DESTIN — As college football’s power programs overhaul their scheduling philosophies, a familiar question surfaced Tuesday during the SEC’s spring meetings.
Should the Florida-Georgia series remain entrenched in neutral-site Jacksonville?
“I think that’s always up for discussion,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said at the Hilton Sandestin.
Coincidentally, it usually finds itself up for discussion around the time officials begin discussing a new contract. The current deal expires after 2021, and The Florida Times-Union reported that the schools are talking with the city about extending it.
But the circumstances surrounding scheduling and the sport are different this time. Maybe not different enough to move the series away from Jacksonville, its annual home since 1933 (excluding the 1994-95 break for stadium renovation), but different enough to warrant serious conversations in Gainesville and Athens.
“Nothing’s off the table,” Smart said, “but nothing’s been decided, either.”
Attendance is down, even in the football-crazed SEC. The Gators’ average home attendance (82,328) was their smallest since 1990, before Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was nicknamed The Swamp.
Holding the Georgia game at TIAA Bank Field deprives the Gators of a marquee home contest this season. That, plus the neutral-site opener against Miami in Orlando, leaves UF fans with this six-game home schedule: Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee, Towson, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Florida State. Not exactly the kind of slate that will spike attendance back to 2009 levels, even if the SEC votes to expand alcohol sales at its stadiums later this week.
Smart isn’t too concerned with fewer fans potentially packing Sanford Stadium. His bigger issue is another group of people who can’t come to his stands.
By outsourcing one of his team’s marquee games to Jacksonville, Smart doesn’t have the every-other-year chance to show off his stadium in a rivalry frenzy to blue-chip prospects. That puts him (and the Gators) at a competitive disadvantage compared to Clemson, Alabama, LSU and other schools chasing those same players.
“Our version of the LSU-Alabama game is held in Jacksonville, and we don’t have any prospects (visiting),” Smart told reporters during the season. “So it’s not conducive to recruiting.”
Losing a high-profile home game is big enough for an elite recruiter with three consecutive top-three classes. The overall scheduling trend makes it worse.
The Gators and Bulldogs are among the programs that have ramped up their non-conference scheduling. The blockbuster neutral-site openers in Orlando or Atlanta or Arlington are being replaced with big home-and-home series. Georgia has upcoming deals with Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma and Clemson. UF has similar arrangements with Colorado and the Longhorns.
Ten years ago, those games might have been a creampuff seventh home contest against Group of Five or Division I-AA teams. In ten years, they’ll be road trips to Austin that take away another home game and the recruiting advantages that come with it.
To be clear, there’s no reason to think a change is imminent, or even desired by the administrators above Smart’s paygrade. UF coach Dan Mullen said he sees Smart’s point about the recruiting disadvantage, but the environment in Jacksonville makes for a special rivalry in a sport built on them.
“You never know what direction college football’s going in at that point of it…” Mullen said. “But it is such a great event to have a game, and it is such a unique game in all of college football.”
That environment is one of the biggest reasons to keep UF-UGA in Jacksonville, even if an NFL stadium with spa seating doesn’t have the deep-fried charm of Texas-Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Its current site has century of tradition, an enormous payday and the eye-popping experience of crossing the Hart Bridge to see thousands of fans enjoying the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
But keeping tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t make sense in an ever-changing college football landscape. Although Smart didn’t offer an alternative, here’s one: A four-year cycle with two games in Jacksonville and one on each campus. That keeps the spirit of the Jacksonville rivalry alive while adding back a true home game.
“I think you’re always looking to see what you can do to develop your program and get better,” Smart said.
Even if it means abandoning years of tradition.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.