ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart made waves along the Gulf Coast last week discussing the uncertain future destination of the annual rivalry game with Florida.
The ripple effect remains in play this offseason.
“Nothing has been decided,” Smart said on the SEC Network. “There’s no decision being made. It’s just something that we’re all thinking about.”
The game has traditionally been played at the “neutral” site of Jacksonville, Fla., and is contracted to stay there at TIAA Bank Field through 2021.
Each school makes approximately $1.5 million more (pro-rated) than it would if it were a home-and-home series.
The added money and unique game setting comes at a cost: UGA loses one of eight SEC home official visit recruiting weekends (12.5 percent) each two seasons.
Smart, who was hired to deliver Georgia what would be its first national championship since 1980, has a problem spotting 12 of 14 schools in the SEC that extra recruiting weekend.
“When you look at recruiting now, the model they have is that December’s the early signing date, (and) the official visits have become really really important,” Smart explained. “We got official visits happening in the season, and we lose a really big opportunity to have official visits come to our campus.”
Georgia AD Greg McGarity explained that NCAA rules on neutral site recruiting are so restrictive that neither school bothers with it.
“The only thing you can do at a neutral site, you could provide tickets to prospects, however you cannot entertain them,” McGarity said. “All you can do is provide a complimentary ticket, that’s what’s allowable under NCAA rules, so all we could do is leave tickets at will-call.
“We haven’t done that because there’s not a benefit to that. We’d all rather entertain our status-athletes on campus.”
Fans weigh in
Thus, the dilemma on playing in Jacksonville — a tradition beloved by some fans, but challenging to Smart as he strives to find competitive advantages — and avoid disadvantages — at each turn.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, so we’re always looking and thinking about what we can do in the future to give ourselves the best advantage,” Smart said. “And the other SEC teams don’t have that. They have the home games they have to be able to recruit to. So it’s something we think about, but nothing’s been decided.”
Only 37 percent of fans that took part in DawgNation’s unscientific Twitter poll over the weekend want the Georgia-Florida game to remain in Jacksonville, Fla., on an annual basis,.
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) May 30, 2019
Smart, a former All-SEC Georgia football player himself, appreciates the fans who see the big picture.
“I do think we have to look at it from a 10,000 feet above and say, ‘What is best for the long term of our program?’ “ Smart said. “Mainly because of recruiting, because we lose that weekend.
“If you took an LSU and Alabama game and said, ‘You can’t have any recruits LSU or Alabama,’ how would they feel about that? That was one of the biggest recruiting events we had (when Smart was a Tide assistant).
“Well that’s one of our biggest games, Georgia-Florida game, and it’s something that we have to think about.”
Players from both schools have recently voiced a desire to experience games in one another’s stadiums, too.
“I wish the game was at home, a home-and-home,” Departing Bulldogs’ receiver and home-grown Georgia product Mecole Hardman said at the NFL combine.
“I feel like it would be more personal. We’re coming to y’all’s stadium and we beat y’all, now we own this stadium. We have bragging rights for two years at your stadium.”
Georgia first-round draft pick Deandre Baker, who was recruited out of Miami, Fla., agreed.
“I would love that if it was a home-and-home, and we go beat them in their stadium,” Baker said. “I’d say Florida (is the biggest rival) because I’m from Florida, and I think that’s the biggest rivalry other than Tennessee.”
Last summer, it was Gators defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson weighing in.
“I kind of wish we went to Georgia and played at Georgia, I wouldn’t mind it,” Jefferson said. “I ain’t going to lie, it gets lit between the hedges, at night, I’ve seen where they light the cell phones up. It gets loud in there.
“I wouldn’t mind going from our stadium to their stadium every year We don’t have to go to Jacksonville every year.”
UGA President Jere Morehead is sensitive to the tradition, the Georgia fan base and the desires of the head coach he has entrusted to lead the program into the future.
“We’ve been playing the game in Jacksonville since 1933 so I think we need to keep that longstanding tradition in mind,” Morehead told DawgNation. “But we’re obviously going to listen to Coach Smart, and we’ll see how the negotiations proceed.”
Indeed, much has changed since 1933, from the increased value of home recruiting weekends, to the necessity of fans to traveling more with the addition of an SEC Championship Game and now College Football Playoffs.
Time will tell how the Georgia-Florida rivalry will evolve, the clock ticking with only three contracted games remaining in Jacksonville.