Georgia Football: Jacksonville’s Legacy and Future

While the Georgia football vs Florida game won’t look quite the same this year due to COVID, it’s a vivid reminder of why the game should stay in Jacksonville.

Over the last two decades, the location of the Georgia/Florida game has become a point of contention for Georgia football fans. Many of the fans argue that Jacksonville is not a true neutral site, while other fans insist that the history and tradition surrounding Jacksonville is one of the most unique in college football, giving birth to a gameday atmosphere that is only visible in a handful of other rivalries.

Since its inception, the Georgia/Florida game has been held in Jacksonville with only a few exceptions. While the schools disagree on the beginning of the rivalry, the first contest they agree on was held in Jacksonville in 1915. At the time, the University of Florida did not have a home stadium and played many of their “home” games off-campus. Several of the Georgia/Florida matchups during this time were played in Jacksonville, Savannah, Tampa, and Athens. After Florida received a field in 1930, the following two matchups were played in Gainesville and then Athens.

However, in 1933, the game was once again held in Jacksonville due to accessibility. Historically known for its shipping industry, Jacksonville was accessible by train, allowing both sets of fans to easily attend the game. The game sold out that year and Jacksonville became the permanent location. According to Florida historian Norm Carlson, while other rivalries such as Notre Dame/USC struggled to sell tickets during the Great Depression, the Georgia/Florida game continued to draw large amounts of fans because of the accessibility of Jacksonville. And, other than a two-year stint in the ’90s when the Gator Bowl was being renovated, the game has always been held in Jacksonville.

When a rivalry game has been held in the same neutral site for 84 years, it’s understandable why some Georgia football fans strongly resist moving the location of the game. In recent years, a lot of fans have begun arguing to abolish the neutral site and begin a home and home series between the two teams.

Many of these fans claim that Jacksonville is not a true neutral site because of its proximity to the Florida campus, insisting that a home and home series would be a better alternative. However, while it is true that the Gators are much closer to Jacksonville, they still travel and stay in a hotel the Friday before the game, same as Georgia. Ticket sales are also split fifty-fifty, effectively negating the atmosphere of a home game, and instead, it creates one all of its own.

Historically, either team has been able to win this matchup, regardless of which team is expected to win. Georgia ruined Steve Spurrier’s shot at an SEC title in 1966 and Florida hurt Georgia football’s chance at a national championship in 2002. The reason both teams have a shot every year is largely due to the game’s neutral site.

While Georgia football is not automatically guaranteed a loss in The Swamp, their chances of winning definitely decrease in an opponent’s stadium that has recently been said to have been louder than Death Valley. Sanford Stadium has received similar praise in the last few years from Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. Part of the allure of this rivalry is that the impossible is always attainable. While that won’t disappear with a home and home series, the chance of either team winning any given year definitely goes down. It’s a home-field advantage for a reason.

The one benefit to a home and home series is recruiting. Every year, the home team loses a recruiting weekend. It’s unfair to the schools and the recruits that they are unable to experience the atmosphere of what Coach Kirby Smart calls the East’s version of LSU/Alabama. Other neutral-site rivalries face the same dilemma, leaving the schools at a disadvantage. You don’t hear Arkansas and Texas A&M complaining about losing a recruiting weekend. Or Oklahoma and Texas.

Former Georgia football and Florida players look back on the rivalry as an amazing experience and one of the highlights of their time playing for their school. Both universities should be able to market this historic rivalry as a reason for playing for the Dawgs or Gators and recruits should be able to experience the rivalry firsthand. UGA’s AD Greg McGarity announced a few years ago that he’d like to propose new legislation to the NCAA that would allow recruits to come to the game. If the legislation was approved, it would remove the biggest argument for switching to a home and home series. But even if that never happens, these games will not hurt the schools’ recruiting. The prestige and fame of those rivalries are a tool for recruitment.

Plus, do we really want one of the nastiest rivalries in college football to be played at home? The game might not have originated in Jacksonville because of bad blood, but the animosity between the two schools has definitely contributed to it staying there.

