OPINION: Florida-Georgia football rivalry should never leave Jacksonville

Every year, Florida and Georgia meet in Jacksonville to play in a conference game. Except it doesn’t feel like a normal conference game. It feels like two teams battling for the identity of an entire region, with Jacksonville serving as the battleground for the Florida-Georgia line. It’s a rivalry that dates back to 1904, with the game played (mostly) continuously in Jacksonville since 1933.

Moving the game away from its historic location would eliminate a part of college football tradition that ties the identity of the sport’s past with that of the present. There’s always an argument for moving the game. This season, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has rekindled the relocation fires.

It started over the summer at SEC Media Days. Smart used his platform to complain about how he lost a recruiting weekend when the ‘Dawgs were the assigned home team, claiming that he would be at a disadvantage against other programs. While technically true, what Smart fails to realize is that his program offers a unique experience to recruits that very few schools can offer.

There are also significant financial consequences for moving the game out of Jacksonville. Jackson Castellano of the University of Florida’s student newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator wrote a piece making the case for the game to stay in Jacksonville. In that piece, he mentions that in 2021, Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry told Action News JAX that the economic impact of the game was estimated to be at least $30 million. That’s a lot of money to take away from one of the biggest cities in the South.

You would think Florida fans would be the only ones outraged by the conversation of moving the game’s location, with Gainesville only 90 minutes away from Jacksonville compared to Athens’ nearly five-and-a-half-hour drive. There are plenty of Georgia fans who love the tradition of playing in Jacksonville. As two gentlemen interviewed by The Athletic say, it allows for the team to feel like it represents the entire state of Georgia, not just Athens. Even our colleague Joe Vitale, the managing editor at UGA Wire, had this to say about the game’s traditional location:

“I love Jacksonville. I hope it never changes. There’s nothing like it. I’ve obviously gone many times and every time I go, it reminds me how amazing it is.”

Smart doubled down this week on his desire to see the game moved from Jacksonville to a home-and-home series. The more traditional scheduling affair would undoubtedly result in massive recruiting advantages for both the Gators and the ‘Dawgs. But it would take away a part of the regional identity that college football provides to the South.

Jacksonville serves as a mecca of sorts for fans of both teams. The annual pilgrimage is almost a rite of passage. Taking that away because you can’t roll out the red carpet for your recruits one fewer weekend every two years is cutting your nose off to spite your face. It lands like Nick Saban complaining that the National Championship celebrations take time away from recruiting.

The Florida-Georgia rivalry is the class of the SEC East. The winner of this game typically has the inside track to playing for the SEC championship in Atlanta. It’s one of two true neutral site games left in college football and its tradition is one of the few things left of a college football world that put importance on regionality, rather than on what sells the most national ad space on television.

I hope Kirby Smart remembers that when he acts as if the unique recruiting situation surrounding the game only affects his team. It’s a small price to pay to preserve one of the last great traditions of college football’s past.

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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire