ATHENS – Six years ago, Georgia did the SEC a favor and agreed to play at Auburn two consecutive years. It helped solve one of the oodles of scheduling headaches created by expansion.
It didn’t hurt Georgia against Auburn. After all, the Bulldogs have won four of five against the Tigers since 2012, including the first of the two consecutive games on The Plains.
But when it came to building the yearly schedule, the effects linger. That’s evidenced by the underwhelming slate of opponents coming to Sanford Stadium in 2017.
Mississippi State is the rotating team from the West. The East rotation has Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina coming to Athens. And the nonconference visitors will be – please contain your building excitement as you read this paragraph – Appalachian State and Samford.
It would be unfair to chalk this up to Georgia scheduling lesser opponents. For years, actually, UGA has been at the forefront in setting up more difficult games, notably with the Notre Dame series (at South Bend this year), UCLA next decade, Clemson earlier this decade, and so on.
But a confluence of factors led to this year’s home slate being so, well, blah. And until and unless some things change, there will continue to be years like this.
Start with the Auburn series. If the Tigers were visiting Sanford Stadium this year, it wouldn’t by itself make this year’s home schedule a great one. But it would help.
When Georgia agreed to the Auburn switch, it meant that every year it would have three prime opponents (Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech) either all at home or all on the road. That means one year three stellar opponents at home. The next year? Maybe none.
There have been no indications that Georgia, Auburn and the SEC have discussed having the Tigers visit a second straight year to put the annual meeting back on schedule. UGA athletics director Greg McGarity has not responded to an email asking that question.
There’s also the Florida game, which it appears will remain in Jacksonville into perpetuity. Both sides seemingly have made the institutional decision to keep it there, rather than the allure of a home-and-home. And frankly, that’s not the worst thing in the world. The cocktail party is a cool thing, though an occasional home-and-home might be too.
But it leaves UGA with some situations such as the one it faces this year. The good news is that in two years, when the Auburn-Tennessee-Georgia Tech set of games will be on the road, Notre Dame is coming to Sanford Stadium. So is – hallelujah, finally – Texas A&M, which by then will have been in the league for its eighth season.
That bodes well for UGA not having to lower the Hartman Fund minimum to entice season ticket renewals, at least for the next two years.
But what about the rest of the home nonconference schedule? It’s come under criticism for the amount of lower-profile teams, from Appalachian State and Samford this year, to the collection next year – Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass – and 2019 (Murray State and Arkansas State).
McGarity, in a radio interview on Thursday, offered some explanations, including the competing factors at work.
“You just try to do the best you can,” he said on 680 AM The Fan. “You’re getting hit from all sides. You’re getting hit from fans. I know the coaches want to produce wins. You’ve got so many dynamics at work there. It’s just impossible to make everyone happy.”
The competition for nonconference scheduling has never been more intense, which has led to some big payouts. Georgia is paying a total of $3.7 million for Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass to come next year. Arkansas State by itself is getting $1.8 million to come in 2019.
Florida, for its part, has Northern Colorado and Alabama-Birmingham visiting the Swamp this year, along with Florida State. Next year the Gators welcome Idaho and Colorado State, which currently is coached by former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
But Florida also has Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M visiting this year. The following year, however, Florida has LSU, Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina. Better than Georgia’s home slate this year, but how much better?
If something is going to change, it probably is out of Georgia’s control. Either the SEC goes to a nine-game schedule – and it has little motivation to do as long as its teams keep making the playoff – or there’s some sort of seismic shift where Power 5 conferences only play each other.
Until then, or until something happens with the Auburn series, there are going to still be years like this for Georgia fans.