The announcement this past week that UGA bought out its scheduled 2021 game against San Jose State in Athens in order to play Clemson in a neutral-site game in Charlotte has a lot of fans excited (which couldn’t be said about the now-dropped matchup with the Spartans of the Mountain West conference). The addition of national powerhouse Clemson to next year’s schedule justifiably has drawn praise across the college football landscape.
The bold move is part of the aggressive upgrading of the Dawgs’ nonconference schedule that head coach Kirby Smart and his football operations director, Josh Lee, have spearheaded over the past couple of years.
The results so far have been impressive. Georgia has previously announced home-and-home series scheduled with Texas (2028 at Austin and 2029 in Athens), UCLA (2025 in Pasadena and 2026 in Athens), Florida State (2027 in Tallahassee and 2028 in Athens), Oklahoma (2023 in Norman and 2031 in Athens) and Ohio State (2030 in Athens and 2031 in Columbus). Plus a pair of home-and-home series with Clemson (2029 at Clemson and 2030 in Athens, and 2032 in Athens and 2033 at Clemson), and three other neutral-site Power 5 games at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium: this year against Virginia, 2022 vs. Oregon, and 2024 vs. Clemson.
(It was amusing to read one national site’s estimation that Georgia-Clemson “is about to become a bit of a rivalry.” Obviously, they don’t know the tremendous history of the
Georgia-Clemson series, which dates back to 1897 and included a long stretch of meeting every year. In fact, I feel safe in saying that, Jacksonville included, Georgia-Clemson was the Dawgs’ hottest rivalry in the early ’80s, with the peak being the 1982 game, which was nationally televised and played on Labor Day. It was the first night game to take place in Sanford Stadium in three decades, and it featured not only two Top 10 teams, but also the two most recent national champions.)
As a longtime proponent of more games against the Tigers, I’m especially pleased that this gives Georgia and Clemson six games scheduled over the next 14 years, a vast improvement over the two-games-a-decade pattern they’d fallen into after the expansion of the SEC ended the annual meetings of the two programs located about 80 miles apart.
The Dawgs and the Cats have met only eight times since 1987, with the most recent being 2014, when a Georgia win Between the Hedges avenged a loss at Clemson a year earlier.
The addition of this game serves Clemson’s interests as well, as the ACC powerhouse is looking to upgrade its nonconference schedules, since its weak conference opposition has been the subject of much griping nationally as the Tigers have become a regular participant in the College Football Playoff.
UGA has turned heads across the country with its aggressive Power 5 scheduling over the coming decade and a half, and I’m all for it. As Athletic Director Greg McCarity told me this time last year, “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.”
So, in other words, only one “cupcake” per season (as opposed to 2018, when Georgia had three such games in Athens).
As I said then, it’s an ambitious — and somewhat daunting — schedule model. But, McGarity said, “That’s our goal. Kirby is all about playing a tough schedule and playing quality opponents.”
As McGarity said in a statement announcing the 2021 Clemson game, “We will now have at least two Power 5 opponents on our schedule through 2033.” That will give the Dawgs at least 10 regular-season games each year against Power 5 conference teams (including the eight SEC games).
This also means that Georgia will open away from Athens in a high-profile neutral-site game three years running: this season against Virginia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, 2021 in Charlotte, and back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2022 to meet Oregon in another Chick-fil-A game.
Still, despite all that, there’s definitely room for improvement in Georgia’s home scheduling. Just look at the 2021 season, which had a pretty weak lineup for fans in Athens even before they dropped the San Jose State game. Now, the six remaining games in Athens will consist of South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, UAB and Charleston Southern, the latter another FCS opponent from the level of Division 1 NCAA football below the bowl division.
That’s not as dire as the 2018 season, which saw a nonconference lineup of Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass in addition to Tech, but it’s definitely nothing to get excited about.
I recognize that the filling out of the nonconference schedule with so-called “cupcakes” is something of a necessary evil in college football, since Power 5 opponents usually demand a return game in a home-and-home deal. And, with the Dawgs filling one spot each year with Georgia Tech and looking to add a second Power 5 opponent each year, you expect the two remaining nonconference games to be a bit less challenging.
Also, not all cupcakes are equal. Opponents taken from the Group of 5 conferences that rank just below the Power 5 range from true cupcakes to something more akin to college basketball’s “mid-majors.” (Maybe, if we’re going to continue the food-related terminology for opponents you pay handsomely to come be a sacrificial lamb, we should call these teams something other than a cupcake. Let’s borrow from the QuickTrip chain and call them “snackles.”)
The true cupcakes tend to be programs along the lines of Louisiana-Monroe (on this year’s schedule), UMass and Western Kentucky.
Unfortunately, Georgia seems to be relying a bit too much on the allowance that schools at its level can count one game a season against FCS opponents, who really aren’t even up to cupcake level. Let’s call them “bon-bons.”
Looking at upcoming schedules, we see these bon-bons coming to Athens: East Tennessee State in 2020, Charleston Southern in 2021, Samford in 2022, Tennessee Tech in 2024, and the return of Austin Peay in 2025.
Asking UGA fans shell out for tickets and travel to Athens, dealing with the attendant traffic and parking headaches, to see such games is a bit much. That’s especially true for those of us who contribute to the Hartman Fund for the chance to buy season tickets.
I thought it was noteworthy that, as part of the Georgia-Clemson scheduling musical chairs, Southern Cal was able to dump UC Davis and pick up San Jose State, meaning it will maintain its status of never having played an FCS opponent. (Only three Football Bowl Subdivision programs have never played a team from the FCS in football — Notre Dame, UCLA and USC.)
Really, it would suit me if Georgia never again added another FCS opponent to its schedule — with the exception of Yale, which I still would love to see come back to Athens in 2029 to mark the centennial of the Georgia-Yale clash that dedicated Sanford Stadium. Unfortunately, as UGA told me last year, they tried to schedule Yale for 2029, but the Ivy League school wasn’t interested.
But, the Yalies aside, I’d like to see Smart and Lee focusing more on the Group of 5 than the FCS. And, maybe, they could give some thought to opponents at that level that have some regional interest. (Besides Georgia Southern, which has shown up occasionally on UGA schedules in recent decades, a game against Georgia State would be of much greater interest to fans. And, as Tennessee found out last year, the Panthers aren’t to be taken too lightly.)
There’s another reason UGA ought to be thinking about an upgrading of its non-Power 5 opponents: attendance. Figures showing actual attendance at Sanford Stadium released by UGA show that lower-tier opponents tend to put fewer folks in the stands, sinking as low as 56,065 for Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016. In the 2018 season, the most recent for which real attendance (as opposed to paid attendance) figures have been released, Austin Peay brought only 78,050 to Sanford for the season-opener, and only 67,764 attended the UMass game.
So, yeah, the seats may have been sold, but in an era when every game is televised, the fact that quite a few fans aren’t bothering to show up for such games should send a message that such cupcakes aren’t really what the UGA fan base wants to see.
Like I said, overall, I’m very pleased with the aggressive scheduling Georgia has undertaken at the Power 5 level, but I’d like to see the rest of the nonconference schedule be less of a snoozefest.