Georgia linebacker D'Andre Walker recorded 40 tackles in 2017, tied for seventh on the team, but ranked second in tackles for loss (13.5) and in sacks (5.5). Defensive back J.R. Reed recorded 79 tackles in 2017, second on the team behind Roquan Smith, who left for the NFL. Reed also recorded five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. Cornerback Deandre Baker ranks second among 2018 returning players in tackles and interceptions in 2017. Linebacker Monty Rice recorded 22 tackles as a freshman

Florida players, coach anticipate ‘intense’ game against Georgia

There’s a day every year that Georgia and Florida fans circle, star and highlight on their schedules. 

A pre- or post-Halloween celebration, depending on whether a certain football game is played the last Saturday in October or the first Saturday in November, “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” (or “The River City Showdown,” as it was dubbed two years ago) is a source of nerves, tension and animosity between two fanbases separated by a thin border. 

“It’s such a great rivalry,” said Dan Mullen, Florida’s newest head coach. “You’re looking at two teams, two fanbases, universities and football programs that expect to win championships. That makes it an awful big game. You’re looking at two teams right now that you usually have to beat the other one if you want to get there.”

“There” is the SEC Championship game, and representing the East in Atlanta is a goal Mullen made explicitly clear during his remarks at SEC Media Days on Tuesday at the College Football Hall of Fame. But getting “there” won’t be so simple — the Gators have to take a path that runs through Jacksonville and the defending conference champs. 

Georgia tailback Elijah Holyfield soars into the end zone past Florida defenders C.J. Henderson and Chauncey Gardner Jr. to take a 42-0 lead during the fourth quarter in the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville in 2017. Georgia beat Florida 42-7. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The hype surrounding the Georgia-Florida game starts early and increases steadily as the inevitable clash nears. Kirby Smart owns the current advantage, with a 42-7 domination of Florida lingering from last season, but Mullen is no stranger to taking on the Bulldogs of the East. 

Before becoming the new face of Florida football, Mullen was the Gators’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2005-08. Florida downed the Dogs three times in those four years, and with the second-winningest coach in Mississippi State history now in charge of The Swamp, the matchup may not be as lopsided as it was in 2017. 

Junior linebacker David Reese and senior offensive lineman Martez Ivey both felt that last season’s game was much closer than the scoreboard indicated. Ivey is approaching his fourth game against Georgia with the mindset that it will be “the most intense game (he will) play in (his) life.”

The Cocktail Party has the potential to decide who advances to Atlanta for the conference championship game, though both teams have a slate of division opponents to deal with before they can crown themselves the champions of the East. 

But even if Georgia and Florida fall out of contention before entering the rivalry, state pride is still on the line, and defending the red or orange is motivation enough. 

Kirby Paul Smart was born Dec. 23, 1975 in Montgomery, Alabama. Smart graduated from Bainbridge (Ga.) High School. His HS coach was his dad, Sonny Smart. Smart played football at Georgia from 1995-98 and graduated with an undergraduate business degree in 1998. He earned a master's degree from Florida State in 2003. Smart was a first-team All-SEC choice as a senior at Georgia in 1998. A safety, Smart intercepted 13 passes while playing for the Bulldogs. Smart intercepted six passes as a junior and five as

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