears on SEC Nation. “It shows the magnitude of this game, the atmosphere. There are few that rival this.”
The four Gator teams Tebow played on from 2006-09 went 3-1 against Georgia, and won the three games by an average score of 37-10. He broke Herschel Walker’s SEC touchdown record as a senior against the Bulldogs.
Tebow completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, had a passer rating of 182.21, threw for 554 yards and five touchdowns and ran for seven touchdowns against the Bulldogs. He never had a turnover in a Georgia game.
Yet, Tebow said, he was never more anxious before a game than he was in this rivalry, starting when the team bus would get to the crest of the Hart Bridge.
“This game brings out your nerves, 100 percent,” said Tebow, who played in two national championship games, three SEC championship games and four games each against Tennessee and Florida State, with a combined 12-1 record. “I was probably as nervous in this game as I was in any game. For me, it was a little different, growing up here … this meant everything to me. When you’d ride over the Hart Bridge and see all the tailgaters and red and black and orange and blue, it does something to you. It makes you get crazy butterflies. You get all anxious and nervous and you tighten up. Some players respond and love it. Some players don’t.”
It wasn’t always the case. Tebow said as a Gator fan growing up he probably wanted to beat Florida State more.
That changed when he was a sophomore in 2007 and lost one of only four SEC regular-season games as a starter for the Gators when the Bulldogs staged the infamous “Gator Stomp,” with the entire team rushing the end zone after the opening touchdown of the game.
“If you had asked me growing up, I would have said FSU because at the time, Florida really ruled this game [Georgia],” he said. “FSU was a battle, against Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn and Chris Weinke, how they hit Danny [Wuerffel, in the 1996 game]. But my sophomore year [Georgia] stormed the field and did all that. This one got pretty big.”
Tebow and the other GameDay and SEC Nation talent made available for interviews said this year’s game between top-10 teams has the making of a classic.
“This is cool … both teams in the top-10 for the first time [since 2008],” Pollack said. “It’s going to be fun to see the adrenaline.”
“I think we have been starved for this situation, two top-10 teams at this point,” Spears added. “I’m excited. I’m anxious to see how Georgia responds after the LSU loss and to see if Florida can keep this train rolling. Both teams will find out a lot about themselves at a neutral site.”
But Corso had some caution about the Bulldogs being seven-point favorites.
“Florida has passed more tests than Georgia,” Corso said of victories over LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — the latter after trailing 21-3. “Georgia had one test [a loss to LSU] and failed it.”