End of SEC divisions should mean stronger schedules for the Dawgs
It appears likely that Dawgs fans will bid farewell to the SEC East this fall.
Let’s hope that the 2023 football season also will be the last time we see a pathetically weak home schedule at Sanford Stadium.
I mean, really, is there anyone in Bulldog Nation for whom Georgia’s first three nonconference opponents this fall — UT Martin, Ball State and UAB — move the excitement needle even a fraction?
And, this will be one of those years when the conference schedule in Athens isn’t that exciting either, with South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss playing Between the Hedges. Auburn, Tennessee and even nonconference in-state rival Georgia Tech all will be road games this year.
As I recently made my annual Georgia Bulldogs Club/Hartman Fund contribution, in order to renew the season tickets we’ve had at Sanford Stadium since 1975, it struck me again just how unappealing the home schedule is for this coming season.
Fortunately for UGA, the swell of pride stemming from two consecutive national championships — and the prospect of a possible threepeat — probably means that the lackluster lineup of opponents visiting the Classic City won’t prompt too many season ticket holders to question reupping.
Still, when every game is televised, many fans lack the motivation to tackle Athens/UGA’s traffic and parking ordeal for a lesser nonconference team being paid to come get beaten by the Dawgs. Some fans either give their tickets for those games to friends or family, or sell them. Even so, you tend to see quite a few empty seats in the stands at such games.
Thankfully, though, the prospect for stronger home schedules in the future is being given a boost by the impending reworking of the conference schedule in 2024, when Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC as part of the seemingly constant era of change that college football is undergoing.
Although the final schedule plan isn’t expected to be announced until the conference leaders get together for their spring meeting in May, there are strong indications that divisions will be done away with, and a nine-game conference schedule will begin, with three annual opponents and teams playing six of the remaining teams in one year and the other six the next year. (The main hang-up that appears to need resolving still is a renegotiation of the new TV deal with ESPN, to account for the extra conference members and games.)
Assuming the nine-game schedule pretty much is a done deal (which is what most of those who cover the SEC think is the case), that would mean every conference member would play in Athens at least once every four years (unless the two schools wind up playing a neutral-site game in, say, Atlanta).
That would be a big improvement over the dozen years it can take under the current setup (as in why Georgia has yet to play at Texas A&M), and it also would improve the SEC portion of Georgia’s home schedule, since the Dawgs wouldn’t be locked into playing the likes of Vanderbilt and Missouri in Athens every other year. Instead, you’ll see Alabama, Ole Miss and other former SEC West teams Between the Hedges more frequently.
“No matter where we land, you’re going to see a greater variability of the Western teams playing in here,” UGA Athletic Director Josh Brooks said recently. He added that, without divisions, “you’ll get a greater rotation, so you won’t get so stagnant. So, I think that will provide some greater home games scheduled in the future.”
Yes, in some seasons that’ll make the schedule more challenging for the Dawgs, but it also will make the lineup of opponents much more appealing to fans — who, after all, could choose to stay at home and watch on their large-screen TVs if you don’t give them a good reason to shell out for tickets and make the trip to Athens.
And if, as many SEC observers surmise, Kirby Smart gets his way and the Georgia-Florida series ends up leaving Jacksonville and going home-and-home — or, at least, adding Athens and Gainesville to a rotation with Jacksonville — the Dawgs’ home schedule will get even more attractive.
The current deal with Jacksonville expires after this year, with the option to extend it through 2025. Smart would prefer to go home-and-home, for recruiting purposes.
While Smart has acknowledged that money is a factor — the two schools get paid more for playing in Jacksonville than they’d make with an every-other-year home game — he said recently: “I firmly believe that we’ll be able to sign better players by having it as a home-and-home, because we’ll have more opportunities to get them to campus.”
Although the conference realignment should improve the level of games played Between the Hedges for the long haul, one of its short-term ramifications was the worsening of the Dawgs’ 2023 slate of opponents.
Originally, Georgia was to have a road game against Oklahoma as part of a home-and-home deal, but, because of the impending scheduling fruit basket turnover as the Sooners and Longhorns prepare to join the conference, the SEC told Georgia to cancel that series. Georgia also had a home-and-home series with Texas in 2028-29 that has been scrapped.
Reportedly, there was some talk of moving the 2023 Oklahoma game to a neutral site, but that didn’t go very far, and the Dawgs ended up signing the Ball State Cardinals of the Mid-America Conference to visit Athens on Sept. 9.
