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Monday, August 31, 2009

Has Damon Doomed the Dawgs?

The grand plan seemed to make enough sense at the time. When the NCAA added a 12th game to the regular season, Damon Evans decided Georgia should add a big(ger)-name non-regional game to fill its annual slate. The idea behind the theory was that the games would garner national attention and help Georgia market itself beyond the Southeast.

Again, in theory, it was a win-win scenario. From a business standpoint, fans who had never been within 1,000 miles of Sanford Stadium would have a chance to see Georgia up close and personal, and maybe become fans of the Bulldogs along the way. From a TV standpoint, Georgia would be in line to headline the day's slate of games thanks to a matchup with national appeal. And from a football standpoint, the games would help Mark Richt and company widen the team's recruiting base.

In theory, it made sense. But with with easily the biggest of these supposed marquee matchups looming in Stillwater, Okla. in five days, has it really worked?

That probably depends on who you ask.

For one, the games haven't exactly lived up to the national billing. Last year's Arizona State trip was a lot of fun for the fans, but after the Sun Devils lost to UNLV the week before, the matchup lost much of its national appeal. As it turned out, the rest of Arizona State's season went down the toilet, too, meaning the win didn't even register as a particularly impressive one for Georgia by year's end either.

What did register was the inconvenience of making the trip.

"One of the biggest issues with it, just living through the Arizona State travel, that’s a tough trip to fly all the way over there and come back and be ready to keep grinding. The travel part is tougher than who you’re playing,” Richt said. “If all these teams we wanted to play would always come to Sanford Stadium or even Atlanta for that matter, I think it would be better for us.”

Richt has made no bones about saying he thinks the scheduling hasn't particularly worked in Georgia's favor, and while its hard to pin too much of the blame on the travel, Georgia did fall behind 31-0 in the first half of its next game after the ASU trip.

Of course, Richt's viewing the schedule from the perspective of a football coach, and Evans is obviously taking more of a business approach. On that level, he said, there's no questioning the success of the plan.

"It was an exciting time at Arizona State," Evans said. "I haven’t met a person yet who said it wasn’t a great trip, who said it wasn’t a great game. I remember Kirk Herbstreit saying, 'This is what Georgia needs to do.' I’ve always believed that and I will continue to believe that we need to continue to step out of this region. That’s why Oklahoma State, that’s why Arizona State, that’s why Colorado. Some might say, 'Damon, it’s too tough.' Maybe it is, but I’m not so sure. When you schedule those games, you don’t know how it’s going to play out. I know we’re in a tough conference but I want to get around and help grow that presence nationally, and I have confidence in us to be able to compete and beat those opponents, so that’s the route I’m going to continue to go.”

Evans may deem the tough scheduling as a win for Georgia, but the only wins that really count are the ones in the standings, and fans are getting a little tired of looking up at Florida -- a team that has made no bones about keeping a manageable schedule.

"Do we wake up and say, (UF AD) Jeremy (Foley) and I sit down, let's put together the most difficult schedule in college football? Absolutely not," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "We have some great rivalries within the state. We're going to do that. There's not a whole lot of discussion about going out. Once again, our scheduling philosophy is we want to play at least one big time program. That's built in our schedule every year. Sometimes when you see USC play Ohio State, that's their big one. We already have FSU. Then we'll try every couple years to get another one in there. That's kind of what we've done."

That might be a valid point if Florida State had been a remotely "big" opponent at any point during Meyer's tenure, but that simply hasn't been the case. Still, it's a big-name opponent and the talent level on the field at FSU certainly takes its toll on the Gators.

Only... it doesn't really. That games ends the regular season for Florida, meaning the wear and tear of playing a top-tier opponent would only really be felt in a potential SEC title game (and yes, the Gators looked a bit "off" in the first half of last year's SEC championship) before the team got a month off to relax and recuperate before its bowl game.

That could be true for Georgia, too, but Evans isn't putting Georgia Tech in the same category as Florida State.

"In Florida, they have two teams (Florida State and Miami) who have historically competed for national championships that they play," Evans said. "We haven’t had that in-state rival that’s been at that high of a level."

Food for thought for those Tech fans who sit and wait patiently for each new AJC blog to post so they can immediately add a snarky comment.

But there's also this argument from Evans: If you win tough games, it gives you a clearer path to the national championship.

"What big games do for you is give you national exposure in the voters mind, so that’s what I hope these games will do for us," Evans said. "I don’t think it will backfire."

Oh no?

Well, it seems odd then that many of those voters are the ones penning preseason prognostications that say things like, "If Florida gets past its lone tough game at LSU, a national title seems a near certainty" and "The winner of Texas-Oklahoma will almost surely play for the national championship."

That's three teams that each play essentially one marquee opponent all year (at least "marquee" in the sense that the writers seem to be applying the term) and they're getting a free pass to a national title shot.

But let's take this scenario: If Georgia loses to Florida by 3, but Florida loses to LSU by 10, and both teams win the rest of their games -- including the Bulldogs' season opener against Oklahoma State -- both would have one loss, but the Gators would go to the SEC title game. Do you think there's any chance that Georgia would then play for a national championship over Florida? Hey, beating Oklahoma State in 2007 sure didn't help put the Bulldogs past a two-loss LSU team.

The bottom line is that the scheduling has been a business decision, and even that is only true if your business's mission statement doesn't begin with: Win football games.

I'm in no way suggesting Georgia shouldn't have a challenging schedule, but life in the SEC with an annual matchup against Georgia Tech is pretty challenging. That's the way Richt sees it, too.

