Cocktail with a twist: Florida-Georgia is more than just a game

Updated: October 30, 2003, 5:45 PM ET

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The game was on the line, the ball was in the air and Georgia receiver Terrence Edwards was wide open.

Somehow, though, he dropped the undroppable pass, and at about the same time, his mother, sitting in the stands, was overcome. By illness? Grief? A little of both? Nobody was quite sure in the chaotic aftermath of Florida's 20-13 win last year, the latest in a long string of Gator victories and 'Dawg heartaches.

What is known is that Jeannette Edwards wound up in the hospital that night, yet another victim of the college football celebration known as The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

"I hope he can stay healthy the rest of the year, then say bye-bye to Georgia," Jeannette Edwards said later that week, after being discharged with a clean bill of health.

Indeed, the pain of having not one, but two sons -- former Georgia tailback Robert Edwards was the other -- lose so many games to Florida had taken its toll.

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In any given year, the college football calendar offers a wide assortment of games, but far fewer true "events." Oklahoma-Texas, the Red River rivalry, is one. Some might argue that USC-UCLA had the same cache once. But when it comes to neutral-site rivalries, tickets split right down the middle, a week full of revelry to stir it up, many would agree that nothing beats the Cocktail Party.

As usual, this year's version, set for Saturday at Alltel Stadium, has a lot riding on it. No. 4 Georgia (7-1, 4-1 SEC) can take a stranglehold on the SEC East. No. 23 Florida (5-3, 3-2) can pull into a tie for the lead.

"Once you drive over that bridge and you see what's going on," Gators coach Ron Zook said of the color and debauchery the players witness during the ride into downtown Jacksonville, "you can see you're dealing with something very special."

The party began midweek in a place outside the stadium named RV City -- otherwise known as a "parking lot" the other 51 weeks of the year.

It's the kind of place where people like Mary and Tim Jeffcoat set up shop in their motorhome, and bring along their cute, fat pet Bulldogs, Georgie Girl and Herschel, to pass the hours along with other fans.

"It's just one big party," Mary Jeffcoat told the Florida Times-Union.

Georgia fans grill up gator tail for appetizers and Florida fans, since they don't really want to eat dog, go with steaks and burgers and other common fare.

They all drink beer.

After the game, Georgia fans have grown accustomed to eating crow -- for 12 of the last 13 years, to be exact.

Last year's loss might have been the most painful. Their nemesis, Steve Spurrier, was gone and the 'Dawgs had a chance to clinch the SEC East. Florida's win put those plans on hold for another two weeks. When the season was over, Georgia looked at the overall year as a success due to finishing 13-1 and winning its first SEC title since 1982. But who knows what that single loss cost the Dawgs? It could have been a shot at the national championship.

"We think about it a lot," Georgia safety Thomas Davis said.

Thinking about it today hurts Georgia as much as it used to hurt Florida back in the days when Vince Dooley was the 'Dawgs coach.

Now the athletic director, Dooley is being eased out of his position. His contract will not be renewed when it expires next June, meaning this will be his last Cocktail Party as an employee at Georgia.

"The young Gator fan thinks about Spurrier because that's pretty much what they know," said Florida historian Norm Carlson. "The older Gators think about Spurrier and Dooley. They remember what happened to us for a long period of time when Vince was coaching and how much they dreaded going to Jacksonville."

Like the rivalry itself, Jacksonville has changed a lot since Dooley left the sidelines.

The old, rickety Gator Bowl has been revamped into a new, shinier Alltel Stadium. Soon, the annual Georgia-Florida matchup will be trumped by the Super Bowl as the biggest game to be played at this venue.

But clearly, not even the Super Bowl will draw the same kind of passion as this game. On the same night Jeannette Edwards went to the hospital, Georgia center Matt Stinchcomb wept, knowing he had just finished his career 0-4 against the Gators.

Meanwhile, Florida celebrated. Again.

"You think of the biggest rivalry in high school and multiply it by 20," Gators offensive lineman Max Starks said. "I've been in big games. We've had big rivalry games where things happen the entire week leading up to the game. But this game, there's no comparison."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index