“The misnomer there is that I don't want the game in Jacksonville,” Smart said when asked about it Monday. “That's not the case for me. I loved playing there. It's one of my best memories ever as a player being able to do that.”
As a junior safety for the Bulldogs, Smart had two interceptions against the Gators in 1997 when Georgia won 37-17 in Jacksonville. That broke a seven-game losing streak to Florida.
The Bulldogs lead the overall series 52-43-2 and 45-41-1 in games played in Jacksonville. The site is located 75 miles from Florida’s football complex, while it’s 342 miles away from the UGA’s facility. But the City of Jacksonville now pays for the Bulldogs to fly directly out of Athens’ Ben Epps Airport in a trip that takes the same amount of time as it does for Florida to bus from Gainesville.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville upped the financial stakes considerably for the two schools in the new deal. The guarantee was raised to $1 million in 2020-21 and $1.25 million in 2022-23. Including the split ticket allotments and paid expenses, that will bring UGA $9 million every two years, as opposed to approximately $3.8 million it would clear in a home-and-home arrangement.
Smart, who has been granted every major expense request he has made since becoming Georgia’s coach four years ago, definitely gets that.
“The financial significance of this game and also the historical significance of this game weighed in as factors, and the administration felt like that was the best thing to do,” Smart acknowledged. “I'm 100 percent on board with it. I'm a team player, and I always said, once the decision is made, it's made.”
That said, Smart still feels playing at a neutral site puts Georgia at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting. The Bulldogs lose a home game off its schedule every other year, which means it also loses the opportunity to host prospects on official visits.
“They're really important weekends,” Smart said. “We just have one less shot at those. That's the toughest thing.”
Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said the school will propose legislation next spring that would relax NCAA rules regarding recruiting interaction at neutral sites. Smart appreciates that, but is skeptical about any changes resulting.
“What do you think those other teams are going to do with that?” Smart said. “If you're Alabama and you're Tennessee, are you going to help Florida and Georgia out? I don't think they're going to go for that. But we'll see how it goes.”
Smart said the venue also limits Georgia’s ability to schedule Power 5 opponents in home-and-home series.
“Your home-and-homes are so valuable as you go out and try to find other teams to play,” Smart said. “When you play these other teams that we're playing out in the future, you (have) one less home game. … So now, every other year it may be two less (home games). So, it makes it tougher in that perspective.”
However, there also are some recruiting positives to playing in Jacksonville. Part of the SEC’s television agreement is a guaranteed spot for Georgia-Florida as CBS Sports’ primetime broadcast at 3:30 p.m. Beyond that exposure is the Bulldogs’ considerable physical presence the state of Florida.
It is primarily UGA fans who cobble up the condominiums and hotels in Jacksonville and up and down the Atlantic coast for this event each year. The local residents take notice.
Solomon Kindley, a three-year starter on Georgia’s offensive line, was one such resident.
“We always watched the annual Florida-Georgia game,” said Kindley, who grew up in Jacksonville and attended Raines High School. “We don’t have a home college team in Jacksonville, so going to see this game was big. The whole city came together for it.”
Georgia-Florida typically is pivotal to the SEC’s Eastern Division race. That’s the case again this year, as the Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) come in with a No. 6 national ranking, while the Bulldogs (6-1, 3-1) are No. 8. All the other East teams have at least two league losses.
That’s similar to last year’s scenario, in which No. 7 Georgia defeated No. 9 Florida 36-17. The Bulldogs have represented the East in the SEC Championship each of the last two years, both seasons after defeating Florida in Jacksonville.
The odds of beating the Gators in consecutive years is better playing at a neutral site annually rather than in Gainesville every other year.
Georgia players seem to like it just fine the way it is.
“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “The stadium’s split 50-50, and there’s history there. I love it there. I don’t care. We could play all the way in the Bahamas, I wouldn’t care.”