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Florida, USF announce three-game series beginning in 2022

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And the Gators will travel to Tampa as part of it.

South Florida v Florida
Only ‘90s kids will remember who this is running the ball!
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Florida Gators will play the USF Bulls three times in five years in the 2020s, the schools announced on Monday.

And yes, Florida will travel to USF for one of the games.

The Gators and Bulls are set to meet in 2022 and 2025 in Gainesville and in 2023 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, possibly marking the first time in a decade that Florida will play a true out-of-conference road game against a team other than Florida State.

Florida has not played such a game since 2013, when the Gators fell at Miami, 21-16, in the most recent meeting between those two schools. And the Gators do not currently have another such out-of-conference road game publicly scheduled for the years between 2018 and 2023, with the closest thing to such a contest being Florida’s 2019 opener against Miami at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

Florida’s release — which also discusses that Miami contest extensively — plays up the importance of getting the Gators to Tampa as part of reinforcing their importance to the region.

“This is a unique scheduling opportunity that allows us to get three games against a quality FBS opponent, with two at home and one in a great venue in Tampa,” Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said.

“A lot of Gator fans will have the opportunity to attend that game and we are looking forward to being able to play a regular-season game in central Florida.” ”We are excited to have the opportunity to host South Florida twice in The Swamp and also play them in Raymond James Stadium,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “The Tampa/St. Petersburg area is an important recruiting footprint for us and our players will love playing another game in an NFL stadium.”

And, well, sure, that’s true, and Florida hasn’t played a regular season game in Tampa since 1989, when they shut out Mississippi State, 21-0, in the Cigar City. But a lot of Gators fans in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, the ones Mullen’s statement is referring to, have the opportunity to attend every Florida home game by driving a couple hours up the road to Gainesville. And they have done that year after year, so much so that Tampa is and has long been considered a Florida stronghold both in regards to fan support and recruiting — without the Gators ever needing to travel to USF.

And while Florida’s release includes a clumsily-worded mention of the Gators’ willingness to schedule in-state competition...

This series is another example of the University of Florida’s history to play in-state schools in its recent past. Over the past 15 years, Florida has played Florida State, Miami, UCF, USF, Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

...it also bears mentioning that Florida has never in its post-World War II history played a road game against an in-state school other than Florida State or Miami. (Pre-WWII, things get weirder: The Gators played a road game against the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in 1942, played at the University of Tampa in 1938, and visited Stetson in 1923.)

Of the games referred to in the above statement, Florida’s contests with UCF, USF, Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic, and Florida International have all happened in Gainesville, and have largely been lopsided affairs: Five of the six were Florida routs by a minimum of 24 points, including the Gators’ lone meeting with USF, a 38-14 triumph in 2010.

The exception, though, was a 20-14 overtime victory against Florida Atlantic in 2015 that nearly became one of the most vexatious losses in Florida history. And the danger of Florida losing to an in-state school — something that has also never happened against an in-state school other than Florida State or Miami since WWII, though the Gators did fall to that Jacksonville NAS team in 1942 and took a loss to Stetson in 1938 — is theoretically far higher on the road than in Gainesville. (To be fair, though: Florida State and Miami both lost to USF at home, and have gone undefeated on the road against the Bulls.)

Florida has long been pilloried, both locally and nationally, for playing almost all of its non-conference games at home and against lesser competition. The Gators’ trip to Miami in 2013 was their first true out-of-conference non-bowl road game against a team other than Florida State since 1991, when Florida got drummed by Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.

That practice has always been defensible, and even shrewd: Florida, by virtue of playing Georgia in Jacksonville every year, has always forsaken some revenue that it has been wise to recoup by keeping as many non-conference games in Gainesville as possible, and the Gators have never been and will never be significantly impacted by their strength of schedule when contending for national titles by virtue of their SEC membership and that annually rigorous matchup with Florida State. But it has also become unsatisfying to many younger fans that Florida has not, as a rule, scheduled interesting out-of-conference games.

So I like Florida scheduling USF, a program that should be a step up from most of the overwhelmed programs the Gators bring to Gainesville for games, as a remedy to that — plus, I like the Gators keeping the revenue that flows to their non-conference foes within the Sunshine State whenever possible.

Yet I am also cognizant of the fact that Florida scheduling USF endangers its in-state hegemony, and that traveling to Tampa for a game against a program that will be dying to knock off the mighty Gators is a treacherous undertaking. This 2023 game will be one of the biggest in USF’s history regardless of what happens between now and then, something that Bulls coaches will use as motivation to recruits who are currently high school freshmen, and it could be a watershed moment for the Bulls — and damaging to Florida in a way that Florida taking a road loss to, say, Oregon or Texas could never be. (Given all that, USF’s release is surprisingly subdued.)

Surely, Stricklin and Mullen — who got both very creative and arguably too cute with scheduling at Mississippi State, to include a game played against UMass at Gillette Stadium and road trips to schools like Southern Mississippi and South Alabama — understand that dimension of this, and understand that scheduling like this seems a lot wiser when your team wins.

It will be their job to ensure that Florida can back up their boldness.