With Hurricane Ian bearing down on the state, the Gators may need to get creative in order to get their game in against Eastern Washington. (Photo credit: Neil Shulman, In All Kinds Of Weather)
On Monday morning, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin issued a statement saying that the Gators’ game against Eastern Washington was still on track to be played as scheduled as Hurricane Ian takes aim at the Gulf Coast of Florida.
That, unfortunately, is not likely to happen.
The storm is projected to attack the coast around Tampa on Thursday morning and arrive in Gainesville on Thursday afternoon. This means that Hurricane Ian won’t be delivering its nasty payload during the game itself, but it might render Gainesville’s airport uninhabitable and the area around it un-fly-able. Even if the airport is untouched in terms of debris, the roads around and in the city will likely be clogged, either with debris or cars. And then there’s the fact that the security personnel needed to work a game day in Gainesville will understandably be needed elsewhere, which further complicates things.
So while I can’t pinpoint exactly which logistical component will be the demise of a Saturday game in Gainesville, one of them feels certain to force Stricklin’s hand. In some form or another, Hurricane Ian feels extremely likely to create a change of plans.
The we-don’t-have-any-other-choice plan, of course, is to cancel the game. Insurance policies are in place for these things. Eastern Washington will get its paycheck, one way or another.
But of course, nobody really wants to do that. Florida is going to need this game to be played if there is any way to do so. And there are.
Here are the five most practical ways to get this game in around Hurricane Ian.
1: Play in Gainesville on Sunday (or worst case, Monday)
This feels like the simplest, most quick-and-dirty way to do it. The storm is going to be one day further away on Sunday, meaning whatever mess is created is one day closer to being cleaned up and the city is one day more recovered. Georgia and South Carolina did this in 2016, so there’s a precedent here, and it causes the fewest itinerary changes for Eastern Washington: you’d just have Eastern Washington fly in and leave one day later.
The only complication here could be finding a hotel for the Eagles to stay in on a night in which they were not scheduled to be in Gainesville. But surrounding areas such as Ocala, Lake City/Live Oak, Jacksonville, or St. Augustine have hotels, too. With Hurricane Ian approaching the state, it feels logical to assume that at least one of the hotels in one of these cities will have an adequate number of vacant rooms.
I really don’t think anybody involved with the Gator football program wants to play this game on Monday with an SEC game against Missouri lurking five days later, but if one more extra day is what’s needed to get the game in, this isn’t a terrible last-ditch option.
2: Play in Miami on either Saturday or Sunday
Both the Miami Dolphins and their favorite tenants from Coral Gables are out of town this weekend, meaning Hard Rock Stadium is vacant. And Miami seems to be the one major city in the Sunshine State that will avoid Hurricane Ian completely. Miami is also densely populated with Gators, so although a sellout doesn’t seem likely, Florida could at least somewhat maintain its home-field advantage.
Finding hotels for Eastern Washington in South Florida shouldn’t be difficult. Of course, Florida would have to find a hotel for its own team, too, but that shouldn’t be a problem, either. Sure, some people might evacuate to the area, but there are literally hundreds of places to stay within an hour’s drive from Hard Rock Stadium between West Palm Beach and Homestead. Surely there are two hotels somewhere within that area that can each accommodate 100 people.
3: Play in New Orleans on either Saturday or Sunday
Basically, copy the synopsis from the Miami option and paste it here. The Saints are in England, leaving the SuperDome vacant. And New Orleans is also nowhere close to the path of the storm.
Now, NOLA obviously doesn’t have anywhere near as many Gator fans as Miami does, (though there are a few) which is why this option was firmly placed behind the Miami option. The home-field advantage is all but squashed if this game moves to New Orleans. But if something stops these teams from playing in Miami- say, for example, maybe I’m wrong and there really aren’t adequate hotel options for two teams in the Miami metroplex- New Orleans is the next major city with a large stadium that isn’t inhabited by an NFL game next weekend. It’s not an awful third option.
4: Play the game at Eastern Washington
I have it on good authority that Scott Stricklin really, really does not want to do this. It’s a terrible idea. Part of the reason this game is scheduled as a Florida home game is to give players’ parents and friends a chance to watch them. Flying to the other corner of the country deprives them of that chance. And there’s no way around being forced to owe the maximum number of fans refunds, as you’d have at least some fans who bought tickets grumpily change their plans and attend the game in any of the first three scenarios, which lessens the amount of refund money the school would have to fork up.
Then again, Florida may not have a choice. For whatever else may be wrong with this idea, Eastern Washington does have a campus that will be largely devoid of traveling athletes and families from other schools. Only a women’s tennis tournament is being played in Cheney, WA that weekend. Surely there’s a hotel (or even two small hotels) that could accommodate Florida’s football program, army and all.
5: Play the game December 3rd in Gainesville
At first glance, this looks like a solid idea. Florida is 0-2 in the SEC with Georgia still to play, meaning the SEC Championship Game is effectively off the table. And Florida’s bye week before Georgia doesn’t work for Eastern Washington, as they have a conference game against Cal Poly slated for that weekend. So why not play a rescheduled game on December 3rd?
Well, there’s one major problem: the FCS Playoffs. Eastern Washington is a strong FCS program that usually reaches the FCS Playoffs, and that December 3 date falls smack in the middle of it. And the Eagles are obviously not going to eschew a chance at a national championship for a one-off game against Florida.
If options 1-4 fail, then sure, by all means, tentatively reschedule the game on the day of the SEC Title Game if you can. But it only works if EWU fails to reach the Round of 16 of the FCS Playoffs. Even if the Eagles play and lose in the preliminary round the week before, there’s no guarantee that they will have interest in then turning around and flying to the other corner of the continent.