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.
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.