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Smart has recruiting concerns in Georgia-Florida site debate

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri

Oct 1, 2022; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to players in a huddle against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

As the home team in Saturday’s neutral site game against Florida, No. 1 Georgia can leave tickets at the gate for recruits.

For Georgia coach Kirby Smart, that’s not nearly enough to make up for his defending national championship team’s inability to host recruits as he would in a true home game.

The annual rivalry game in Jacksonville, Florida, is under contract only through 2023. Smart’s recruiting concerns are a big factor in discussions about the future of the series.

Officials from Georgia and Florida released a joint statement Monday in which they said a number of factors would be considered as the schools consider keeping the game at the neutral site or moving to home sites.

The statement said the rivalry game “is an important tradition.”

“Typically both schools begin conversations regarding future games in the series as the last contracted game nears,” the statement said. “We anticipate following that timeline. When those discussions take place, we will consider a multitude of factors including tradition, finances, future SEC scheduling models with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, and what is best for both schools’ football programs overall.”

Aside from home-and-home games in 1994 and 1995, the game called “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” has been played in Jacksonville since 1933. Georgia (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) will look to protect its top ranking on Saturday against Florida (4-3, 1-3).

NCAA rules forbid schools from hosting recruits at neutral sites. Clearly, Smart does not believe leaving tickets at the gate makes up for the inability to have contact with recruits.

“We’re allowed to use tickets, but we can’t host them,” Smart said Monday. “We can’t do anything. So I never understood - I never understand - what would we do with them? We can’t legally see them. We can’t talk to them, we can’t host them. Visit with them.

“We can say, `There’s a ticket at the gate. Enjoy the game.’ So that’s really all we can do. We’ll do that. We’ll have some kids go to the game.”

Smart also addressed the future of the rivalry last week when he said money and the tradition of the neutral-site game also must be considered.

“I enjoy the pageantry of going down there and playing,” Smart said. “I enjoyed playing there as a player. I enjoy tradition. I enjoy all those things.

“When it comes down to it, there’s a very, very basic element of everything comes back to, number one money and number two, recruiting and getting good players. I firmly believe that we’ll be able to sign better players by having it as a home-and-home because we’ll have more opportunities to get them to campus.”

Smart acknowledged the fact that playing the game in Jacksonville brings in more money for the university.

“You have to weigh both those and make really good decisions,” he said.

Georgia and Florida will consider a two-year option to keep the game in Jacksonville through 2025.

The payout for each team from Jacksonville is approximately $2.9 million for each school in 2022 and 2023, which includes a guaranteed $1.25 million and a split of gate revenue. Georgia also receives $350,000 each year for its charter flight, buses and lodging while Florida receives $60,000, with no flights required.

The guaranteed money for each school would be increased to $1.5 million in 2024 and 2025. With gate revenue included, each school’s payout under the option would increase to more than $3 million.

Each school generates about $3 million for selling out a game on its campus, minus about $500,000 in expenses.

Florida first-year coach Billy Napier says he’d like to personally experience the game in Jacksonville before offering an opinion about the future of the series.

“So this environment, this experience for a player, can have a significant impact on a player’s decision,” Napier said. “So I mean, I completely understand what Kirby is saying. Every other year he’s missing out on what he knows will be a fantastic venue and game day experience.”

Napier said there are “some advantages and disadvantages here” for each team in Jacksonville.

Georgia senior safety Christopher Smith said his favorite part of the annual game is “when you step into the stadium you see the crowd split 50-50.”

Even so, Smith said “I personally would like the game to be home-and-home” with occasional games played in Jacksonville.

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson said the neutral site adds to the the rivalry.

“It’s pretty cool being in Jacksonville seeing the stadium split half and half,” Richardson said. “But I feel like if it was to be put at the universities, at the schools, I feel like you might give one team an advantage over the other. That’s just food for thought.”