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Moving Florida-Georgia game is not just idle chatter thanks to Bulldogs coach - Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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It’s Florida-Georgia week in Jacksonville and the talk is about Florida-Georgia Week not being in Jacksonville.

If you’re a fan of the Gators, you’d probably rather discuss that than UF’s defense. But if you’re a fan of the game, you’re wondering what to make of this week’s joint statement from the schools.

It said the game’s future site is not a topic of conversation, but they’ll get to it in due course. When they do, they’ll consider “a multitude of factors,” like tradition, finances, future SEC scheduling models and “what is best for both schools’ football programs overall.”

Just what is best?

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The ideal choice would be to keep it put as long as the St. John’s River flows north (insert “Because Georgia Sucks” joke). But I’m not here to argue whether moving the game to the campuses should or shouldn’t happen. I’m here to answer whether it will happen.

Probably.

That’s based on nothing more than conjecture, speculation and reading of tea leaves. Right now, the only sure thing is the contract expires in 2023, with an option for two more years.

Beyond that, nobody can say anything with certainty. But the mere fact abandoning Jacksonville has become a recurring theme is telling.

The Florida-Georgia game has entered the Overton Window, a political theory devised by a policy wonk named Joseph Overton. The “window” is the range in which topics that were once considered radical become conventional wisdom.

Overton Window replaces 'World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party'

History is full of examples, like allowing women to vote, animal rights and same-sex marriage. On the scale of societal development, moving the Florida-Georgia game is not exactly women’s suffrage.

It’s more important, darn it, because it impacts recruiting.

Sorry, I was temporarily inhabited by the spirit of Kirby Smart. Where were we?

Oh yeah, Overton. It has six phases:

Unthinkable. Radical. Acceptable. Sensible. Popular. Policy.

Proponents push a supposedly unthinkable issue up the scale, knowing politicians only act within an acceptable range of public discourse. So do university presidents and athletic directors.

For decades, the thought of moving Florida-Georgia to the campuses wasn’t even a thought. There was the standard Bulldog gripe that Jacksonville wasn’t really a neutral site.

Funny, you didn’t hear it when Vince Dooley was coaching. To break that hex, UF officials pondered moving the game to campuses. Then Steve Spurrier arrived, and the River City didn’t seem so bad.

The first real campaigning came during Mark Richt’s reign. It’s no coincidence that was when recruiting became an internet-fueled obsession.

Richt’s grumbling never got beyond the Radical phase. Along came Smart, who cannot stand the thought of giving up an SEC home game every other year when it could be used to wine and dine recruits in Athens.

Starting this year, the "home" school can give recruits tickets to the game. That's hardly the full-court "official visit" press they'd get on campus.

Moving talk has now become Acceptable. Smart won’t have the final word, but his wishes will be a factor. The question is, how much of one?

“When it comes down to it, there’s a very, very basic element everything comes back to,” he said. “Number One – money. And Number Two - recruiting and getting good players.”

Number One will be in Jacksonville’s court. Florida makes approximately $6 million to $7 million on home games, but nothing on the road.

UF and UGA each make $4.5 to $5 million in Jacksonville. That’s an annual payday, however, so moving it would be at least a $2 million hit.

Schools rarely leave money sitting on the table. But these schools’ athletic budgets approach $165 million.

Would whatever Jacksonville offers outweigh the benefits of moving, even if the main benefit would be keeping the state’s most important employee happily humming along?

That’s to be determined, though no move is likely before 2025. That’s when Texas and Oklahoma will join the SEC and the conference schedule will probably expand to nine games.

Schools could theoretically keep the game in Jacksonville and still have four SEC home games every year. There’s a very slight chance that would appease Smart, but he’s not the only one whose views will matter.

“I completely understand what Kirby is saying,” Billy Napier said. “Every other year he’s missing out on what he knows will be a fantastic venue and game day experience.”

First-year Gators coach Napier has no history with UF-Georgia

Napier was not drawing a line in the sand. He’s said all the right things about the rivalry, but he is hardly steeped in it.

Saturday will be Napier’s first taste of the game formerly known as the "World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." What’s more, he’s a Kirby clone when it comes to recruiting. In that sense, what's good for the Gators could be bad for Jacksonville.

Assume Napier comes close to producing Kirby results. If he starts musing about a recruiting drag in Jacksonville, the conversation will further shift.

It’s already gone from Unthinkable to Radical to Acceptable. Next stop – Sensible.

Given the love many fans have for the Jacksonville experience, a move would never be Popular. But it could become acceptable enough to become Policy.

That would be a sad day, but Smart has unquestionably changed the debate. And when you can change the debate, you can toss a lot of things into the nearest river.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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