JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As a new coach Billy Napier hidden behind a double stairwell leading to a small room to meet the local media, just below where he spoke to hundreds of fans during his spring tour stop at TIAA Bank Field, three teams local television stations and a handful of writers welcomed him.
Needless to say, location questions were quick to come.
Specifically, how big is the game per year Florida plays at TIAA Bank Field. former coach Dan Mullen was quick to be asked about the significance of the Georgian rivalry. After a 24-17 loss to the Bulldogs in his second season, and with recruiting significantly lower than UGA, Mullen was asked how far apart he felt the two programs were.
“Seven points,” he joked, cutting his response short.
A year later, Mullen would find a way to beat Georgia and in the process reach the SEC Championship Game. Year 4, however, was a big step backwards, with Florida collapsing and losing 34-7. Three weeks later, Mullen was fired.
“I think we’re all well aware of the importance of this rivalry,” Napier said, not dodging a question about facing Georgia in Jacksonville. “It’s the games that make college football special. I think we have tremendous respect for this rivalry and the importance of this rivalry.”
Realistically, Napier has been smart to temper expectations so far. After a 6-7 season and arguably as exhausted as they have been in offensive skill positions over the past decade, the Gators are almost certainly looking to a rebuilding year.
Strategist Anthony Richardson has the potential to cover some of these warts in the short term due to its innate ability. But there are even limits to what he can do, as his outing against the Bulldogs on October 30 showed.
Still, there’s no denying what early successes against Georgia, both on the field and on the recruiting track, could do to galvanize the program.
“It’s a special game and one that has implications for this side of the divisions and certainly presents a number of challenges,” Napier said. “We have a lot of work to do to be ready for our team to be competitive in this environment. We will embrace the work that comes with it, the challenges that come with it. We are thrilled about the opportunity to compete in this league. and playing in this game is definitely part of that.”
But in addition to the impact an early win in Jacksonville could have on the program’s momentum on the field, it could also pay recruiting dividends.
In the recruiting class of 2023, six of the state’s top 75 players hail from the Jacksonville area, including the four-star running back Treyaun Webb and four-star quarterback Marcus Stokes.
“You look at the roster of players in that area, it’s a pretty special roster,” Napier said. “There are legendary players that come from there, so I think every time you recruit and build your roster, I think our philosophy has been to do it backwards. I think Jacksonville being close , there’s no doubt that has to be an extremely high priority for us.”
As he did Tuesday night when meeting with fans in Tampa, Napier stressed the importance of locking down key geographies in the state. Needless to say, Jacksonville is one of them.
“We’re going to work hard to build relationships here with our new staff and certainly understand the importance of bringing good players from Jacksonville to the University of Florida,” Napier concluded. “And I think you’re on the right track – this year in particular, it’s been a great year in Jacksonville. Fantastic prospects and hopefully we can get there.”