If you truly believe that Georgia football should be considered one of the nation’s elite programs, then the positives in UGA’s recent efforts to upgrade its nonconference football schedule far outweigh any possible downside.
Yes, it’s true, as some fans have fretted, that Kirby Smart’s goal of the Dawgs playing three Power 5 nonconference teams each season might give them a tougher road to a national championship, by making it more difficult to win 11 or 12 games in the regular season.
However, the Smart-driven move away from cupcake-laden schedules (like last year’s embarrassing home slate) actually might improve the chances of an on-the-bubble Georgia team making the College Football Playoff in the future.
It also will give Georgia fans — particularly those who shell out big bucks for season tickets — more value for our money, likely helping keep UGA’s attendance figures among the healthiest, despite an overall slippage in the number of folks going to college football games. Average college football attendance has fallen in seven of the past nine seasons, and Georgia doesn’t want to become part of that trend.
As college football columnist Stewart Mandel put it, the main reason for scheduling tougher opponents “is that schools have come to the realization that you can’t schedule three nobodies and just assume 90,000 people will still come to each game.”
Also, if the plaudits generated nationally by Georgia’s recent aggressive scheduling are any example, the program’s status will be enhanced greatly. And, being considered among college football’s elite programs never hurts in the polls — and when it comes time for the playoff selection committee to decide who gets a shot at being in the game’s final four, and who gets left out.
Georgia announced this week that the Bulldogs will travel to Norman on Sept. 9, 2023, to play Oklahoma, and the Sooners will play in Athens on Sept. 13, 2031. Georgia’s previously announced home-and-home series with Power 5 nonconference opponents include two with Clemson (2029 at Clemson and 2030 in Athens, and 2032 in Athens and 2033 at Clemson); Texas (2028 at Austin and 2029 in Athens); UCLA (2025 in Pasadena and 2026 in Athens); and Florida State (2027 in Tallahassee and 2028 in Athens). The Clemson games, in particular, are popular additions with the UGA fan base.
UGA also will play in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Virginia in 2020, Oregon in 2022 and Clemson in 2024.
Georgia isn’t finished, either. Seth Emerson of The Athletic reported Georgia is working on a home-and-home series with an ACC team for 2027 and either 2030 or 2031.
Georgia’s new approach is not unprecedented in college football, but it’s not that common, either. As the AJC’s Tim Tucker reported, according to FBSschedules.com, only 13 of 64 power-conference teams had two regular-season games against non-conference “power” opponents last season. No SEC team had two such regular-season games last season, and no team in any conference had three.
This is all in keeping with the born-again scheduling philosophy that athletic director Greg McGarity outlined for me when we talked back in February, saying “the scheduling model we’re moving to in the future will be built around eight conference games, and Tech, and two more Power 5’s and one non-Power 5 opponent. … That’s our goal. Kirby is all about playing a tough schedule and playing quality opponents.”
So, in other words, only one lower-level opponent per season (as opposed to 2018, when Georgia had three such games in Athens).
It was, in fact, refreshing to hear Smart himself talking with some disdain recently about the sort of nonconference opponents (besides Tech) that Georgia faced last season, referring to them as “little sisters of the poor games,” and “cupcakes” — terminology you usually don’t hear from head coaches, who tend to talk more like diplomats.
Smart told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum that he thinks scheduling tougher nonconference opponents is “where college football is going. I think that’s where TV is going. We want to be the center of attention. We want to play in those big games.”
Of course, that means tougher games. As one fan said in a discussion this past week on my Facebook page, “I see the value in tough schedules but I am starting to worry that UGA’s sked will be so tough that it’s going to be really hard to not have a couple losses every year and if that’s the case, no college football playoff spot.”
Maybe, maybe not. If they make it to the conference championship, lose it, and have one other loss that’s to a Power 5 team, it wouldn’t necessarily rule them out (depending on the records of the other teams in contention for a playoff spot). Particularly if the other loss is an early one.
Smart put it this way to Finebaum, “Yeah, it may hurt us one year, but it may help us one year. That’s the goal — for us to get into the College Football Playoff.”
And, as another fan noted, by the time Georgia plays most of these Power 5 opponents, the playoff very likely will have been expanded to eight teams, meaning two losses to top teams probably won’t be a problem. (An eight-team setup also will make it easier for two teams from one conference to make it into the playoff.)
Said Smart in talking to reporters about the schedule changes, “I think there will be two-loss (playoff) teams in the future; if they’ve got a really tough schedule they’ll be able to make it.”
Plus, he said, “If you’re going to recruit the finest players in the country out of your own state, and across the country … They come to college to play big games. … They want to play the best teams, so we want to schedule the best teams.”
Basically, Smart and Co. are playing the long game with this scheduling upgrade.
Of course, as DawgNation’s Chip Towers noted, it’s going to take a while for the big names to start showing up Between the Hedges after this year’s visit by Notre Dame, a result of nonconference scheduling being done quite a few years in advance these days. Between 2019 and 2026, there currently aren’t any Power 5 nonconference opponents scheduled in Athens other than Georgia Tech.
Older fans worry they won’t get to enjoy this new golden age of nonconference play, at least in person. As one fan said on Facebook, “Hopefully, I’m still alive in 2031.” Another added that, even if he is around, “I’ll be too old to go.”
Already, though, Georgia’s scheduling moves are turning heads nationally, which also is a good thing when it comes to recruiting (always Smart’s chief concern), as well as the inherent advantage of being considered one of those elite programs that ought to be in the playoff conversation every year.
The headline on a Yahoo Sports column by Dan Wetzel summed it up nicely:
“College football, take note: Georgia is showing you how scheduling should be done.”