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Georgia photo by Lauren Tolbert / Georgia tailback D'Andre Swift runs for some of his 104 yards during last season's 36-17 win over Florida in Jacksonville. The Georgia-Florida showdown is the SEC's only annual regular-season matchup held at a neutral site.

ATHENS, Ga. — Saturday's showdown between No. 6 Florida and No. 8 Georgia isn't even the biggest Southeastern Conference football game of early November.

Try telling that to the participants.

Next week's clash between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa can certainly wait for the Gators and Bulldogs, who are looking to take a gargantuan step to an SEC East title at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Gators currently lead the East with a 4-1 conference record, with the Bulldogs right behind at 3-1.

"It's the way it should be when you look at the SEC East," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "Georgia and Florida have been pretty dominant in the East picture for a while, and this game has always had some bearing on who goes to Atlanta. Both teams are good again this year, and I think it's what college football is all about."

Missouri is on life support in the East race with recent losses at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky, so Saturday's winner in Jacksonville likely will have to lose twice in order for the loser to find a way to Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December's first Saturday. Florida has just Vanderbilt and Missouri left on its league docket after this week's game, while Georgia has the trickier trio of Missouri, Auburn and Texas A&M.

The last loser in Jacksonville to reach the SEC championship game was Georgia in 2005, when the Bulldogs did not have starting quarterback D.J. Shockley during a 14-10 loss to the Gators.

"This game changes everything," Florida pass-rushing menace Jonathan Greenard told reporters this week. "If we win, we get to where we want to be. If we lose, it makes it that much harder, and that window gets very slim."

In the first 27 seasons of the SEC championship game, Florida and Georgia have represented the East a combined 19 times. The Gators have made 11 appearances to Georgia's eight, with Tennessee next in line with five.

Florida played in each of the first five SEC title tilts and had made seven appearances by the time Georgia finally broke through in 2002, leaving the Bulldogs as the most frequent representative since the turn of the century.

Winning the East has only enhanced this rivalry that annually splits the two fan bases evenly and provides competitors the thrill of traveling on the Hart Bridge over the St. Johns River and down to the stadium.

"I was really shocked to see it 50/50," Georgia senior safety J.R. Reed said of his first experience in 2017. "I had never seen anything like that. One side was red, and the other side was blue. It was really impressive."

Said Bulldogs junior running back D'Andre Swift: "You've really got to take it all in. Being able to play in this game is truly a blessing."

The initial excitement of the buses traveling to the stadium is replaced, Smart said, by the strangeness of the pregame warmups.

"I call it a pro mentality," Smart said. "There is no student section cheering for or against you when you come out in warmups. It's a very different feel. It's flat in warmups, and then you come out for the game and everybody is excited."

One set of fans is certain to cheer after every snap, and Smart said the game's intensity is magnified by "80% of the players will have been recruited by both programs."

Jacksonville is significantly closer to Florida's campus and was annually viewed as an advantage for the Gators when they were winning 18 of the 21 meetings from 1990 to 2010. The Bulldogs have won five of the eight meetings since, quieting that topic in the process.

"I don't think there's a disadvantage," Reed said. "The stadium is split 50/50, and there's history with this game. I love it there. We could play all the way to the Bahamas. I really don't care, as long as we get there and play and get it over with and come back here and move on to the next team."

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. and CBS will televise the game.

A Georgia win would be its third straight in the series, which would result in Reed going undefeated as a player in the rivalry following his transfer from Tulsa in 2016. It would keep Bulldogs left guard Solomon Kindley, a redshirt junior, undefeated in this game as well.

Kindley is Georgia's most prominent player from Jacksonville.

"We would always have a big party for this game, and we would put the TV up front," Kindley said. "I remember watching one of Nick Chubb's famous runs, when three people tried to grab him. He was a freshman and scored a touchdown, and I was like, 'Who is this? This boy is good.'

"From that day forward, I really started following Georgia and how they were doing, and eventually I got to play with Nick."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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