Georgia and Florida 'big' though neither in top 20

photo Mikey Henderson's 53-yard touchdown reception from Matthew Stafford against Florida in 2007 helped Georgia to a 42-30 win, which is the last victory by the Bulldogs in the series.

ATHENS, Ga. - When Florida first-year football coach Will Muschamp was Auburn's defensive coordinator during the 2006-07 seasons, it was not uncommon for him and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to talk on the phone several times throughout the course of the year.

The two were Bulldogs teammates in 1993-94, but Bobo said there has not been a phone call between them in 2011.

"We haven't talked, except for when he got the job," Bobo said this week. "We would exchange the occasional text in the summer, but Georgia-Florida is a little different."

Auburn and Georgia comprise the Deep South's oldest rivalry, but the desire to beat Florida more than any other SEC foe became supreme for the Bulldogs in 1990. That was when Steve Spurrier took over as coach of the Gators and proceeded to thump the Bulldogs 11 times in 12 years.

Spurrier left after the 2001 season but the pain for Georgia didn't, as the Gators are 7-2 in the nine series meetings since his departure. Florida has won the past three years entering Saturday's game in Jacksonville, but the No. 22 Bulldogs are slight favorites this year after winning five straight games following an 0-2 start.

The Gators are 4-3 and looking to avoid their first four-game skid since 1988.

"I don't think I have to stand in the team meeting room and explain how important this rivalry is to the University of Florida," Muschamp said.

This matchup has lost some luster from a national standpoint, as neither team is ranked among the top 20 for a second straight year. The last such gap in this series was 1972-73.

Yet this game is paramount annually to the SEC East race, and this year is no different.

Florida and Georgia have combined to win 13 of the first 19 East titles, and at least one of the two programs has finished within a game of the division champ when they didn't win it. The Bulldogs enter this week's game with a 4-1 league mark, which is tied with South Carolina for the East lead.

"It's a big game for a lot of reasons," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "A lot of fans in the offseason ask, 'Are you going to beat Florida?' I always say, 'Well, that's the goal,' but what I really hope is when we get to that game that it's still very meaningful to us in the Eastern Division race, which it is right now. We haven't had a lot of success in Jacksonville lately, and we know we've got our work cut out for us."

Said Bulldogs linebacker Chase Vasser: "We've got a good possibility to put them out of the race, and we want to, because they got us last year. We want to pay them back."

Richt has tried different tactics with his teams leading up to the Florida game. There have been a couple of years in which he brought in former Bulldogs players or coaches who had experienced success in the rivalry to speak in team meetings.

"I think we are much better off focusing on the things that really truly matter," Richt said, "and those are your jobs and your assignments."

Bobo agreed, adding that blocking out the distractions approaching this game is tougher than any other week.

"You can't worry about what the other team is saying, what the media is saying or what your own parents are saying," Bobo said. "You've got to focus on what the coaches are saying and what you're doing in practice, and that's hard, because they all watch ESPN and they all get asked questions by you. They hear how we haven't won but X number of times in 20 years.

"Our main message is to focus on this year. It's not last year."

Even if both teams were 0-7 entering Saturday, there would still be the thrill of walking into a stadium with an equal number of fans from each school. Bobo hopes that Bulldogs new to the event won't be overwhelmed since they played in the Georgia Dome against Boise State to open the season and also played before more than 100,000 people earlier this month at Tennessee.

Georgia senior punter Drew Butler said there "is nothing really cooler" than running out to a stadium cut in half between orange and blue and red and back, but it's a scene Bulldogs freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell has yet to experience.

"They tell me it's a big game," Crowell said, "but I already expected it to be a big game."