Part of what makes college sports so great is the abundance of rivalries, either between in-state foes or flagship schools of bordering states.
In college football, these rivalries are saved for the last weekend of the season, a grand finale to wrap up the year before each team begins preparation for its bowl game- or in some cases, its conference championship. It’s a little harder to do that in basketball, but a lot of teams do wind up playing their rivals to end the regular season- and when the rivalry games are played in the middle of the year, at least neither team is inherently handicapped.
Baseball is different. Due to the unique kind of stress the act of pitching a baseball places on the human body, starting pitchers can only perform their assigned task every so often, and because there are so many games in a baseball season, pitchers only participate in a small fraction of a team’s scheduled games. That’s a direct and stark contrast to literally every other position in the sport, as well as every other sport. In no other competitive sport are athletes at the most important position limited to playing in a quarter or so of the contests simply because of the physical requirements that come with that position.
Because of this, of course, baseball teams carry a large quantity of pitchers on their rosters. For those who don’t follow baseball very heavily, in the MLB, teams typically have a rotation of five starting pitchers who can start a game every five or six days or so. But college baseball is designed to be different in the sense that you only really need three or four starting pitchers. Your best starter is typically known as the “Friday night guy,” your second best starter is your “Saturday guy,” and your third best starter is your “Sunday guy.” If you have a fourth dependable starting pitcher, he’s known as your “midweek guy.”
In college, the important games- namely, conference games- are played in three game series on the weekends: either Friday, Saturday and Sunday or Thursday, Friday and Saturday (in which case each starter just gets one less day of rest but the order remains the same). In order to keep sharp and get more reps, schools often schedule opponents situated in close proximity to play a single game in the middle of the week, usually on a Tuesday- which is when the “midweek guy” will get his chance to start.
For the most part, Florida does play its marquee opponents on the weekend, and thus the Gators’ most high profile games do feature the best starting pitchers both sides have to offer. Typically, teams get fourteen weeks of regular season baseball: ten weekend series against their conference opponents, and four additional weekends to schedule non conference opponents. In addition to playing the totality of its 30 game SEC schedule on the weekends, Florida also squares off against in-state rival Miami during the second weekend of each season. Which is great, because not only is this a great test for the top pitchers on both sides, but it treats fans of both teams to a true strength-on-strength matchup in one of college baseball’s great rivalries.
But the Florida-FSU baseball rivalry doesn’t follow suit.
Instead, the Florida-FSU baseball rivalry is played as a midweek series, three different times per year: once in Gainesville in mid-March, once in Jacksonville in late March, and once in Tallahassee in early April. In doing so, it cheats fans, players and teams alike out of a potential gold mine of benefits.
For starters, the Gators and Seminoles are two of college baseball’s premiere programs. You can usually find at least one of them in the College World Series every year; FSU has made it to Omaha 23 times, while Florida has reached the sport’s grandest stage 12 times (although Florida has the only national title between them… sorry, I couldn’t resist). On top of their national prestige, these two schools are each others’ respective biggest rivals across all sports. As such, this game is always the most widely attended contest of the year for both teams even despite the fact that it’s currently played at an extremely inconvenient time (really, who wants to go to a baseball game that starts at 6:00pm or 6:30pm on a Tuesday?) and both teams are relegated to their fourth best starting pitchers. The simple drool factor of getting “best on best” at arguably the most important position in such an important rivalry should alone be cause for moving the game to the weekend.
A common reason that’s cited for keeping this game played on Tuesdays is the mere two and a half hour distance between Gainesville and Tallahassee. After all, the argument goes, the teams are so close to each other that it’s better to leave the weekend dates open for teams farther away from the two campuses in order to play a more diverse, national schedule.
But plenty of other out-of-conference in state rivals forgo this logic and play on the weekends to pit their best pitchers against each other. Georgia and Georgia Tech play their weekend series with one game in Atlanta, one in Athens and the finale on a neutral field in Lawrenceville, GA. Clemson and South Carolina use a similar format, playing their odd game of the weekend series in either Greenville or downtown Columbia (away from the South Carolina campus). And as mentioned earlier, Florida and Miami do so with three game sets in annually alternating campuses- even though Florida routinely plays opponents similar distances away in midweek games, like Florida Atlantic (about four and a half hours away) or Florida Gulf Coast (four hours).
Now, I understand the desire to keep three of your four out of non conference weekend series slots open to schedule teams from far away that you otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to play. But what I don’t understand is using them on (checks schedule): South Florida, a school that’s located two hours away from Gainesville- that’s closer than Tallahassee- and that Florida plays every year in midweek games anyway, and Troy, a Sun Belt also-ran that’s located less than five hours away. If you’re going to use those dates for fellow Power Five conference opponents in cold weather locations like Maryland, Boston College, Duke or Indiana to get to play baseball in Florida in February or early March, that’s one thing. But the Gators haven’t done so since 2014, opting instead to litter its three non-Miami pre conference weekend slates with cupcakes since 2015.
