Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Is the UGA-Florida Cocktail Party headed for last call?

Here’s what Kirby Smart told reporters after Georgia announced the scheduling of home-and-home sets with Texas (in 2028/2029) and Clemson (2029/2030): “When you come to Georgia, you want to play against the best. And I’ve always believed in playing Power 5 opponents. … Georgia people will travel. They want great games. They want home-and-homes. And as a coach going out recruiting, it helps.” 

Most every coach would say after his school commits to a nice series, but if we’ve learned anything about Smart, it’s that his words bear weight. He learned about messaging under Nick Saban, who doesn’t allow assistants to speak for the record during the regular season. (One program, one voice.) If we’ve learned anything else, it’s that Smart tends to think as Saban thinks, and King Crimson is on record as loathing lousy games. 

These were Georgia’s home games last season: Appalachian State, Samford, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky. This year’s: Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Massachusetts and Georgia Tech. The picks of those runty litters were Mississippi State last year (Georgia won 31-3) and Auburn last weekend (Georgia won 27-10). Over that span, the Sanford Stadium audience has watched the Bulldogs go 11-0 with an average margin of 27.5 points. 

Notre Dame comes to Athens next year. UCLA will arrive Sept. 25, 2026. That’s two creditable non-conference games. The Bulldogs will grace the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game three times between 2020 and 2024 – against Virginia, Oregon and Clemson – but those games will be staged in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, not between-the-you-know-what. Getting Texas and Clemson in Sanford Stadium is a big deal for a program that’s again big-time, and the guess is that bigger scheduling news could be coming. 

Smart’s words: “They want home-and-homes.” That’s true in every case except one: Many if not most Georgia fans love playing Florida every year in Jacksonville, even though it means playing never playing Florida anywhere but in Florida. Even when the Bulldogs lost 11 of 13 installments of the World’s Largest Whatever from 1998 through 2010, there was no push from to move the game to the campuses. 

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(Perhaps Georgia fans were calloused by the memory of 1995, the only time since 1932 Florida played in Athens. That was forced by the refurbishment of the old Gator Bowl, and it enabled the thoughtful Steve Spurrier to “hang half a hundred” on his favorite foil.) 

See, Georgia’s trip to Jacksonville isn’t just a game. It’s spring break in autumn. Bulldog Nation encamps on St. Simons days before kickoff. Heck, the proud University of Georgia essentially shuts down the Friday before the Florida game. 

That said, Kirby Smart is the king of UGA. If he wants Georgia-Florida to become Hedges-Swamp, it’ll be his will that gets done. As Marc Weiszer of the Athens-Banner Herald noted, Smart’s remarks on his radio show last month weren’t exactly a paean to Jacksonville. 

Said Smart: “I enjoy neutral-site games. They’re good one-offs. They’re good kickoff classics, meeting somebody from across the country and playing in these great venues.” 

(Note: Playing the same somebody every year in the same place is not a one-off. Also: Florida is not from across the country. Also: For all its renovations, the place now known as TIAA Bank Field is not a great venue.) 

More Smart: “They give up the opportunity to have one of their greatest recruiting days, and we give up our opportunity to have one of our best recruiting days. If that averages one player a year, that’s four or five good players. … It’s a disadvantage when you’re talking about a Tennessee or an Auburn or somebody who gets the extra home games.” 

Let’s tally it up. Smart likes recruiting. He doesn’t like it when something keeps him from recruiting. He likes one-offs. His mentor is so down on sham games that he has lobbied the SEC to bump its eight-game league schedule to nine.

Of Georgia-Florida in Jax, Smart said on that radio show: “It’s something we’ll always look at in the offseason.” Again, not an endorsement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d say the Cocktail Party could be headed for last call. 

Georgia and Florida are contractually committed to Jacksonville through 2021, which isn’t forever and a day. The easiest way for the Bulldogs to spruce up their home schedule, not just for one year for every other year, is to bring Florida to Clarke County. (And getting Florida in Athens would surely keep Georgia from going 34 days between true home games, as just happened.)

Weiszer reported that Georgia and Florida would forfeit $2.6 million for each home-and-home, but let’s face it: These aren’t FBC schools that require guaranteed money to pay the light bill. They’d make do.

The bigger issue would be Georgia fans. They love their Jacksonville game. (Florida fans, many of whom drive in and out on Saturday, have always seemed less enthused.) I’ve always thought that Bulldogs backers would surrender their October getaway only if someone pried it from their cold dead hands. Kirby Smart might be that grim reaper.

About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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