Florida, Georgia play for first place in SEC East

Georgia defenders swarm Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain during last year's game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]

JACKSONVILLE — Coaches like to say that the biggest game of the year is always the next one. That’s really not why this one is, though. This is the biggest game of the year because, well, it just is.

 It’s No. 6 Florida vs. No. 8 Georgia in an epic SEC showdown that very likely could determine who represents the East in the conference championship game in Atlanta a month from today.

 “This is what you come to Florida for, for the opportunity to win the East and get to the SEC Championship in Atlanta, and winning those big games,” senior Florida center Nick Buchanan said. “For us to do what we want to do and accomplish what we want to accomplish, then this game means everything right now. All our focus is on coming out in practice every day with the intensity and the attitude where you get to work.”

 Going in, this has the feel of a playoff game, a championship game — but it’s neither. It’s for first place in the East, with the winner having a huge leg up on winning the division.

  For the winner, and loser, there is still work to be done after today — two more SEC games for Florida (Vanderbilt and at Missouri) and three for Georgia (Missouri, at Auburn and Texas A&M) that ultimately will determine who makes it to Atlanta.

 “This is for first place in the SEC East,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “All you can really control is winning the East. If you do that, you get an opportunity to go to Atlanta and play one game there. Beyond that, everybody is voting for you. 

 “You get into November and to be in first place in the East is a great position to be in because that’s what you can control. I don’t view it really as a playoff game because whoever wins doesn’t go on to the playoffs. There’s a lot more football ahead of us before any of that stuff.”

 The fact the Gators find themselves in a game of this magnitude, in this position in the SEC race, is a testament to how far (and how quickly) the Gators have come under Mullen and his staff.

 After this rivalry game two years ago, few probably saw this coming. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs 42-7, and the gap between the two programs seemed wider than Florida’s margin of defeat. Coach Jim McElwain was about to be fired and the Gators were in the throes of what would become a 4-7 season.

 Now, less than two years later, the Gators are 7-1, ranked sixth in the nation and can take command in the East with a win over the Bulldogs, who were the near-unanimous pick to win the division heading into the season.

 “This game is huge,” senior rush end Jon Greenard said. “It sets us up for where we want to be moving forward with this team. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make some real good plays. We’ve got a lot of guys that think this team can take it the distance. At this point, we’ve just got to play football.”

 “We’re excited for it, we know what’s at stake. We’ve got the bad taste out of our mouth from last year, and this game changes everything. If we win, we’ve just got to do our job from that point on. If we lose, it just makes it that much harder and the chances the place we want to go to that window gets very slim.”

 If the Gators win, that window to Atlanta becomes pretty much wide open.

 “Everybody is talking about this is a big game, this is a huge game,” senior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “Everybody is just excited, everybody’s ready for Saturday. But you’ve just got to stay level-headed, prepare, take it one day at a time. When Saturday comes, we’ll be ready.”

 In their two other games this season against top-10 opponents (Auburn and LSU), the Gators were ready, were prepared. They beat Auburn and played LSU toe-to-toe for most of the game in a 42-28 loss.

 Those games were big. This one is bigger, given what’s at stake.

 “Like Coach Mullen says all the time, these are the games you come to the University of Florida for, to play in these top-10 matchups,” senior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “To play in the Florida-Georgia rivalry and just be able to compete for all the things that you want and have them on the line and be able to showcase the talents and the things that you worked for in the offseason to try to get where you want to go. It’s definitely why you come to the University of Florida.”