ATHENS — I have some thoughts on all this scheduling talk I’ve been hearing lately. Mainly, it’s that coaches and athletics directors need to stop whining.
To the credit of Georgia AD Greg McGarity, he’s not whining. As for his peers over at Auburn, the Bulldogs might want to send over a box of tissues.
Auburn AD Allen Greene came out last week and said at a TD Club meeting he’d like to move their game against Georgia to earlier in the season to give the Tigers’ “a little breathing room” in their November schedule. Seems he doesn’t like having to play both the Bulldogs and Alabama within three weeks of each other every year.
Poor Tigers. Having to play two rival games in the same month? How cruel.
Asked about the same thing, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said he’d prefer if they didn’t have to play Georgia and Alabama as away games in the same season. That, of course, was juxtaposed in 2012 when the SEC welcomed in Missouri and Texas A&M to the league.
So would Georgia, by the way. Actually, the Bulldogs were the ones who got screwed over on that deal.
In order to expand to 14 teams, the SEC needed a few of its existing members to adjust their schedules so that everybody could end up with four home and four away games to accommodate an eight-game conference slate. Georgia and Auburn were among the four teams to get caught up in that, and the Bulldogs were asked to play Auburn on the road for a second straight year in 2013.
Georgia fans might recall that game. It was given a name afterward — “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”
The Bulldogs didn’t like that much. They have wondered, aloud at times, if it might be allowed to switch the home-and-away rotation back in that series. Because, like Auburn, Georgia ends up having to play Auburn and Georgia Tech on the road in the same years.
But while fans on both sides have complained a lot about that arrangement, Georgia’s McGarity hasn’t. Well, at least not publicly.
“Sure, if you’re asking me if I’d like to play Auburn at home two years in a row, yes, I’d love that,” McGarity told me this week. “But we don’t make that decision. That decision is made by the conference, and that’s not going to happen unless there’s a reason for it to happen, like if you added two more teams or something. So unless there’s some kind of seismic movement like that, it’s not going to happen. …
“Being in a conference, sometimes you have to do what’s best for the conference.”
I’m reminded here of the way it used to be. Forgotten by many, and certainly unknown to millennials, was a time when Georgia used to play Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech — its three biggest rivals at the time — in succession at the end of the season every year. The Bulldogs did that for 42 years from 1954 to 1995, which spanned the tenures of Wally Butts, Johnny Griffith, Vince Dooley and Ray Goff. There was one exception, in 1958, when Georgia slipped The Citadel in between the Auburn and Tech games (and won 76-0, by the way).
Dooley, who had that setup for the bulk of his 25-year tenure as head coach, didn’t complain about that arrangement. Instead, he embraced it. He said the teams that could come through the gauntlet unscathed were truly great. And the ones that did — and there weren’t that many, really — truly were.
Fast forward to expansion and the onset of divisional play in 1992. Dooley, now full-time AD, politicked for some separation there at the end of the Bulldogs’ schedule. And he got it, eventually.
But you know what happened? The SEC stuck Ole Miss between Auburn and Tech. The Rebels, by the way, were actually pretty good at the time. Be careful what you wish for, right? Then Ole Miss rolled off and Kentucky rolled into that spot. Most of the time, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Other times they were. Who knew UK would be the SEC East’s second-best team this season?
Auburn might want to think about that as the SEC busies itself right now to finalize the 2020 schedule.
Dooley also sought to get Georgia a bye the week before the Florida game, something the Gators used to great effect in the 1990s. That didn’t happen until 2007, and then didn’t happen every season until 2013. It’s now a semi-permanent off week in the Bulldogs’ schedule. But the emphasis there should be on “semi.”
Speaking of the Florida game, you’ve no doubt heard Kirby Smart’s complaints about the Bulldogs (and Florida) losing a recruiting weekend by playing in Jacksonville. And they do. NCAA rules prevent teams from hosting recruits at neutral-site games.
But what’s unspoken there is the inherent recruiting advantages that both teams enjoy by being one of only two conference games nationwide at a permanent neutral site (Oklahoma-Texas being the other) and always having a CBS national 3:30 p.m. broadcast awaiting them there.
Over and above all that is the financial side of things. Smart is definitely “The Man” at the moment and he has done some great things to raise the football program to another level. But he still answers to a president, an AD and a board of directors. And the facts regarding the Florida game are this: Georgia (and Florida) get $3 million a year to play in Jacksonville in the current deal that runs through 2021. That means they clear — all their expenses are paid — $6 million every two years.
To play that game home-and-home, Georgia would make $3.2 million when it plays at Sanford Stadium but lose about $500,000 when it played in Gainesville. So that’s $2.7 million every two years as opposed to $6 million. That’s some difference-making money, and not just for the football program, but for the 20 other sports teams the Bulldogs field.
And don’t get me started about the “travel concerns.” The fact is, Georgia, which flies directly out of Athens Ben Epps Airport via Delta charters, gets from its campus to its hotel in Jacksonville as quick if not quicker than does Florida, which buses 80 miles from Gainesville to St. Augustine or Sawgrass. There’s no advantage or disadvantage.
The message is this: Schedules are made years in advance and rarely does everybody get everything they want. Which teams everybody plays in the SEC is set through 2025. The reason you’re hearing some talk about it now is all the posturing and politicking over the 2020 schedules is being waged right now between the respective ADs. That is usually conducted behind the scenes and not in a public forum.
Every team has things they don’t like about their schedule. You can be sure that Georgia doesn’t love that it has to play Tennessee and Vanderbilt back-to-back at home or on the road every year. But then, the Bulldogs probably aren’t crazy about opening next season with a road game at Vandy. But that’s what had to happen as the SEC office slid the tiles around to arrange something that was fair and equitable for its 14-team membership.
When the SEC came to Georgia saying it’d need the Bulldogs to play at Auburn in back-to-back years, you can bet UGA did so grudgingly and only after being convinced there was no other way to make it work. And they were convinced of that, eventually.
“Every AD advocates whatever is desirable for their coach and their program,” McGarity said. “But there are so many complications to making it work for everybody.”
The bottom line is you’ve got to play somebody. It bears mentioning that Georgia has won four of its last six games against Auburn, the last one coming in last year’s SEC title game.
Wherever and whenever games are played, might as well win it if you can, right?