While the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party might have earned its name from the massive amounts of drinking that takes place, the name was later abandoned due to the messy after-party and the dangers it posed. Many of the people arguing for a home and home must not remember College Gameday’s experiment several years ago. After sending a Georgia football fan to Florida’s campus and vise versa, the crew determined that there was plenty of hate to go around, with both fans receiving multiple threats of violence and one actually receiving death threats strictly because they wore the enemy’s insignia.

It’s not just a battle for the border, but a full-out, year-round war.

It’s this emphasis on the border that makes alternating the rivalry’s location with Atlanta a moot point. While Atlanta’s location relative to Athens is comparable to Gainesville’s distance from Jacksonville, that’s not the only mileage that should be considered.

Atlanta is 338 miles from the state line, compared to Jacksonville’s 33 miles. Part of what makes Jacksonville a unique location for this matchup is its proximity to the border. While I fully believe that Florida fans would travel, I’m not so sure they would be as willing to travel to Atlanta as Dawg fans are to Jacksonville. It’s a much greater distance and I’m not sure we would be able to achieve the iconic fifty-fifty split down the center of the stadium.

While I don’t mind trying Atlanta, I’m not willing to sacrifice the atmosphere and camaraderie that’s created by a massive amount of Dawgs and Gators congregating in one central location. In Jacksonville, the RV’s roll in on Tuesday, and the tailgating starts right after, lasting all week long. Opposing fans are temporarily united because of shared location, partying next to one another until one team is forced to surrender.

Does it get crazy and sometimes go too far? Of course. But, it’s an unbelievable experience that you can’t write off unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. A lot of people that come to Jacksonville leave agreeing that it was an amazing time. And most come back.

The rivalry alone brings in roughly $35 million dollars for the city, not counting the influx of business in the Golden Isles. Many businesses in South Georgia say that it’s their busiest week of the year. The neutral location is also extremely profitable for the universities involved. That’s why Jacksonville worked so hard to extend the contract and why both schools agreed.

However, this game is not just important for businesses in South Georgia and North Florida. It means the most to the people who live there.

Borders signify not only where lines are drawn, but where they’re blurred. Just like the Okefenokee Swamp, football teams are not determined by state lines and inevitably both teams are going to spill over onto the other. There are going to be some Florida fans in South Georgia. And I happen to know that there is a huge portion of Georgia football fans in North Florida. Between Jacksonville and the Golden Isles, it’s probably almost a fifty-fifty split. That’s why the students created the Okefenokee Oar, signifying the victor’s right to temporarily extend their border. At least until next year.

Because of its proximity to the border, Jacksonville is a unique blend of southern and coastal culture, symbolic of both states’ influence on the city. It’s the perfect location for a battle for the border— and always has been. And unless you’ve been to the game, you don’t realize how important this rivalry is to the people who live in the in-between.

It’s not just another game. It’s a fight for the land you love. It’s wearing your team’s colors every day the week before as you smack talk with friends and it’s the walk of shame next Monday when your team didn’t back up your words. It’s the quiet listening and smiling to the ribbing at school only to march in the next week with your head held high and the knowledge that your team came out on top. It’s the glare from the person in line ahead of you and the high five from a random stranger on the street. It’s the camaraderie and playful disdain beforehand and the pure hatred after. It’s beautiful and ugly wrapped into one, week-long party.

And for those of us that are Georgia football fans, it’s hoping that come Saturday night we once again get to quote our coach – “Welcome to Jacksonville, Georgia.” It’s my home. And I love it no matter what two letters come after the city’s name. Because win or lose, I’m still a Dawg at heart, already looking forward to next year’s showdown.

For years, the road to the East has run through the crossroads of Jacksonville. I hope it always does. On the banks of the St. John’s river, the breezes keep us from experiencing the sweltering heat of the swamp. And we’re just far enough south that the sun doesn’t shine on the field quite the same way that it shines on the hedges. But one thing’s for sure, we sure know how to throw a party.