JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Greetings from TIAA Bank Field, formerly known as EverBank Field, formerly known as AllTel Stadium, formerly known as Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, formerly known as the Gator Bowl. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the home of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party – that’s right, that’s still what it is – where No. 7 Ge0rgia and No. 9 Florida are going to do battle today.
And this isn’t your ordinary Georgia-Florida game. It’s only the sixth time in history that these teams have met as top-10 teams. Everything is on the line, and that’s not an exaggeration. They’re not playing only for the SEC East title and a conference championship berth. The loser here will be eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration.
None of that’s a big deal to the Gators. In their first year under Dan Mullen, they didn’t expect to be here anyway. For the Bulldogs, all the pressure and the privilege that comes with it, is on their sideline. It’s Atlanta or bust in coach Kirby Smart’s third year.
It’s that dynamic that will decide today’s game. Florida playing fast and loose with house money and Georgia playing as if its very life depended on it. How that ultimately affects their play on the field will determine which team advances out of this game, which is essentially what we have here.
And that’s why so many are showing up for the game. Never mind all the people. For the first time that anybody can seem to remember, you have the on-air staffs, stages, buses and armies of production folks here for ESPN College GameDay, SEC Nation and the CBS Sports national game of the week. It’s a wonder the ACC didn’t send whatever its pregame crew is, just to give that league a one-weekend boost.
As for the venue, it’s beautiful. It’s going to be packed, as it always is for this game. They even expand the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium with temporary seats to get it up to 80,000, so they can bring in 40,000 a side. Tickets on StubHub and in the hands of street vendors were starting at $250.
It was actually unseasonably cool this morning, straining even to reach 60 degrees late in the morning with strong winds making it feel even cooler. Now, three hours before kickoff, it’s overcast. But it’s supposed to clear out before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff, and sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s should greet the teams and fans for the first play. But it’s going to stay windy, which could also end up being a factor.
It was interesting listening to Kirby Smart’s radio show on the drive down Thursday night. Georgia’s coach again offered a sort of “meh” attitude when it comes to playing at this site. Oh, he loves the pomp and circumstance and attention and the tradition and all that. But he was bemoaning again losing a whole recruiting weekend to the Alabamas, Auburns and Tennessees of his world.
After Smart takes cherry-picked questions from Twitter for an hour, the show switches to something called “Bulldog All-Stars,” where former Georgia players take questions from Neil “Hondo” Williamson and a smattering of callers. Thursday night, former stars Brandon Boykin and Mohamed Massaquoi were the guests. And they, like everybody else, spoke glowingly of their memories of playing Florida down here.
But they also said they didn’t particularly like playing the Gators in Jacksonville. Both were adamant about saying Georgia and the city can spin it all they want that the trip itself isn’t any more burdensome for them than it is for the Gators, who live and attend classes 90 minutes away. And it’s not just that. Boykin pointed out that the temperature and humidity is what Florida practices in every day, which makes a difference.
“It’s in Florida; it’s on their turf,” he said.
Of course, both players went 1-3 against the Gators, Boykin from 2008-11 and Massaquoi from 2005-08. “A little frustrating,” Boykin said. So their sentiments are understandable.
Of course, you’ll hear to such complaint from the older lettermen. Vince Dooley’s guys were 17-7-1 under the same circumstances, worse actually when it comes to the travel arrangements of the day. So the feel-good factor is definitely tied to the outcome in this one.
Again, that’s what makes this year’s matchup such a big deal. Sure, Georgia crushed the Gators last year 42-7, and Florida fired yet another coach afterward. But Florida had won three in a row here before that. And now their new coach, Dan Mullen, has them way ahead of schedule.
The Gators would move ahead farther still with a victory over a heralded Georgia team in what was supposed to be a retooling year. So there’s that factor, too.
There is a ton riding on this little Cocktail Party by the River. Expect the Bulldogs play it like a playoff game. Expect them to pull out all the stops. And when I say that, I don’t mean to fake all their field goals.
This game is too important for those kinds of shenanigans. Survive and advance or lose and start politicking with the second-tier bowls.
It makes for an exciting backdrop. Almost as cool as the venue.