GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. -- It doesn't have the history of Florida-Georgia in football, or the tasty flavor of Florida-Kentucky in basketball, but when Florida and South Carolina face one another in baseball, it means something.
It meant everything the last time the two teams played here at TD Ameritrade Park a year ago. The Gators and Gamecocks squared off in the College World Series Championship Series.
The Gamecocks celebrated at the end while the Gators watched dejectedly from the dugout and turned their attention to making it back to Omaha this year.
They made it and so did the Gamecocks. Florida and South Carolina are the only teams in this year's CWS field who were here a year ago. And wouldn't you know it, the SEC foes face off on Saturday night in the first round in a marquee matchup.
You have the No. 1 overall seed Gators, the team many have as the one to beat in Omaha, playing the two-time defending national champion Gamecocks, the team you can never count out. The Gamecocks have won a record 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament games.
Is this college baseball's best current rivalry? Is it a rivalry at all? The coaches were asked earlier this week.
"I don't know if rivalry is the right word,'' said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan, seated next to good friend and South Carolina coach Ray Tanner. "I think there is mutual respect on both sides.
"Last year when South Carolina beat us, they best us fair and square. They played better. There was nothing for our players to hang their heads about."
What about Tanner, a Southern gentleman with a storytelling twang to match? Is Florida a hated rival?
"We've had some good games and good battles, but rivalry does sometimes have a negative connotation. I think it's all about respect."
Former Gators and current South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier is probably squirming somewhere over all this mutual respect talk.
Call it whatever you want, but in college baseball right now, a South Carolina-Florida game is one to watch. Why do you think ESPN has it slotted in the primetime 9 p.m. spot on Saturday?
The teams played a 2-1 thriller in Game 1 of last year's CWS and in Game 2 South Carolina ace Michael Roth, who gets the start tonight, won the series-clinching game for the second consecutive year.
The Gators had their chances but South Carolina's magical run toward a second consecutive title was not to be denied.
This is a new year, however, and the Gators have brushed aside questions about any lingering Omaha hangover.
The Gators bit back during the regular season by winning two of three in Columbia in late March and then getting a gem from starter Brian Johnson in the SEC Tournament last month to beat the Gamecocks.
Johnson is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA vs. South Carolina this season and will start tonight. The Gamecocks have Johnson's respect for winning back-to-back national titles.
"They know what it takes for sure,'' he said.
Still, the Gators didn't cringe when the CWS schedule was released and they saw their first game was against South Carolina. This will be the 10th game between the schools in the past two seasons.
"I was excited personally, another chance to play them,'' senior pitcher Greg Larson said. "They've had a great run. We were going to run into them, I felt like, sooner or later. Why not the first game in Omaha?"
O'Sullivan owns a 10-9 edge against the Gamecocks, including winning the 2010 SEC title on South Carolina's home field.
Tanner has two national titles and despite a 1-5 start in SEC play this season, he was able to guide the Gamecocks back to Omaha for a chance at a three-peat.
Sometimes he doesn't exactly know how it has all happened.
"Have we been lucky? Has it been a tremendous run? Absolutely,'' he said of the streak. "It’s kind of hard to imagine, to be honest with you. We’re not a team that exudes tremendous talent."
South Carolina lost six starters from last year's team, so there will be plenty of different faces around Roth in tonight's game. The Gators have their own newcomers, including freshman third baseman Josh Tobias.
He may be new to Florida-South Carolina and the CWS, but Tobias sounds old when talking about the matchup.
"It's going to be a big game,'' Tobias said. "Streaks or no streaks, we're all 0 and 0 in Omaha right now.
Yes they are, rivalry or no rivalry.
"I've got a great deal of respect for Ray and his program,'' O'Sullivan said. "I will tell you that. Every time you play them, you have to play your best. It's never going to be easy."
Florida vs. South Carolina
When: Saturday, 9 p.m.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
RADIO: Gator Radio Network
KEY STAT: Over his last three starts, Gators starter Brian Johnson has defeated Auburn (7.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER), South Carolina (9.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 5 K, 0 BB) and Georgia Tech (5.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 4 K, 0 BB) and boasts a 1.29 ERA, with 16 strikeouts and two walks.