Another sellout expected for Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A throng of people approaching 100,000 will flock to northeast Florida and Georgia’s Golden Isles coastline this weekend to watch a game that a growing number of individuals apparently don’t want to be played here.

The long-standing contract between the city of Jacksonville and the universities of Georgia and Florida that assures that their annual rivalry game is played at TIAA Bank Field is set to expire after next year’s game. Meantime, a sellout crowd of 84,000 is expected for Saturday’s game (3:30 p.m., CBS).

Georgia coach Kirby Smart contends the game needs to be converted to a conventional home-and-home arrangement so the Bulldogs can host recruits on campus every other year. That’s despite the fact that playing in Jacksonville brings each school an extra $2 million a year without the expenses of operating the game.

Regardless of the future of the rivalry, it remains a tremendously meaningful contest. The outcome always has an impact on the SEC East race to get to the conference championship game. The fact that it’s played on a neutral field generally favors the team with the most talented roster.

Credit: ArLuther Lee

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Credit: ArLuther Lee

This year, that’s clearly Georgia, as the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) enter the contest as 22 ½-point favorites over the Gators (4-3, 1-3), according to Las Vegas sportsbooks.

Here are five things to know about Saturday’s game:

Significant anniversaries

Saturday’s game represents the 15th anniversary of the 2007 Georgia win, which has come to be known as the “Gator Stomp” for the outlandish, on-field celebration that ensued after the game’s first score. But Saturday also is the 25th anniversary of another significant Bulldogs victory.

Georgia snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Gators with a 37-17 win in 1997. Bulldogs running back Robert Edwards is remembered as the star of that game, having rushed for four touchdowns and 124 yards. But another standout that day was safety Kirby Smart, who recorded two interceptions.

Interestingly, it’s Smart’s desire to move the Florida game out of Jacksonville that has created such uncertainty about the game’s future. But there is no questioning his passion for beating the Gators. That was evident in Smart’s passionate halftime speech last year, which was leaked to social media after Georgia’s 34-7 victory.

“The rivalry means everything to coach Smart, the team, the people last year, even two years ago,” sophomore linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said. “We still go off about that, how we lost in 2020. So, we still have a chip on our shoulders going into this game. It means a lot to us, so we’re still trying to play for the seniors that lost in that 2020 (game), still have that chip on our shoulders.”

Mutual admiration

As intense as the Georgia-Florida rivalry has been, there actually is more mutual respect at the top than some might expect.

Florida’s first-year coach Billy Napier gives Smart a lot of credit for Napier having landed the Gators’ job. It was Smart, ultimately, who convinced Alabama coach Nick Saban to hire Napier as an analyst in 2011. After leaving a year later to take a full-time assistant’s job at Colorado State, Napier returned to Alabama as receivers coach in 2013. He worked alongside Smart the next three seasons, especially on the recruiting trail.

“Heck, I wouldn’t be standing here today without him,” Napier said of Smart.

Napier actually did a deep-dive study of the Bulldogs’ program under Smart to glean what he could about the rebuild he is trying to execute at Florida.

“Kirby is a heck of a football coach, man,” Napier said. “Think about what he’s done at Georgia. You know, I’m going back and evaluating kind of each year. (He’s in) Year 7. Well, what was Year 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for him like? He’s done a fantastic job. I told him that the first time I saw him at the SEC coaches meeting.”

Smart also has high praise for Napier, who came to Florida from Louisiana-Lafayette in November.

“He’s very thorough, an extremely hard worker, great husband and father, a good leader of men,” Smart said. “I knew from the first time he got to Alabama he was going to be really good because he paid attention to detail. He took a lot of notes. He was just really smart. You knew he was there to learn. And I think he capitalized on his time he spent there to look at football from a different perspective maybe from what he looked at previously. And he was really successful at ULL. Which is a great school, great location, a lot of good football players. But they won a lot of football games with him there.”

Smart actually has worked alongside three of the past four Florida coaches, including Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain. But the number of Gators head coaches over the past decade-plus reflects the instability of that program. Including interims, there have been seven Florida head coaches since 2011.

Defensive challenge

Florida’s offensive numbers won’t leave opponents shaking in their cleats, but they’re a unique challenge, nonetheless. Quarterback Anthony Richardson makes the Gators a difficult matchup. He’s an exceptionally athletic player and a strong runner. And while he’s wildly inconsistent throwing the ball, he has a live arm and gets hot periodically. In a close road loss to Tennessee on Sept. 24, Richardson completed 24 of 44 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed 17 times for 62 yards and two more scores.

Richardson (55.9 ypg) is the chief reason the Gators lead the nation in yards per carry (6.4). But Florida also features running backs Montrell Johnson (60.7 ypg) and Trevor Etienne (47.7). They have accounted for 16 rushing TDs between them.

“He’s a physical runner,” Georgia defensive tackle Zion Logue said of Richardson. “At 6-foot-3, 235, he loves to stiff-arm. We know we’ve got to keep him in a cage, trap him on the left side; we know he wants to get to his right. So, we want to just keep him in the pocket and let our guys cover.”

Georgia’s defense will be the best the Gators have faced so far. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in total defense, points allowed and rushing and passing defense.

Recruiting piece

Contrary to the narrative, recruiting does go on at the Georgia-Florida game. Recruits are allowed to receive complimentary tickets from the respective schools upon request. At least two highly touted prospects are expected to sit in the Bulldogs’ stands Saturday. Five-star recruit Elyiss Williams, a 6-7 tight end/defensive end from Charlton County, will attend with his parents. So will four-star defensive line prospect Jordan Hall, a 6-5, 300-pound senior from Jacksonville.

“We’re allowed to use tickets, but we can’t host them. We can’t do anything,” Smart said of recruiting in Jacksonville. “So I never understood what would we do with them? We can’t legally see them; we can’t talk to them; we can’t host them, visit with them. We can say, ‘There’s a ticket at the gate. Enjoy the game.’ So that’s, really, all we can do.”

To play or not to play

A big question for the Bulldogs is what players might be available to play. Most notably, Georgia has played without preseason All-American defensive tackle Jalen Carter and sophomore split end A.D. Mitchell, star of the national championship game in January, for almost the entire season.

Indications are that Carter, who sustained an MCL sprain of the left knee, likely will travel with the team to Jacksonville. The update Smart provided on Mitchell was less optimistic.

“They’ve done a little bit, but we don’t feel great about them,” Smart said. “Jalen has probably looked better than (Mitchell), but I don’t know at this point if either one of them will be able to play.”

Carter was able to get on the practice field late in the week. Meanwhile, starting linebacker Smael Mondon appears to have made a full recovery from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the past two games. That’s an important development because of his ability to “spy” on Florida’s Richardson as Georgia’s swiftest linebacker.