Throw in the Sept. 2 season opener against the UT Martin Skyhawks, an FCS team that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, and a quick return engagement on Sept. 23 for the UAB Blazers of the American Athletic Conference (who were just beaten 56-7 by UGA in Athens in 2021) and you have easily the worst opening stand of home games for the Dawgs in recent memory, broken up only by a Sept. 16 conference game against South Carolina.
The remainder of the 2023 home schedule will bring Kentucky (Oct. 7), Mizzou on Nov. 4 and Ole Miss on Nov. 11 — not exactly the sort of lineup that season ticket holders dream about.
“It’s unfortunate,” Brooks said after the athletic board’s fall meeting. “I understand the need and the want for bigger games at home. We just got stuck in a situation where there weren’t a lot of options.”
The result is that Georgia will rank 63rd this season in terms of strength of schedule. It’s one of the reasons just about everyone is penciling the Dawgs in for another trip to the College Football Playoff.
In fact, as one writer for Athlon Sports put it: “It’ll be embarrassing if the Dawgs don’t return to the playoff next season.”
However, while the conference slate looks to improve significantly from a fan standpoint starting in 2024, there so far has been no confirmation from UGA that previously announced deals for home-and-home games with the big-name Power 5 marquee opponents that Smart so desires — including UCLA, Florida State, Louisville, Ohio State, Clemson and North Carolina State — actually will happen as planned under the new scheduling plan. Brooks said all of that is pending how the expanded SEC schedule turns out.
I’m optimistic, though, that most of those games will happen, since Smart is on record as wanting a top-tier Power 5 opponent for one of the nonconference games in as many seasons as possible.
Some nonconference games will have to be shed in order to accommodate that extra SEC opponent, but one would hope that it’ll be the likes of Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay and Western Kentucky that get canceled.
Let’s just hope no one in the athletic association somehow gets the idea that the SEC adding a ninth conference game would make it OK to keep bringing those less appealing directional schools and FCS opponents to Athens for two of the three nonconference games that will remain (Georgia Tech is pretty much a lock to be the third).
And, if anyone does consider going with two cupcakes per season (not counting Tech), rather than bringing in top-level nonconference opponents, let’s hope that Smart quickly disabuses them of that benighted notion.
ONE MORE TIME ON THE STEG
Talk about timing. A little over three days after I marked Stegeman Coliseum’s 59th birthday by sharing Dawgs fans’ favorite memories from the venerable arena, it had to be closed temporarily after a palm-sized piece of concrete fell from the roof — the third time since 2018 something like that has happened.
Of course, that brought out the Stegesaurus-haters, who have maintained for years that UGA’s basketball program never will amount to anything as long as it plays its games in a 10,523-seat venue that opened in 1964.
Oh, please. Using the fact that a small piece of concrete flaked off the roof as your argument for abandoning the Steg — and spending many millions on a replacement — is like arguing that the even older Sanford Stadium should be replaced, because the toilets in the original portions tend to overflow and send stinking water out into the concourses, which are too narrow anyway, by modern fire code standards.
I’ll reiterate a point I made in my earlier piece: The age and size of your arena does not determine the success of your basketball program, as Duke continues to prove with its Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is smaller and older than the Steg.
Prospects do not sign with a college basketball program because it has a shiny new venue; they sign with it because a) they think that it will allow them to hone their game for a year or two, giving them a great springboard to an NBA career; and b) while they’re in school, they might win some sort of championship ring, and, now, pick up some NIL money.
Having a coach who can recruit top talent (and, for UGA, that means being able to recruit metro Atlanta), who also has good game strategy, and, most important of all, who can keep his players from quitting (literally and figuratively) is what will get you a shot at March Madness.
The answer to what ails Georgia basketball isn’t building a bigger, off-campus roundball palace that seats 20,000 — but is likely to see a lot more empty seats if the program doesn’t manage to take an accompanying leap in proficiency and consistency.
Discussing Stegeman this week, UGA men’s basketball coach Mike White shot down the idea that the age of the arena his team plays in is a handicap in recruiting: “I’ve only been here a year, not even a year yet,” he said, “and if we’ve missed on a recruit, it hasn’t been because of Stegeman.”
So, here’s hoping UGA fixes whatever needs fixing at the basketball arena that it currently has (Stegeman belongs to the university, not the athletic association), which also is home to gymnastics and volleyball.
Once the roof is fixed, Stegeman should be perfectly capable of providing an enthusiastic, noisy home-court advantage for years to come — assuming that the teams UGA puts out on the court are good enough to draw such fan support.
Build the program, not a shiny new arena, and they will come. If UGA starts to win big consistently in basketball, then perhaps a place with more seats will be needed one day. Until then, the occasional upgrading of the Steg should suffice.
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