Georgia leadership approves Florida game staying in Jacksonville despite pandemic

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Georgia leadership has agreed to play Florida in Jacksonville this season, even if there is reduced seating.

ATHENS — Georgia and Florida athletic directors have indicated the schools’ annual rivalry game will remain in Jacksonville this season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

UGA athletic director Greg McGarity told DawgNation on Thursday that plans are for Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs to make the 339-mile trip to Jacksonville as scheduled.

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“Scott (Stricklin) and I spoke about this on Monday and agreed the game would remain in Jacksonville,” McGarity said.

The SEC athletic directors met in Birmingham, Ala., on Monday for a 9-hour conference involving issues surrounding the league’s pending fall sports seasons.

The league announced it would push back the start of the start of the fall sports season, and different scheduling models were discussed on account of the complications and increased risks involved with travel.

Georgia and Florida leadership, however, are determined to keep their rivalry game in Jacksonville.

The decision leaves Georgia with three SEC home games, four SEC road games and the trip to Jacksonville.

Florida, meanwhile, has four SEC home games in Gainesville, the 71-mile trip to Jacksonville, and three league road games.

It’s another scheduling bonus for the Gators.

Florida has what figures to be a decidedly easier cross-division schedule than the Bulldogs, and that has led some to pick Florida to win the East Division this season.

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Georgia’s West opponents are Alabama (road, Sept. 19) and Auburn (home, Oct. 10.).

Florida plays a home game with rebuilding West Division team LSU on Oct. 10 and then plays at Ole Miss on Oct. 17.

There had been rumblings Georgia leadership might consider asking Jacksonville for an out this season, on account of the added risks and complications involved in air and hotel travel.

Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said Tuesday the possibility of the game moving to campus — it would be Georgia’s year as the designated home team — hadn’t even been discussed.

“Really haven’t had any conversation about moving it out of Jacksonville,” Stricklin said in a News-Press story. “I know that I saw in the news somewhere that the Jags had a reduced seating capacity planned.

“I’m sure that’s something that if we get to the point where we’re playing that game there that we would try and use as appropriate depending on where we are in the process and what the requirements are.”

The so-called “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” could be crashed to some extent by COVID-19.

There is not expected to be any tailgating around the stadium, per area vendors.

Depending on the numbers when the game is scheduled to be played, on Oct . 31, there could be local or state legislation requiring the use of masks, or limits on the number of people in social gatherings.

The coronavirus pandemic has been an ongoing crisis in the collegiate sports world since March 12. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was suspended and ultimately canceled, along with all other sports tournaments and championships.

College football has been working its way back since June 8, when players were allowed to return to campus for voluntary workouts.

RELATED: Offseason plan set, NCAA approves 6-week practice plan

University leaders have pledged to make decisions that are in the best interests of their support staffs, student-athletes and fan bases.

Former Florida coaches and players, specifically Steve Spurrier and Tim Tebow, have publicly lobbied to keep the annual game with Georgia in Jacksonville.

“When I was coaching at Florida, I said it’s to our advantage to get on the bus, and they’ve got to get on the airplane, and we’re in the state of Florida,” Spurrier told DawgNation last summer.

“The stadium used to be called the Gator Bowl. It’s a good game for Jacksonville so I hope it stays there.”

Former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Jacksonville is not a truly neutral site, and he recently suggested the game be moved between the states.

“My problem is it’s not truly neutral,” Richt said. “If you’re gonna play in what’s been called the Gator Bowl for years, and if you’re going to play in the state of Florida every year, it’s not neutral.

“If you’re going to have neutral sites, let’s have one in Jacksonville and one in Atlanta, let’s rotate the neutral sites with each state and let each state benefit from those paydays and all the fans in attracts. Or, just go back to home and home.”

WATCH: Mark Richt tells of hiring Kirby Smart as running backs coach, talks Jacksonville

Smart, last fall, pointed out last fall the game comes at the price of losing what would be an otherwise valuable home recruiting weekend.

“I do think we have to look at it from 10,000 feet above and say, ‘What is best for the long term of our program?’ “ Smart said. “Mainly because of recruiting.”

COVID-19 has prevented prospects from visiting campus this offseason, and reports indicated that has hurt Georgia recruiting.

At the very least, it puts a premium on the importance of recruiting weekends during the season.

RELATED: Jacksonville’s $35 million gain comes at Kirby Smart’s expense

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey reiterated on Wednesday the league still plans for a full slate of games, but late July will be a “check point” of sorts for decisions on how the league will move forward amid the pandemic.

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