And FSU is no better in this regard. True, they did squeeze in a three team, four game round robin style tournament against FAU and Texas Tech this year. But the Red Raiders were the first non-conference, non-Florida Gators, Power Five opponent the Seminoles have faced on a regular season weekend since a three game set with Georgia in 2015. And admittedly, it gets tricky to schedule FSU on the weekend when they only have their first three weekends available rather than their first four weekends like SEC teams, since the ACC’s fifteen team setup requires one team to step out of conference at some point in the heat of the regular season race- when SEC teams are all locked in against conference opponents. But is there really any better preparation for SEC play than by facing Miami and FSU in back to back weekends?
Presumably, the Gators would face one of those two rivals at home and the other on the road. With one of those rivals coming to Gainesville every year, Florida’s ballpark would be guaranteed to be packed for a weekend series before SEC play even starts. Florida could reserve its two other weekend series for cupcake opponents, as with this move they’ll have done more than enough to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee with its non conference schedule strength. So the Gators could still ensure that three of their four non-conference weekend series will be played in Gainesville. Florida does that every other year anyway, in even years, when it plays at Miami. And if the Gators want to broaden their horizons and schedule some fellow Power Five opponents on top of that, they can do so by offering to host a Tuesday-Wednesday midweek series against, say, Illinois, or Kansas, or Rutgers- lower level programs that need to travel down south in order to play baseball in February or March, period.
The bottom line is that for fans of both the Gators and Seminoles, not to mention general college baseball fans who only want to see a top tier rivalry played with both teams at full strength, cheating them out of a weekend series just wrong. And there are a multitude of different ways to work out the logistics, too. Here are just a few ways to make this work as a weekend series:
- True home and home style. Play a three game weekend set at one team’s stadium each year the way Florida and Miami do. Nice and simple, and the most likely path to getting this series back to the weekend. It costs two two and a half hour bus rides and two nights at a hotel for each team every two years, and that’s the end of it.
- Home, neutral and away. Play the Friday night game in Gainesville, the Saturday night game in Jacksonville and the Sunday game in Tallahassee. Or, revert the order. This is essentially when Georgia and Georgia Tech do, and what Clemson and South Carolina do. The home team for the neutral site game would flip every year. This way, you eliminate some of the hotel cost; FSU is the only team that might really need one, and only for one night, as Jacksonville and Florida are both two and a half hours away. And if they want, they could just drive home after each game. Meanwhile, Florida would only be making one trip of two and a half hours since Jacksonville is only 90 minutes away from Gainesville, which they don’t need a hotel for.
- If both teams really want to keep playing during the midweek, they can still do that without wiping away the weekend series. So, another way to do it: stick with the true home and home series, and let the road team for the weekend set host a pair of midweek games- either on back to back nights on a Tuesday and Wednesday, or on two different Tuesdays. The idea is to keep the teams playing an odd number of games so there can be a true season series winner. And there’s no law that says teams can’t play more than three times a year- Alabama and Auburn did it for over a decade before a scheduling conflict messed that up this year, and Florida and FSU did it once in Tampa in 2010. Besides, this happens all the time with conference and NCAA Tournaments.
- As a variation of 3: if the teams wanted to do the home, neutral and away weekend series, each team could then host a midweek game later in the year. That would give each school two home games, two road games and one neutral game to complete balance out the home field advantage each year.
- As another variation of 3: if both teams really love their annual series in Jacksonville, there’s no reason they can’t just swap out one of the midweek home games for the road team in the weekend series for a game in Jacksonville. Or both, potentially, if they want (but if Florida and FSU are going to play five times a year, I’m betting that both schools would want to host at least one game).
- On top of the weekend series (and for the reason I just outlined in scenario 5, let’s assume this would work better with scenario 2), the two teams could invite a third team down to somewhere in Florida- either Tallahassee, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, or any of the literally dozens of minor league/spring training baseball parks scattered throughout the state- and do what FSU did with Texas Tech and Florida Atlantic. Florida would then get two more games against FSU on the weekend, at least one of which would feature normal weekend starting pitchers if not both, and two against another non conference opponent.
You can tweak the permutations some if you’d like, but right there are six feasible options of how to make this happen. And for the good of college baseball, one of the fastest growing sports out there, it needs to happen. Time for Florida to put USF back on the midweek schedule where they belong, and for FSU to do the same thing with Mercer, clear a weekend that works for both teams and play ball with their best pitchers toeing the rubber.
So, come on, Florida AD Scott Stricklin, and come on, FSU AD David Coburn. Let’s figure this out and maximize the excitement of the Florida-FSU baseball rivalry by giving it the weekend status it deserves.