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Georgia receiver Chris Conley grabs a reception against South Carolina in 2013.

ATHENS, Ga. - The comment came from Steve Spurrier during Tuesday's weekly news conference, but it could have just as easily come from him 20 years ago.

"Three weeks ago, we were advertised as the top team in the East," Spurrier said. "Now they're advertised as the top team in the East. A lot can change, as we all know."

A lot can change, because the South Carolina coach was referencing Saturday's showdown between Georgia's sixth-ranked Bulldogs and his No. 24 Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium. South Carolina was picked to edge Georgia for the Southeastern Conference East Division title in the preseason balloting, but it was Florida and Tennessee annually dueling for East championships when Spurrier coached the Gators from 1990 to 2001.

The Gators haven't won the East since 2009 and the Volunteers since 2007, leaving Georgia-vs.-South Carolina the last few years as the most important game in that division. Georgia and South Carolina have combined for three of the past four East titles.

"What Georgia and South Carolina have been able to do the last five years, the amount of games they've won and the amount of times they've contended for the SEC East, gives this game more weight than a lot of other games in the East," Georgia senior receiver Chris Conley said. "It's an early game, so it has implications for what can go on later in the year. It's great motivation during the offseason because it's so early, and I think that's one of the reasons people focus on it and give it attention.

"It's the earliest big game in the SEC."

Georgia is opening league play with South Carolina for the 22nd time in the 23 seasons the Gamecocks have been members of the league. Most of their meetings in the 1990s determined who would finish third in the East, and it was occasionally a distant third.

Florida went 8-0 and Tennessee 7-1 in SEC play in 1995, with Georgia's 3-5 mark good enough for third ahead of South Carolina (2-5-1), Kentucky (2-6) and Vanderbilt (1-7).

The rivalry had improved in magnitude by 2000, when Jim Donnan's No. 9 Bulldogs were upset 21-10 in Columbia by Lou Holtz's Gamecocks in a game that Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter threw five interceptions. Mark Richt took over at Georgia in 2001 and quickly sustained a 14-9 loss to visiting South Carolina in his league debut.

"It's an important game, and it's been an important game since the day I got here," Richt said this week. "Coach Holtz was a good coach, too, and it was a pretty strong rivalry game in my opinion. What has happened is that both of our teams as of late have been more highly ranked, and it's become more relevant on a national level.

"More people are interested in the game because both teams have a chance to win the East, so I think there is more of a focal point on this game from a national level, but I think before that it was still a pretty heated rivalry to me."

South Carolina cooled off in Holtz's final three seasons, going 16-19 from 2002 to '04, but the hiring of Spurrier certainly provided an emotional spark. In his 12 seasons with the Gators, Spurrier had defeated the Bulldogs 11 times, including six drubbings by more than 30 points.

The Bulldogs won the 2005 and '06 meetings to extend their series streak to five, but Spurrier's Gamecocks then took four of the next six. South Carolina's 35-7 win two years ago in Columbia, when the Gamecocks were on their way to a second of three consecutive 11-2 seasons, was its largest margin of victory against its second-biggest nemesis.

"Clemson's probably our biggest rival," Spurrier said this week, "and I would say Georgia and Tennessee are our next two in line."

South Carolina and Clemson battle for state bragging rights every November, but this week's game is very important for the growing number of Gamecocks from the Peach State. Former quarterback Connor Shaw and current tailback Mike Davis signed with South Carolina out of the Atlanta area, and six of South Carolina's projected defensive starters for Saturday's game are Georgia residents.

That includes the projected secondary of cornerbacks Brison Williams and Rico McWilliams and safeties Chris Moody and T.J. Gurley.

"It's always been a big game because it's usually your first SEC game," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "What's changed a little bit to me is that they've got more Georgia players now and have recruited Georgia a little bit heavier. There are a lot more Georgia players on their team, so it seems like they're a little more hungry and want this game a little bit more."

Said Spurrier: "I think we've got 26 or 27. The state of Georgia is an excellent recruiting state. As we all know, the state of Georgia plays high school football about as well as anybody in the country. They've got a lot of players, and they all can't go in-state."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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