GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators coach Jim McElwain said his first installment of the Florida-Georgia rivalry game opened his eyes.
He knew how significant the rivalry is for both sides, but he admitted he didn’t quite understand the extent of the scene he was entering for the annual neutral-site duel in Jacksonville.
People had tried to tell him what to expect in his first experience at “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” He needed to see it for himself.
Now officially indoctrinated into the aura of the event, McElwain spent all week leading up to the teams’ meeting Saturday trumpeting the highly-anticipated showdown and highlighting how the build-up and neutral location make it one of college football’s most special traditions.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you grew up, this is one of those games you know about,” McElwain said. “That’s what makes it awful fun. It’s a great rivalry. Two teams that know each other, a lot of the players know each other. I’m really excited about going in and driving across that bridge. A year ago I was told what that might be like, and yet, having never done it, I was like, ‘Yeah, right, driving across a bridge.’
“And yet going across that thing and seeing everything down at the stadium is something that’s real special.”
It was a positive experience for the new Florida coach as his Gators won that game, 27-3. It was the program’s second straight win over the Bulldogs and 20th in the last 26 meetings, but Georgia nonetheless holds a 49-42-2 edge all-time in the series that dates back to 1915.
(Georgia claims an extra victory in 1904, while Florida does not recognize that as the Gators did not compete at the varsity level before 1906).
The game has been played in Jacksonville every year since 1933 except for a war time interruption in 1943 and games in Gainesville and Athens, Ga., in 1994-95.
While McElwain can’t simulate the game-day atmosphere in and around EverBank Field, he wanted his first-time players to get a feel for the surroundings by bringing the team into the stadium for a sneak peek Friday.
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“We’ve done that periodically since we’ve been here, and really more than anything, I do a show of hands as far as, ‘OK, how many guys that are traveling have been to these stadiums?'” McElwain said earlier this week. “It’s been kind of interesting when it’s over 50 percent (who haven’t). I said, ‘Well, we better at least let them go look around.’ And it’s over 50 percent again, the guys that haven’t ever traveled with us (there), their first time there.”
Regardless, for many players on Florida’s roster, there is a connection even before they get that first taste of it.
“I’ve always dreamed about playing in that game — that’s what makes it better,” junior left tackle David Sharpe said.
Sharpe is one of the many Florida players from Jacksonville, but never attended the game prior to his college career.
That was the case for sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan, also from Jacksonville, who played last year against Georgia as part of the field goal unit.
“I’ve known the rivalry. I grew up a Gator fan, so it’s always been there, that rivalry, and just being out there on the field even for field goal last year was kind of big,” he said.
Junior safety Nick Washington, meanwhile, added extra perspective as another of the Gators’ Jacksonville natives.
He did make it to the Florida-Georgia game as a spectator his senior year of high school, but didn’t last long inside the stadium.
“I kind of went outside and went home because it was, it was a little too wild for me. There was a lot of, um, what’s a good way to describe it? There was a lot of …,” Washington said searching for a way to describe the, well, after-effects of one of the great tailgate setups in college football.
A couple reporters helped him hone in on a description
“Yeah, there we go, a lot of passionate fans,” Washington said with a smile.
Redshirt-sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio is another Gator who will be seeing the Florida-Georgia rivalry up close for the first time.
Growing up in Jacksonville, and being plenty familiar with EverBank Field as his father Jack coached the NFL’s Jaguars from 2003-11, Del Rio said he had been to the tailgate scene before, but never inside the stadium for this game.
“I’ve seen it pretty much every year. Grew up going to some of the tailgates with my family. It will be really exciting to get to participate in such a historic event,” he said.
While sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, Del Rio was not with his Gators teammates for the game and chose to watch it a friend’s house in the area after taking in the pregame scene.
So there remains some unknown to him as to the tenor of the rivalry.
Having been a part of the heated Alabama-Auburn series during his one season with the Crimson Tide in 2013 and then getting to take part in Oregon-Oregon State while with the Beavers in 2014, Del Rio knows every rivalry takes on its own personality.
“All the places I’ve been they’re pretty unique in the way that they deal with rivalries,” he said. “Some are just pure hatred — they do not like each other, they don’t want to be friends, anything like that. And I’ve been in rivalries where you’re actually friends with a lot of guys on the other team. So I don’t really know what it is yet. You kind of have to be there for the game to kind of feel it out.”
Like McElwain said, people can try to paint the picture, but one must experience to truly get a sense for the event, the rivalry and what it all means.
For some Gators, Saturday will be their first such experience. For others — like senior linebacker Jarrad Davis, who is trying to will his way through a bad ankle injury to play — it will be their last, at least as players.
Either way, McElwain hopes his Florida team can acclimate quickly in a huge game with the Bulldogs. All the while, though, he hopes they can also appreciate the experience as well.
“Yeah, you know I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some (different rivalries) along the way. This one, I think what really makes it special is the neutral site and the way the city of Jacksonville rolls out the carpet for both teams. When you walk in a stadium and see it half and half, that’s something that’s pretty awesome. Shoot, I got goosebumps talking about it,” he said. “It really is a special event. There again, another reason you come to these two schools is to play in something like this.”