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Change might be coming to Georgia-Florida rivalry given current talking points
Georgia coach Kirby Smart has made his feelings on the Georgia-Florida rivalry game being located in Jacksonville, Fla. pretty clear. He respects the tradition but he also sees Georgia missing out on an extra home game every other year and thus another recruiting weekend.
He sees moving the game to Athens and Gainesville, Fla., as a way to improve the Georgia football program. And as the head coach and effective CEO of the program, he feels that is something he has to always be doing.
“You are always looking to see what you can do to make your program better,” Smart said at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. “Nothing is off the table, but nothing has been decided… Yeah, absolutely it costs you a recruiting weekend… It certainly helps to have more home games.”
For a while now, Smart has been comfortable with the notion of the game moving out of Jacksonville. The Bulldogs have had a lot of success there against Florida in the last two seasons, as Georgia has beaten Florida by a combined score of 78-24 in the past two meetings.
The game is under contract to remain in Jacksonville through the 2021 season. But in a sit-down interview with Greg McGarity, the Georgia Athletic Director revealed a large number of people now also subscribe to Smart’s line of thinking.
Given how well Georgia has played in the past two seasons — and the role Georgia’s recruiting has had in that improvement — you can see why some fans share Smart’s vision.
“There’s been feedback from a lot of people on why the game should move, why the game should stay in Jacksonville,” McGarity said. “I know [UGA coach Kirby Smart’s] been very vocal about the importance in recruiting, and that’s certainly an important element of it, but there are a lot of other elements that go into the decision.”
The Georgia-Florida game has been played in Jacksonville dating back to 1933. The only two seasons it wasn’t was in 1994 and 1995, when the stadium in Jacksonville was under construction.
Florida won both of those games, including a 52-17 beatdown in Athens. The head coach for Florida then was Steve Spurrier, who reveled in beating the Bulldogs.
And as much as Spurrier enjoys having the annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, even he sees why Georgia would possibly want to see the series moved to a home-and-home.
“But I can see Georgia’s side of it, tell you the truth. It’d be very similar if the Gators were to go to the (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) in Atlanta and play Georgia there every year,” Spurrier said.
“It wouldn’t make sense.”
Spurrier went on to mention how Florida winning all those games in the 90’s helped turn the tide of Florida fans who wanted it as a home-and-home early in his tenure in Gainesville. Let’s say Georgia wins the next two games against Florida in Jacksonville, making it four straight over the Gators. Does that soften anyone’s stance to move the game out of Jacksonville with Georgia in firm control of the rivalry by that point?
Georgia fans have cited that the goal of the Georgia football team is to win national championships, not make money. Some believe that a home game against Florida would give the Bulldogs an easier path to a championship than a neutral game in Jacksonville.
For example, Georgia probably has a better shot of beating Florida in 2002 if that game is in Athens. But what might get left out of this argument is how much more difficult it makes winning a national championship in the years Georgia visits Florida.
In an ideal world, Georgia would host Florida in odd-numbered years, given the Bulldogs already play Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech on the road in those seasons. That could possibly mean going to Florida and Texas A&M in the 2024 season to go along with a game against Clemson in Atlanta.
And for all the talk of needing to continue to recruit, Georgia is the only team in the country to sign a top-three class in each of the last three recruiting cycles. How much more would a possible home game against Florida improve things for the Bulldogs?
Florida, on the other hand, has a lot more to possibly gain when it comes to the added benefit of playing Georgia in Gainesville. Florida’s last three recruiting classes have finished No. 11, No. 14 and No. 9 in the country. There’s more room for the Gators and Dan Mullen to improve their recruiting efforts. And while they still might not catch Georgia, the extra recruiting weekend could help close the considerable talent gap between the programs.
You could go back and forth debating the merits of moving or keeping the game in Jacksonville all day. This is going to be a conversation that continues up until the 2021 contract runs out. Maybe by that point, Smart has won a national championship with Georgia and he’s proven that his methods can lead to championships. Maybe Georgia continues to clobber Florida in Jacksonville, much like Spurrier did to Georgia.
But with the way some of the power players — Smart, Spurrier and McGarity — are speaking about the subject of Georgia-Florida, it really is starting to feel like this game is moving out of Jacksonville and toward a home-and-home matchup sooner rather than later.
The fan support of moving this game out of Jacksonville has grown significantly since Smart took over as head coach in December of 2015. As Smart continues to win at Georgia, he’s going to get more buy-in on his vision for the Georgia program. And as special as some memories in Jacksonville to Smart and some fans might be, the allure of a national championship is always going to be a stronger pull.
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