And even if you want to award some bonus points for appealing to a broader audience, the fact remains that the new SEC TV deal with ESPN tends to negate that argument, too.

“The plan was never to have Oklahoma State and Arizona State and Georgia Tech," Richt said. "That was never the plan. We did it because we wanted to do it for the fans and to get out of the Southeast region, but living through it is a little bit tougher. We had enough to get Georgia out there, but now it’s every game, every SEC game at least.”

In the end, winning SEC and national championships broadens your national allure. Losing in Stillwater -- or perhaps more likely, at home to South Carolina a week later after an exhausting trip West -- doesn't make you a whole lot of new fans.

Evans has gone on record as saying he wants Georgia to emulate the success Florida has achieved. That just doesn't seem to apply when it comes to scheduling.

ADDENDUM: I'll have more on this in a little bit, but for those touting the worthiness of the schedule, here's one other note to consider...

In the five out-of-region games Georgia has played since 2005 (Okla. State, Ariz. State, Central Mich., Colorado, Boise State), the Bulldogs are 5-0 in those games, with only the Colorado game being remotely close.

But look ahead one week. In Georgia's next game after playing a non-region opponent, the Bulldogs are just 3-2, with all three wins coming by 7 points or less (and if you remember any of those three wins, you know they all could easily have been losses).

That simply underscores what both Richt and I are saying: It's not necessarily about the final score against the tough opponent, it's about the toll it takes to play them.


IveyLeaguer said...

I'm OK as long as they're very careful with it. You have to pay strict attention to logistics and what it will add to the grind, that week and overall. But it can be done.

This year is a good example of NOT being careful with it.


Dawg Stephen said...

If we were trying to copy Florida, then we would schedule high school teams like they did. I think the schedule is very tough, but win and you are REWARDED HUGE. the 2010 schedule makes up for the toughness this year.

Wait and see, Georgia will get credit for playing this schedule a lot more than others for their weak ones.

PNWDawg said...

I'd like to see more schedules like this year even if it means we may lose a few. I detest watching the Dawgs play high school teams. For me I would much rather us finish in the top 5 having played a really tough schedule vs. winning a BCS title by beating up on some cupcakes. I acknowledge playing the conference schedule is tough but some years not as much. Add in a few teams like Charleston Southern and it's not so impressive. Look at Notre Shame. If they win them all they deserve a cookie and that's about it.

Fatboy said...

I like the game. I also don't see any difference in flying to Oklahoma as opposed to Arkansas or Baton Rouge. It's just another 45 mins. on the plane each way. Now Arizona is an extra couple of hours, but travel is still behind the time change and the heat as a factor.

Of course, if you are going to play Coastal Carolina and make them come to your place, that IS easier. The only "in between" is to play ACC teams, but I don't think you get any credit for beating them and they CAN beat you sometimes. Big East teams are just as far away, though mostly in the same time zone but still you don't get any cred for whomping Syracuse. The Big Ten won't play you because they have there on big conference schedule.

If you are going big time, it's going to have to be the Big 12 or Pac-10.

The Realist said...

I think there is hidden value in scheduling tough teams year after year. In any given season (like this one) the schedule may become over-the-top, but if Georgia develops a reputation as a national team that will play anybody anywhere, then that will carry more cache with voters and recruits even when the schedule isn't as tough.

stebla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stebla said...

The most ridiculous part of the scheduling is that we have to travel to Fayetteville, AR two weeks after the OSU trip. That makes S.C. a sandwich game between two really long trips.

You want maybe one long trip a year and we have two within three weeks this season. This smacks of carelessness.

Gen. Stoopnagle said...

So... I read the later post before this one. David, excellent work here.

I love the trips to Arizona and Colorado. Those are places to go. Stillwater... meh. Not so much. Hard to get enthusiastic about it from a trip perspective (likewise with L'ville), but the match-up will serve it's purpose if we win and OSU actually threatens UT and/or OU.

In the end, beat UF, win marquee games in the league (like LSU this year) and who we play OOC is no big deal.

Up until '08, I would have suggested putting Tech on the Clemson rotation - or at least playing tech every other year or something to get the premier OOC game in. Not now though.

Lucas said...

I'm looking forward to the Georgia/Oregon series in 2015/2016.

The game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene is going to be alot of fun, esp for the Dawg Faithful. I was there for the Oregon/Arizona State game in 07 (GameDay) and it lives up to it's billing as the loudest stadium in the country.

I don't think the Duck fans are ready for Sanford Stadium though. Yea they've played at the "Big House", but for me, Michigan is overrated.

Brock said...

Great post David. I whole-heartedly agree with yours and CMR's sentiments. Some say if Georgia plays a weaker opponent (i.e. Georgia Southern, Troy, etc.) then it's a lose-lose because if you win it's expected and if you lose, it's crushing (remember Michigan - App State ca 2007?)

I have to disagree with this thought because in November voters won't care what the score of your non-conference opener was...they care if it was a "W" or a "L". You are exactly right that our SEC schedule is daunting enough without adding the extra pressure of more top 25 BCS teams.

As much notoriety as the SEC has gotten because of it's great teams and now with ESPN, I don't think you have to go out of conference to garner attention. Everyone in the country sure knows who Florida is, and playing Charleston Southern won't affect that one bit.

Drunk Obnoxious GA Fan said...

2007 is a perfect example actually. It's right that we did not get a lot of credit for playing OK state.

Then ask, who won the MNC in 2007? LSU. Who did they play out of conference? ACC champs VT. Beat them 48-7. That certainly had a significant impact on them getting in the MNC.

VT had a much better 07 season than OSU. LSU beat them more convincingly.