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Georgia has leg up on hated rival

ATHENS, Ga. -- The Georgia-Florida game seems to carry SEC East implications every season, but this weekend's grudge match features fairly unusual circumstances.

For the first time in several years, Georgia is the combatant that travels to Jacksonville with a clearer path to the SEC championship game.

The Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1 SEC) enter the game in a tie with South Carolina (6-1, 4-1) atop the Eastern Division standings, although the Gamecocks hold a tiebreaker advantage thanks to a 45-42 win in Athens. Meanwhile, the Gators (4-3, 2-3) have lost three consecutive games and, like the other three teams in the East, already have three conference losses.

It appears that Georgia -- No. 21 in the newest coaches poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press Top 25 -- has its best chance to beat the Gators since its end zone-storming 2007 victory propelled the Bulldogs to a lengthy winning streak and a No. 2 final national ranking.

"What I hope more than anything is that when we get to that game that it's still very meaningful to the Eastern Division race, which it is right now," Georgia coach Mark Richt said during his Sunday teleconference. "That's what we're thrilled about, but we know we haven't had a lot of success in Jacksonville lately and we have our work cut out for us."

Georgia also holds the advantage of entering the game at its healthiest since the opener, while South Carolina will play the rest of the season without star running back Marcus Lattimore, and the Gators' offense has been a mess since quarterback John Brantley suffered an ankle injury against Alabama on Oct. 1.

Bulldogs players are quick to say they would never wish an injury on an opponent, but they admit they did not shed tears over how those injuries improved their chances to win the program's first division title since 2005.

"You don't want to see anybody get hurt, but at the same time, if the guy's seriously injured, he's not going to play against you, and if that improves your chances, you're definitely not going to be mad at that," Georgia tight end Aron White said. "Definitely it's not something that I'm cheesing up about, treating it like, 'Oh, hell yeah,' but at the same time, I'm not going to be all mad that all this happened. It will be all right for us. That's in our favor, as bad as it is."

The Gators have averaged nine points per game during their losing streak -- losses to Alabama, LSU and Auburn -- and enjoyed an open date this past weekend that might have allowed Brantley enough time to return to the lineup against Georgia. Without him, the combination of freshmen Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett struggled to mount much of an offensive threat.

If Brantley can't go, the festive atmosphere in Jacksonville will undoubtedly be an obstacle for Driskel or Brissett -- as quarterback Aaron Murray can attest. As a redshirt freshman last year, Murray struggled early in the game and threw an interception in overtime that helped Florida win 34-31.

"You're like, 'Man, I'm playing against Florida right now. I grew up watching this game on TV.' It's kind of a crazy feeling at first," Murray said. "It's still an awesome feeling to get in that stadium and see it split half-and-half, but now it's a little bit of, 'I've been here and I've done that. Let's go play the game now.' "

Of course, Georgia also has numerous players who will experience that unique environment for the first time, with freshmen such as Malcolm Mitchell and Isaiah Crowell playing key roles for the Bulldogs.

That's where they hope previous experiences, such as a neutral-site loss to Boise State in Atlanta and a game against Tennessee at cavernous Neyland Stadium, will be beneficial.

"I think all those experiences of our guys going out and playing those games, sometimes good and sometimes not so good, is going to help us for this game coming up in Jacksonville," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We've got some experience in big-time games."

The Bulldogs have a couple of those left -- a home matchup against longtime rival Auburn is still ahead, as well -- but it is difficult to overstate the importance of a win against Florida.

A victory helps the Bulldogs keep pace with South Carolina in the division race -- the Gamecocks visit Tennessee this week, with games at Arkansas and at home against Florida to follow -- but would do so much more for a program that is 3-18 since 1990 against its most bitter rival.

Without Lattimore, the centerpiece of its offense, South Carolina will have difficulty winning out. But the Bulldogs know that means nothing if they don't keep winning, beginning Saturday in Jacksonville.

"Right now, all we have to worry about is beating Florida, and South Carolina's going to take care of itself. They're going to win out in the SEC or they're going to lose," White said. "Either way, we still have a shot. They've got a lot of football left to play, and so do we. If we handle business, hopefully they don't; but at the end of the day, all we can worry about is ourselves."

Notes: Richt said he is not sure who will start against Florida at inside linebacker, but that Alec Ogletree "will be one of them." Ogletree has been out for the last six games since suffering a broken foot in the opener against Boise State. ... Richt said safety Bacarri Rambo (toe) should play this week and expects him to practice Monday. ... The coach said he has only seen Mitchell run in straight lines in his return from a hamstring injury. ... Receiver Rantavious Wooten (concussion) is the lone Georgia player Richt said he is not confident will play Saturday.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.