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Florida vs. Miami in Orlando is nice. But the move to home stadiums is better.

Expect neutral-site openers like the one Saturday night to fade in favor of home-and-home series.
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen walks into Camping World Stadium during the Gator Walk on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019,  in Orlando [ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times]
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen walks into Camping World Stadium during the Gator Walk on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, in Orlando [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Published Aug. 24
Updated Aug. 24

ORLANDO — The 150th anniversary of college football kicked off Saturday night with an ode to the sport’s past and present.

No. 8 Florida and its three national titles faced Miami and its five championships to reboot a dormant rivalry.

They met at Camping World Stadium in the latest big-time neutral-site matchup at a fairly split crowd as part of the current trend that has been spicing up opening weekends.

As for the sport’s future? News on that came Tuesday when the teams announced a home-and-home series with stops at Gainesville in 2024 and Hard Rock Stadium the next year. That’s the direction college football is going for the benefit of fans, teams and the bottom line.

Miami Hurricanes fans cheer for players as they arrive before the game at Camping World Stadium. [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]

The neutral-site openers served their purpose well. Watching Florida State come back against Ole Miss here three years ago was much better for the sport than when the Seminoles drubbed Texas State by 43 the year before. Seeing the Gators face the Hurricanes on Saturday was more exciting for the fan base and the program than last year’s 53-6 Week 1 destruction of lowly Charleston Southern.

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And there was undoubtedly buzz about Saturday’s matchup, starting with ESPN’s College GameDay airing from the Magic Kingdom. Tickets during the week were going for $360, making it the most in-demand event at the stadium for either program since Seat Geek began tracking the market in 2010.

But neutral-site games have lost a bit of their appeal because of what happens when the teams return home.

Fans aren’t there.

Attendance is sliding nationally, to the point where even the mighty SEC is concerned. The Gators’ attendance last year (82,328) was the lowest at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 1990.

Miami head coach Manny Diaz, left, talks with Florida head coach Dan Mullen before the game. [JOHN RAOUX | AP]

Programs are tackling the issue through multiple ways —alcohol sales, improved WiFi, fancier amenities. But the biggest solution is the most obvious one: Schedule better matchups on campus that fans want to see. Casual fans are much interested in watching UF-Miami at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or at Miami than sitting through blowouts against Towson or Central Michigan.

The Gators and Hurricanes have both noticed. UF athletic director Scott Stricklin wants the Gators to play 10 Power Five opponents a year: Eight SEC games, Florida State and one more. UF has future home-and-home series with Colorado and Texas, plus Miami. The ’Canes have similar matchups coming against Michigan State and Texas A&M.

That means something has to give. Expect that something to be neutral-site games.

They won’t be going away, of course. Atlanta, Orlando and Arlington, Texas are established sites in fertile recruiting grounds. Schools will keep wanting to play in games like Saturday night’s on occasion.

But the trend is changing. Neutral-site openers made it cool and lucrative for big-name programs to face each other. They led to the upcoming wave that’s even better for the sport and those who love it.

Moving marquee matchups onto college campuses — where they belong.

Florida Gators uniforms are seen before the game against the Miami Hurricanes. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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