Florida, Georgia exercise option to keep ‘Cocktail Party’ in Jacksonville through 2026

Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union/USA TODAY NETWORK
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The annual rivalry game between Florida and Georgia will be played in Jacksonville at least through 2025.

The Southeastern Conference schools released a joint statement announcing their decision to exercise a two-year option in the contract to keep playing at TIAA Bank Field, home to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The universities had until June 30 to let the city know if they were picking up or declining the option.

“The City of Jacksonville has been an historic host for one of the great rivalry games in all of college football,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement. “We are excited to have the game in Jacksonville for another two seasons.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has been outspoken about wanting to move the game to campus sites for recruiting purposes. NCAA rules prohibit schools from hosting recruits at neutral sites, although Florida and Georgia are allowed to leave tickets for recruits.

But Smart would prefer face-to-face contact, something he could get if the game was played in Athens.

“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 said last season.

Florida coach Billy Napier, meanwhile, has expressed a desire to maintain the status quo.

“The underlying issue here is the economics,” Napier said earlier this week. “It’s very beneficial for both teams to play the game there.”

The payout from Jacksonville is expected to be roughly $3 million for each school in 2023, a figure that includes $1.25 million guaranteed plus a split of ticket revenue and concession sales. The guaranteed payout for each school increases to $1.5 million in 2024 and 2025.

Georgia also receives $350,000 annually to cover its charter flights, buses and lodging while Florida receives $60,000 because no flights are required.

A Florida home game, by comparison, generates between $2 million and $5 million depending on the opponent. So a home-and-home series currently would bring in less revenue over a two-year span.

“We are pleased with the decision to exercise the option that will keep the game in Jacksonville for 2024 and 2025,” Georgia AD Josh Brooks said in a statement. “We look forward to discussions that I’m sure will continue over the next couple years exploring all the options for 2026 and beyond. We continue to be appreciative of the working relationship we have with the University of Florida and the City of Jacksonville.”

The rivalry could be pushed to campus sites in 2026-27 if Jacksonville agrees on a massive renovation to TIAA Bank Field and the surrounding area. Although few details have been released publicly, one option would be to shutter the NFL stadium for two years and move all games out of the city.

Another option would spread the rebuild over four years and allow games to be played as scheduled, possible with a reduced capacity.

Nothing will be decided until after newly elected Mayor Donna Deegan assumes office on July 1.

The game known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” has been played in Jacksonville since 1933 with the exception of a home-and-home series in 1994 and 1995 while the stadium was being gutted and rebuilt in anticipation for the Jaguars’ inaugural season.

Ex-Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz finding his footing at Florida

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Graham Mertz jogged into the Swamp with the first-team offense, wearing the No. 15 jersey made famous by Tim Tebow and harboring no regrets about leaving Wisconsin for Florida.

“Just grateful to see the sun every day, which is something stupid, but when you are in Wisconsin for a while, you kind of realize what the sun does,” Mertz said. “Really enjoyed the spring.”

It’s not clear whether he could honestly say the same about the spring game, a 10-7 effort that included countless bad snaps and even drew a veiled shot from Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin on Twitter.

Mertz completed 18 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown while playing the first half for the Orange and the second half for the Blue. He was “sacked” five times in the controlled scrimmage in front of an estimated 42,000 fans, and his lack of arm strength was evident with every deep ball.

Mertz is a short-term solution for a rebuilding Gators program that essentially lost six scholarship quarterbacks – and one potential NFL star – in the 12 months.

Blue-chip prospect and projected starter Jaden Rashada never made it to Gainesville after a name, image and likeness deal worth nearly $14 million fell through. That debacle followed standout Anthony Richardson, a projected top-10 pick, declaring for the NFL draft and backup Jalen Kitna being arrested on child pornography charges and being dismissed from the program.

Emory Jones (Arizona State) and Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (Syracuse) transferred last spring, and Florida withdrew a scholarship offer to four-start commitment Marcus Stokes (West Florida) in November after video emerged of him singing lyrics that contained a racial slur.

So Mertz, a fourth-year junior who landed at Florida in December after starting three seasons for the Badgers, is penciled in to replace Richardson and potentially help the Gators claw their way out of a rut that includes consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1978-79.

He showed some flashes in the spring game, connecting on a 28-yard completion to Caleb Douglas that ended with a fumble and beating an all-out blitz and hitting Kahleil Jackson in stride for a 10-yard score.

“I think that personally I grew as a player and as a young man,” said Mertz, who threw for 5,405 yards, with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions at Wisconsin. “It’s been a great spring. I’ve put in a lot of work here, and it’s just the start. We have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited for it.”

The Gators are counting on Mertz’s accuracy, experience and decision-making ability to offset what he lacks in athleticism and arm talent.

Both Mertz and backup QB Jack Miller said coach Billy Napier’s plan for the nationally televised spring game was to be as vanilla as possible to prevent showing too much 4 1/2 months before opening the season at Utah.

“Probably Day 1 install,” Miller said when asked how much of the playbook was used.

Added Napier: “Offensively, small menu for both sides, and certainly the same on defense. You know, we are what we are, right? It’s going to be more about the execution of the call than the call. I think tonight was a good indication of that.”

The Gators remain a work in progress, with Napier trying to build a sustainable program in an ever-changing landscape. They moved into a new football facility less than a year and have revamped their NIL efforts.

Improving the on-field product tops Napier’s to-do list, but how soon will it happen? Highly touted QB commitment DJ Lagway, a 6-foot-2 Texan, is expected to enroll in January 2024 and be a plug-and-play starter. Lagway was in attendance Thursday night, along with Richardson.

“Overall, it could have been better on offense, and the quarterback play – I say this to you all the time – sometimes they get too much credit, sometimes it’s too much blame,” Napier said. “Ultimately for a quarterback to play well, the players around them have got to play well.”

Florida hires Armstrong as DC to replace NFL-bound Toney

Syndication: The Clarion-Ledger

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida has hired Austin Armstrong as its defensive coordinator, poaching a member of Nick Saban‘s Alabama staff after less than two months on the job.

The 29-year-old Armstrong replaces Patrick Toney, who left Gainesville after one subpar season to become a defensive assistant with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

Gators coach Billy Napier turned to Armstrong to fill the position, making him the youngest defensive coordinator in Power Five football. Armstrong, who spent the last two seasons as Southern Mississippi’s defensive coordinator, was Napier’s inside linebackers coach at Louisiana-Lafayette in 2020.

Armstrong will be asked to help fix a unit that ranked 97th in the country in total defense in 2022.

Southern Miss’s defense, known as the “Nasty Bunch” during Armstrong’s tenure, ranked sixth in the Sun Belt Conference and 45th nationally in scoring defense (23.5 points a game). The Golden Eagles were third nationally in tackles for loss (8.3), fifth in sacks (3.38) and seventh in interceptions (17).

Toney is one of three on-field assistants to bail on Napier and bolt for the NFL in recent weeks. Receivers coach Keary Colbert left to take the same position with the Denver Broncos, and tight ends coach William Peagler has reportedly taken a job with the Cardinals.