Published Sept. 17, 2005|Updated Oct. 24, 2005

How intense is Florida-Georgia? The schools can't even agree on when the series began, which considering its nickname as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party probably makes sense. The Bulldogs say they hold a 46-35-2 advantage that includes a 52-0 triumph in 1904. But the Gators don't recognize that game and claim the series started in 1915, still the longest series in Florida history. The teams have met every year since 1926 except 1943, nearly all (73) in Jacksonville. Even the Ol' Ball Coach used to say this was Florida's biggest rival. Who can blame him? During his 1966 Heisman Trophy-winning season, quarterback Steve Spurrier took his 7-0 and No. 7-ranked Gators to play Georgia. The result: a 27-10 loss and a 25-year delay for Florida's first SEC title. Some of the unpleasant reasons why Georgia will always be most memorable for many Gator fans, especially older ones: 1975, Appleby to Washington; 1976, Fourth and Dumb; 1980, Run, Lindsay Run; 1985, No. 1, sigh, for 1 Week. But when they need a smile? Ray "Goof."


Two years ago, what Florida considers its oldest SEC rivalry (1912) ended. The two had played 48 straight seasons, and for old-school Gators, the Tigers/War Eagles always will be atop the rivalry ladder. You need look no further than Florida's record at Auburn, 8-24-1, with its first win coming in 1927 and its next nearly 40 years later. Some of the reasons why this rivalry stands out: 1969, Super Sophs John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez take the nation's most high-powered offense and a 6-0 record to Auburn, where Reaves throws nine interceptions, still a Division I record, as another SEC title goes out the window; 1993 and 1994, probation-hit Auburn and Bobby's boy, Terry Bowden, give Florida back-to-back heartache, the latter coming in the final minutes in the Swamp when Florida was No. 1; 2001, a backup quarterback named Daniel Cobb leads an upset at home of No. 1 Florida. And what makes Gators smile? 1986, a gimpy Kerwin Bell comes off the bench in the fourth quarter and erases a 17-0 deficit to pull out an 18-17 win thanks to his limping dash into the end zone; 1966, Steve Spurrier, who rarely kicked, boots a 40-yarder to win in the final seconds and solidify his Heisman. The Homecoming win spurred legendary Auburn coach "Shug" Jordan to possibly be the first to refer to him as "Steve Superior."


No question, this is The Rivalry for younger Gator fans. It's not draped in tradition, but no regular-season games have been consistently bigger in the SEC in the past decade. It began in the '90s, when the SEC split into two divisions and a preacher's son from Tennessee returned to coach the Gators and tweak the Rocky Toppers and coach Phillip Fulmer every chance he got. ("You can't spell Citrus Bowl without UT.") Each has a national title from the '90s and, along with Georgia (twice), are the only teams to represent the East since the conference title game was born in 1992. In nine of the past 11 seasons and 11 of 16, both entered the game in the Top 10. The memories are plentiful: 1994-97, 0-for-Peyton; 1998, Hit and Miss: Vols convert field goal, Gators miss in overtime; 1999, Rocky Stopped: UT's Jamal Lewis denied on fourth down with two minutes left for 23-21 win over defending national champ; 2000, Was he or wasn't he? Jabar Gaffney's winning touchdown catch in final seconds; 2004, Slap and Oops: Dallas Baker flagged for a slap but Vol isn't and SEC apologies for officials' error and failing to stop clock.


Yes, Seminoles fans might take exception to not being included with Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee, but the rivalry in Gator lore is a mere baby, starting in 1958. FSU had two wins in the first 18 years. The rivalry truly heated up once Bobby Bowden took over the 'Noles in 1976 (15-2-1 for Florida at the time; since then it's 17-13-1 FSU). It also has been a rivalry of streaks. Florida won nine straight (1968-76), FSU four straight (1977-80), Florida six straight (1981-86), FSU 6-1 (1987-93). But even for Seminoles, the Miami game is probably bigger, especially because it's now a conference game.


A rivalry, yes, but it never reached elite status for Gator fans even though the 52 games with Miami are the most against a nonconference opponent. Maybe it was the interruption. They played every year (except 1943) until 1987 but have played only twice in the regular season since. Of note: In 1984 at Tampa Stadium, Florida-Miami was ESPN's first televised collegiate game.

_ ANTHONY PEREZ and JOHN STRICKHOUSER, Times staff writers