The Georgia-Florida game — which is how it must be billed until the Gators win again — is in such a good place now. There is so much about Saturday’s 98th meeting that feels right, just as it should be for an event that holds such deep emotional sway for one whole corner of the south.
Try as some might, nobody has been able to dislodge the game from its rightful locale, the otherwise mostly overlooked city of Jacksonville. This may be the Fredo of tourist stops in Florida, except for one weekend a year when it provides a fitting and familiar stage painted equally in Georgia and Florida colors, the 50-50 split managed with a nearly pharmaceutical precision.
Jacksonville and its stadium that has changed names more than Sean Combs is where this game belongs. Memphis has Graceland. Washington, D.C., has the Smithsonian. Jacksonville has a college football game that doubles as a referendum on both the vigor and the alcohol tolerance of two states.
The game’s increasingly tenuous place just off the north-flowing St. Johns River has been secured for a few years more, the schools just extending their agreement with Jacksonville through 2023, with an option for two more years beyond that. Memo to Georgia coach Kirby Smart: Sometimes a game and its setting is more than an opportunity for you to woo some teenage mesomorph from Jesup. It’s really fine to take one weekend off the recruiting hamster wheel to serve an important neutral-site tradition.
The Georgia-Florida game’s very nature as a football bacchanal has been challenged in the past, yet still we can raise a hard seltzer or something more credible to it without apology.
For decades the authorities have tried to rid the Georgia-Florida game of the subtitle, “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Jacksonville dropped that as an official designation in 1988. And in the early 2000s, both schools began pressing CBS to quit referring to the game as such because it seems that some people do stupid stuff when under the influence and the rest of us must be denied because of that.
Credit former Jacksonville Times-Union sports editor Bill Kastelz with coining the phrase “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” back in the 1950s. As the story goes, the title occurred to him while walking around the then-Gator Bowl and spotting a besotted fan who had stumbled up to a cop to offer him a drink.
Now that is the stuff of legend.
For all the attempts to sanitize this weekend, the Cocktail Party name and image persist, passed from generation to generation like all your really significant oral traditions.
You are what you are, so why not just proudly wear it, like the hangover after a bachelor party?
Remember when, maybe 15 years ago, that somebody with juice in Las Vegas had the bright idea to re-brand that place as a family vacation destination? It would be a sort of Sodom meets Disneyland. Kids, come watch dad throw away your inheritance on the pass line.
Eventually that faded, as did the idea that temperance might somehow be eased into the Cocktail Party conversation.
But what is mostly encouraging about Saturday’s Georgia-Florida game is that it matters. The game itself, not the foolishness around it, is of great significance. As it should be.
For the second consecutive year, this game matches two top-10 teams — Florida No. 6, Georgia No. 8 — and figures to be a decisive moment in the SEC East race. The rankings hold no influence in the aforementioned Vegas, where the Bulldogs are a 6 1/2-point favorite.
This doesn’t happen nearly often enough, given the programs’ changing fortunes. This is only the third time in the 2000s that both teams enter the game ranked in the top 10. And the last time that’s happened on consecutive seasons was back in 1983 and ’84.
Saturday figures to offer an intriguing look at whether Florida coach Dan Mullen has in any way earned the right to troll Georgia. Or is he just some incomplete Steve Spurrier knockoff?
It figures to be an important legacy Lego block for Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who has taken on some dull tones his past two games, against South Carolina (a loss) and Kentucky (a rain-soaked win). It likewise will test the Bulldogs ability to put out an offensive product that will quiet the restlessness within their community. A first-down, downfield pass may be hailed as a great breakthrough.
The stage is set in Jacksonville (Motto: We Don’t Smell Nearly As Bad As We Used To). The drinks are on ice. The winner will have all his dreams laid out before him, a boundless feast. The loser will be crushed.
It is Georgia-Florida at its absolute best.
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