Herschel Walker didn’t play in the Swamp. Tim Tebow didn’t play between the hedges. But Kirby Smart, who carries weight in this discussion, did play once in Gainesville, Fla. Wasn’t much of a game – Florida won 52-14 on Oct. 29, 1994 – but it counted as an experience. If we’re listing the number of folks who benefit from keeping Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville, the players themselves aren’t on it.
With the SEC about to get bigger still, that’s among the conversations being held by league muckety-mucks. With 16 members and rivalries and whatnot, it’ll be impossible to ensure that each student-athlete will visit all other league outposts over a three- or four-year career. (Thanks to the transfer portal, some might play for two or three different SEC school, but that’s another matter.) This isn’t considered the optimum student-athlete experience.
Gently but clearly, Smart is lobbying for the annual game in Jax to be moved to campuses. Since 1933, every edition save two of the World’s Largest Et Cetera has been staged at a neutral site, though the “neutral” site is always in Florida. The exceptions were in 1994 and 1995 due to stadium refurbishment. Those were terrible games, Florida famously mustering half a hundred points in Sanford Stadium and 104 all told. The respective coaches were Ray Goff and Steve Spurrier. We say no more.
Smart’s reasons for relocation begin and end where all Smart’s reasons do – with recruiting. Neither side can “host” a prospect in Jacksonville, he avers. It can provide tickets to recruits and tell them, “Good luck dealing with the traffic on A. Philip Randolph.” (A disproportionate part of my life has been spent on A. Philip Randolph Blvd.) This doesn’t preclude prospects from visiting campus on another weekend; it does preclude any Athens/Gainesville gameday atmosphere for the game that has become the biggest on each team’s schedule.
Jacksonville benefits due to tourism, which means jacked-up prices and two-night hotel minimums. The schools benefit from getting paid to spend one Saturday in Jax, though only the Bulldogs board a plane. The Gators hop on a bus. And here we come to the crux of our story: Florida fans tend to drive in and out on Saturday; Georgia fans get there – “there” in many cases being St. Simons Island, 75 miles north – early and stay late.
Not being a native Georgian or a UGA alum, it took me a while to grasp a strange truth: Even when the Bulldogs were under the thumb of the Evil Genius, a seeming majority of Bulldog backers preferred to keep the game in Jacksonville than make it home-and-home. They didn’t care so much about winning – this is the strange part – as about their annual autumn getaway. (The school all but closes on Friday of Georgia-Florida week.)
Stipulations: I’m a neutral, and I’m not much of a drinker. But I’ve seen enough on those in Jacksonville to make me never want to open anything but a can of Coke. The Cocktail Party label always came with a wink, but really: Is this something with which an institute of higher learning cares to be affiliated? (The answer’s no, at least officially. CBS, the network of the WGOCP, is asked not to mention the obvious.)
As a neutral, I don’t have skin in this game. As a human being, I’ve never seen the charm of it. You ask: What about tradition? I say, “Alabama and Auburn used to meet in Birmingham every November, and now they don’t. And that’s the best rivalry there is.”
A suggestion: The contract with TIAA Bank Field lapses after 2023; let Georgia and Florida try the 2024 and 2025 at their respective campuses. If that doesn’t work, they can head back to Jax in 2026 – though I can’t imagine home-and-home wouldn’t work. If the parties decide Jacksonville must be placated, the series can become a three-year rotation – Swamp, hedges, Jax. And now I’ll take a swig of Coke and shut up.
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