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Brant Sanderlin/AJC.com
The Georgia-Florida football rivalry ranks among the fiercest in the SEC.

Georgia football rivalry with Florida is ‘heads knocking … striking each other’

ATHENS — It’s rivalry week for Georgia football, but more than that, the season and direction of the program hangs in the balance.

The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs’ figurative “arrow” will either be pointing UP or DOWN following the 3:30 p.m. Saturday game against No. 9-ranked Florida in Jacksonville, and the world will be there to see it.

WATCH: Kirby Smart says Georgia football ‘knows what’s at stake’

In addition to a national CBS television audience, ESPN’s College GameDay will be on hand along with the SEC Network’s SEC Nation set. Most all of college football’s gatekeepers will gather in one spot for the so-called “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

“It’s a very passionate rivalry,” said Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who played in it himself while a two-time All-SEC safety with the Bulldogs (1995-98). “The pageantry is different than other games because nobody’s ever at home. They’re always in a joint place, at a neutral site, and it’s a great venue to have a game.”

Smart added that there’s a lot at stake in every game, and “the next game is the most important game.”

But Bulldogs’ players admitted on Monday there’s a little more to it when Georgia and Florida go head-to-head.

“The physicality, every game, heads knocking, everybody just striking each other and going hard,” Bulldogs senior linebacker Juwan Taylor said, asked what makes this rivalry different. “It’s going to be a four quarter, going hard, head-to-head type of game, and you have to get your mind and body prepared for it.”

Indeed, the mind games started last summer at SEC Media Day in Atlanta when Florida players agreed that last season’s 42-7 Georgia win — the Bulldogs’ first win in four years — was not as decisive as the score indicated.

In fact, Gators defensive lineman Cece Jefferson said, “that score doesn’t determine who’s the better team.”

Georgia defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter, the Bulldogs resident tough guy, rolled his eyes when asked about the trash talk in the series.

“We don’t really like to focus on our opponents and talk about what they do there,” Ledbetter said. “But it’s football ….  things are going to get heated, people are going to get excited and just have a lot of high energy.

“You just have to go with it and keep playing and just enjoy the game. Not let that stuff distract you.”

Smart understands and preaches the importance of poise.

Most of our kids know their kids,” Smart said. “It won’t be about what we say or how we say it. It’ll be about who plays well on the field and who controls the line of scrimmage that will be the key to this game.

Georgia leads the all-time series 51-43-2, but the Gators have had their way in the modern era, enjoying a 19-7 advantage since the SEC went to divisional play in 1992.

“I’ve only won once (against Florida), and that’s something I want to change,” Ledbetter said. “I want our team to embrace that, (and) that we have to do this as Georgia, it’s got to happen.”

Sophomore offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, one of 93 players on the Bulldogs roster from Georgia, said this year’s matchup is par for the course.

I can’t remember a Georgia-Florida game that wasn’t a big, important game,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”

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