(AP) – Florida coach Jim McElwain has been part of some intense rivalries. Montana-Montana State. Eastern Washington-Idaho. Colorado-Colorado State.
McElwain is about to get a taste of one with probably a little more juice than those others, at least in this part of the country.
McElwain and the 11th-ranked Gators face Southeastern Conference rival Georgia on Saturday in nearby Jacksonville, a chance for Florida to move ever-so-close to locking up a spot in the league’s title game in December.
Although the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) can’t officially wrap up a trip to Atlanta against the Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2), a victory would give them a two-game lead with two remaining.
"They can read the standings," McElwain said of his players Monday. "That takes care of itself if you do all the things you need to do to be successful. I don’t think there’s a need to give all these what-ifs and all that kind of stuff, only because if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, then you’re not going to be talking about it anyway.
"I’m excited to get them together and see where they’re at and see if we’re willing to throw our chips in the bucket and go all in."
Florida hasn’t been this close to winning the Eastern Division since 2012, when a 17-9 loss to Georgia left the Gators out of the championship game.
They traveled to Jacksonville trying to salvage lost seasons the last two years, and they managed to do so with a 38-20 victory last year. It was former coach Will Muschamp’s first win in eight tries in the series dating to his playing days at Georgia.
Florida ran for 418 yards – quarterback Treon Harris threw just six passes – and scored its first touchdown on a fake field goal.
"They’re definitely looking for some revenge because I think we embarrassed them last year," cornerback Quincy Wilson said.
Revenge may have been a bit easier to come by for Georgia if its running game had remained healthy, but leading rusher Nick Chubb was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered on the first play from scrimmage in a 38-31 loss at Tennessee on Oct. 10.
The Bulldogs, who bounced back with a 9-6 win over Missouri a week later in a game featuring nothing but field goals, would certainly enjoy putting a dent in Florida’s chances following their bye week.
"I thought the guys showed a lot of purpose and focus and energy coming off their break," coach Mark Richt told the school’s website after Monday’s practice. "It was a good start to the week and we’ll keep it going … We’ll continue to stress the fundamentals and keep trying to get better at what we do."
One concern for McElwain is how his players will handle the situation. He thought they pressed in a 35-28 loss at LSU on Oct. 17.
"A lot of guys in that environment have pressed over the years," McElwain said.
"This is why you get into it – to play in games like this. If you’re not prepared and you’re scared, then this probably isn’t the place for you because this is the expectation of the University of Florida."
Competing for the East title is the annual goal in Gainesville, but it hasn’t been all that realistic since 2009.
This season, though, the Gators have been one of the more surprising teams in the conference and the country. McElwain made an immediate difference on offense and wisely made few changes to an already stout defense. The combination has Florida winning close games and believing it can be in every contest.
"If you were there all offseason, what we went through, week in and week out, the preparation for each team, it’s not really surprising to us as a team, as a unit, compared to years before," guard Trip Thurman said. "It feels great. If we do what we’re supposed to, we have a pretty good shot."
A win wouldn’t be lost on McElwain even though he has watched the series from afar. It won’t do anything to dull the pain of losing four in a row to Montana during his time as an assistant at Montana State (1995-99), a stretch he said "still sticks in my craw."
"You never get it back," he said. "No mulligans. That’s the thing that I know personally just kind of eats at me. … We’ve put ourselves in a position to where what we do is relevant. That’s kind of a neat thing. But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of what we need to do to get ready for Saturday."