Earlier this week Georgia announced that it will play a home-and-home football series with Oklahoma. The Bulldogs will go to Norman (where they have never been) in 2023 with the Sooners coming to Athens (where they have never been) in 2031.
Oklahoma is the latest in a series of Power Five non-conference opponents that have committed to play Georgia in the future. That list includes Notre Dame (in Athens on Sept. 21 to return at game at South Bend in 2017), Virginia (2020 in Atlanta), Oregon (2022 in Athens), Clemson (2024 in Atlanta), UCLA (2025-26), Texas (2028-29), and Florida State (2027-28). Georgia also has two more home-and-homes with Clemson (2029-30, 2032-33).
Back in March I met with Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and director of athletics Greg McGarity. Both said the same thing about their philosophy in football scheduling moving forward. In addition to its eight SEC games and its annual rivalry game with Georgia Tech, Georgia wants to play two additional Power Five opponents. That’s 11 Power Five opponents out of 12 games, which is a significant departure from the vast majority of SEC schedules.
“This is the future,” said Smart.
But is it the future for everybody in the SEC?
Alabama’s Nick Saban has long been on record, and said it again when we met recently, that he would like to see the SEC go to nine conference games with three non-conference games all against Power Five opponents.
“It’s something we have to do for the good of the sport,” said Saban. “We have got to give people more quality games.”
The Alabama fans would certainly agree with that.
Alabama’s 2019 schedule is Exhibit A of what Saban says he and the Tide’s fans DON’T want. Using the preseason poll of ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, Alabama is scheduled to play only three teams in the Top 25 (No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 12 LSU, and No. 23 Auburn) during the regular season.
Alabama’s non-conference games this season are with Duke (8-5 last season), New Mexico State (3-9), Southern Mississippi (6-5), and an FCS team in Western Carolina (3-8).
Alabama’s scheduling philosophy under Saban has been to open the season with a Power Five non-conference opponent on a neutral site in order to pick up a big check and enhance recruiting. That will continue for the next three years as Alabama plays Duke in Atlanta on Aug. 31, USC in Arlington, Tex., in 2020, and Miami in Atlanta in 2021.
After that, however, Alabama begins a series of high-profile home-and-home series with Texas (2022-23), West Virginia (2026-27), Notre Dame (2028-29) and Oklahoma (2032-33).
And Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne told me earlier this week that he’s looking for more.
“They are hard to find,” he said.
Translation: A lot of folks don’t want to play Alabama.
Georgia and Alabama aren’t the only ones that believe the future of scheduling is in quality home-and-home series.
Florida announced Friday that it will play Texas in Gainesville in 2030 and then travel to Austin in 2031. Earlier in the week the Gators announced a home-and-home with Colorado (2028-29).
Auburn has future home-and-homes scheduled with Penn State (2021-22), California (2023-24), Baylor (2025-2026), and UCLA (2027-28).
LSU has future home-and-homes with Texas (2019-20), UCLA (2021 and 2024), Clemson (2025-26), Oklahoma (2027-28), and Arizona State (2029-30).
So what’s going on here? Why are SEC teams that for so long rarely played on the campus of a non-conference opponent now willing to hit the road? At least three things are in play here:
1—The College Football Playoff: This may be Georgia’s future and that of elite football programs like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State whose goal each year is to be in the national championship discussion. That championship tier of coaches knows they can probably get into the four-team playoffs with one loss. Getting in with two losses is not going to happen unless teams get more aggressive when it comes to non-conference scheduling. They also can get in with two losses if the field expands from four to eight teams. The quality of schedule will be an even bigger factor with an eight-team playoff.
But there is another tier of coaches and administrators who know they are not going to be in the discussion for the national championship. They want to get to a bowl game on a consistent basis which is good for job security. Getting those schools to step up their scheduling won’t be as easy.
2—Fans are tired of paying premium prices for cupcakes: With the improvement of technology, the in-home college football watching experience is pretty damned good. Fans are still packing the stadiums for the big games but aren’t going to invest the time and money it takes to watch the cupcakes. So the tickets may be sold but if there aren’t fannies in the seats then the money from concessions and memorabilia goes down.
So here’s a thought: If you want fans to come to the stadium then schedule better games.
3—Fans want new experiences: On Sept. 8, 2017 Georgia went to Notre Dame for the first time in history. Georgia fans literally invaded South Bend to the tune of 40,000.
“That opened a lot of eyes,” one SEC athletics director told me. “Give fans an experience they’ve never had before and they will travel.”
Keep in mind that seven of the eight SEC games each team plays remain the same every season. Only one rotates. Fans are bored and want something different.
You think Alabama fans will be excited to go to Texas in 2022? The Crimson Tide has not played in Austin since 1922 and only two times in history.