By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- Ron Zook grew up in Ohio and coached at Ohio State and Tennessee, so he is well-versed on college football rivalries.
Most of his life, he considered the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry to be the epitome of college's interstate battles.
Until he arrived in Gainesville in 1991.
"When I came here before (as an assistant), I thought it (Ohio State-Michigan) was a big rivalry game and I've been in it, and it's one of those where the kids fight at school and everything else," Zook said. "But I'm going to tell you something, there's nothing like the Florida-Georgia game. As I told our coaches that have never been part of it, they are going to find out this is the most exciting game that they've been in."
That's the message Zook has been preaching to the Gators since last week. Florida (5-3, 3-2 SEC) will play Georgia (8-0, 5-0), at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville.
"Coach Zook started talking to us about it last Thursday and got us fired up," said quarterback Rex Grossman, who admits he knew nothing about the rivalry until he arrived in 1999. "We know what it's all about, the coaches know what it's all about. So we'll prepare like it's the biggest game of our lives right now."
Many players said Tuesday they love the game and its aura: the way fans are split 50-50 in the stadium; the drive across the Matthews Bridge in Jacksonville, giving full view of the stadium and its occupants; the way fans line the street as the team bus pulls in.
"It's the craziest and most loved game of them all," offensive tackle Max Starks said.
Clint Mitchell has fond memories of sitting in the pouring rain as a 13- or 14-year-old watching his older brother, Jeff, play for the Gators.
"It's a huge game to me," he said. "There's no other game like it."
Florida has won 11 of the past 12, which is a concern for Georgia coach Mark Richt. Georgia might be ranked No. 5, but Richt said history plays a big part in this rivalry.
"We've won one time in 12 years," he said. "I think our players understand it. I think our fans understand it. I know I understand it, and it takes an awful lot to change that kind of momentum or whatever you want to call it."
For Florida, there is much more on the line than adding to the winning streak: The Gators' slim chances of winning an SEC East title will end with a loss to the Bulldogs.
"We have to win the game, bottom line," Zook said. "It's as simple as that."
SOCCER FALLOUT: The domination of the SEC by the women's team has come to an end.
The Gators' 1-0 loss to Auburn on Sunday ended Florida's six-year reign as SEC champions. Auburn clinched a share of the title and can win it outright with a win over Alabama on Friday. Florida (8-8-2, 5-3-1 SEC) will finish third in the conference unless Georgia defeats Tennessee on Friday. The league began awarding SEC regular-season championships in the 2000 season and Florida claimed the 2000 and 2001 titles. The Gators won the SEC Tournament title from 1996 to 2001.
QUOTE OF THE DAY I: "You see young people, old people, even little kids lined up on the side of the road giving you the finger (when the team bus rolls in)." -- defensive tackle Bryan Savelio.
QUOTE OF THE DAY II: "I think Georgia's going to lose another one. They've got Auburn and they've got Ole Miss. One of them is going to knock them off. I don't care which one. They can use that as bulletin board material. I don't care." -- offensive guard Shannon Snell.
-- Antonya English covers Florida athletics. She can be reached at (813) 226-3389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.