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    SEC Sports Power Weekend: Gainesville, Florida

    In the second installment of his 13-part series highlighting the SEC college towns and Atlanta, the site of the SEC Championship Game on December 4, SportsPowerWeekends.com founder/editor Jared Cooper takes a closer look at Gainesville, Florida, home of the Florida Gators. Florida will host the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 7 PM ET.

    Last week: Athens, GA

    Following a successful Sports Power Weekend in Athens, Georgia, we head to Gainesville, Florida, home of the Florida Gators. Cities Ranked and Rated named Gainesville the number one place to live in the country in 2007, and Gainesville has also held the lofty distinction of being named one of the best places to live by National Geographic Adventure in 2007. That can’t all be attributed to Tim Tebow’s presence.

    What draws visitors (and residents) to Gainesville – and is a large part of why it is continually ranked among the top places to live in the United States – is its natural beauty and picturesque landscapes. Whether it is hiking and biking through Paynes Prarie, walking the Florida National Scenic Trail or checking out the 62-acre Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville can satiate the hunger of any outdoorsman.

    Even those with no affinity for the outdoors are drawn to Gainesville’s most welcoming landmark, The Swamp. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was nicknamed “The Swamp” by former head coach and Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier, who said at the end of the 1991 season, “The Swamp is where Gators live. We feel comfortable there, but we hope our opponents feel tentative. A swamp is hot and sticky and can be dangerous.” The Gators look to extend that feeling of hospitality to the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night.

    FRIDAY NIGHT

    SEC college towns may not be the first place you think about when discussing top-notch sushi, but Gainesville has it figured out with Dragonfly Sushi, annually ranked among the top restaurants in this northern Florida town. In addition to the standard sushi rolls you come to expect at Japanese restaurants, Dragonfly features numerous special rolls with combinations you are unlikely to see anywhere else (for example, a marinated sirloin beef with pan-seared onion roll that includes avocado and asparagus).

    After taking some time to digest, head over to the Grog House for their beat-the-clock specials. The excitement for tomorrow’s game will be palpable in the bar, and conversations around you are bound to be centered on John Brantley, Jeff Demps and the high-powered Florida offense.

    Gainesville is also a big music town, as evidenced by being named “the best place to start a band in the United States” by Blender Magazine in March of 2008. Tom Petty and Steven Stills are among those who got their start in Gainesville, as did Less Than Jake, who is playing on this night at Common Grounds.

    SATURDAY

    The schedule makers were kind enough to make the UF-Kentucky game a 7 PM ET start, so you will have a full day to enjoy the town and sample some of the local restaurants before making your way to the stadium.

    Having breakfast/brunch at The Top is a fine way to start your day. Whatever you decide to order should be complemented with a plate of sweet potato fries. Every meal is better with sweet potato fries, and that is especially true at The Top. It is situated on the corner of Main and University, so you can walk along the streets of the college town to get a feel for what student life is like in Gainesville. Just a few blocks south on Main Street is the Hippodrome State Theatre, located in the historic Federal Building, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

    A 20-minute stroll west through the town will lead you into campus, where you can weave through the buildings and halls of this premiere institution. The Florida Museum of Natural History and Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art reside in the heart of campus as well.

    A nice, late-September day in Gainesville opens the door for some high-quality outdoor activities: hiking and biking in Paynes Prarie, fishing in Lake Kanapaha (or visiting the nearby Botanical Gardens), or partaking in any of the number of activities at Lake Wauburg, including boating, sailing, water skiing or climbing the rock wall.

    Such an action-packed day is sure to build up your appetite, and with the game approaching you will want to grab a bite near the stadium. The Swamp Restaurant is within blocks of the slightly larger and louder “Swamp,” Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and is a good spot to get some bar food and local fare. They have a wide variety of burgers and sandwiches, and starters like the Cajun gatortail remind you that you’re in gator country. Gator City Sports Grill is another pre-game spot that will get you in the mood for the big event.

    Two hours before each home game, Florida’s team exits its buses on the corner of University Avenue and Gale Lemerand Drive and walks along the sidewalk into the stadium in what is known as the “Gator Walk.” Urban Meyer established this tradition before his first game as head coach in 2005. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see Mr. Two Bits, a man who retired at the end of the 2008 National Championship season of leading cheers in different sections of the stadium for more than 50 years. He was honored as one of Florida’s most beloved Gator spirit traditions upon his retirement.

    Florida averaged 90,635 fans per game in 2009, the ninth-highest attendance in the nation. Those fans not only got to see the new Daktronics HD boards that were installed before the 2009 season, but also the team with the best home record since 1990; the Gators are 115-13 (.898) during that time, including a 2-0 mark at home in 2010. They have also won two National Championships in the past four years, and will surely be adding Heisman Trophy-winner Tim Tebow to the stadium’s Ring of Honor, joining Emmitt Smith, Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel, Jack Youngblood and Wilbur Marshall.

    You will be treated to “We Are The Boys From Old Florida” played by the Pride of the Sunshine band at end of third quarter as fans lock arms and sway. The players, coaches and band also sing “The Orange and Blue” in front of the student section after the game is over.

    After the game, follow the crowd out to University Avenue where you can relive the highlights at any of the number of bars and pubs between the stadium and Main Street.

    SUNDAY

    Just like last week in Athens, Saturday does not mark the final sporting event of our SEC Sports Power Weekend. The Jacksonville Jaguars host the Philadelphia Eagles at EverBank Field along the shores of the St. John’s River, about an hour and a half drive northeast of Gainesville.

    Before departing Gainesville, stop in to Maude’s Classic Cafe for some fuel for the road, or if you prefer, grab some pizza at Satchel’s.  The Jaguars game is at 4:05 PM ET, so if you have some unfinished business in Gainesville, you will have some time to tie up your loose ends. Otherwise, you can see what Jacksonville has to offer.

    The Gators will make their annual trip to EverBank Field to take on the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, October 30, but let’s not look so far ahead. A showdown of SEC heavyweights awaits you next week as we travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a heated matchup between the LSU Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers in our continued tour around the SEC as part of SEC Sports Power Weekends.

    Jared Cooper worked for the National Football League’s public relations department for four years before creating SportsPowerWeekends.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@SportsPowerWknd) or contact him at Jared.Cooper@SPWtravel.com.