Tide, Tigers Need To Follow Georgia’s Lead
By Matt Smith
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Let’s all thank Georgia for taking a calculated risk and scheduling two games that will move the meter as much as any SEC non-conference game has. Hopefully the rest of the league’s powers aren’t far behind.
Wednesday’s announcement that Georgia and Notre Dame would play a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2019 was a win for not just fans of the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish, but for all college football fans.
Georgia will make its first visit north of the Mason-Dixon Line since a 1965 win at Michigan when it travels to South Bend on Sept. 9, 2017. Two years later, Notre Dame will play its first game in the state of Georgia since 2006 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Instances of major non-conference games on campus sites have become increasingly rare with the lure of seven-figure guarantees from neutral-site games such as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, the Cowboys Classic in Dallas and the Texas Kickoff in Houston. Alabama will open the 2014 in Atlanta (and 2015 in Dallas), with LSU opening in Houston that same day.
While the SEC mandated that each team play one major-conference opponent annually beginning in 2016, there were no restrictions on where the games would be played. Last year, Alabama dropped a home-and-home series with Michigan State in 2016 and 2017 in order to increase flexibility to add future neutral-site games while maintaining seven home games in Tuscaloosa.
The problem lies within that spin from coaches and athletic directors. The “we need seven home games” shield that athletic directors hide behind when discussing scheduling is hyperbole. Yes, six home games every year doesn’t balance the budget. But in some years? It can be done.
A neutral-site game should not prevent Alabama from also playing a non-conference road game. Georgia has played just six games in Athens in 2009, 2011, 2013 and will do so in 2017 with games at Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. In these years, Georgia has a 6-5-1 schedule (6-4-2 in 2011) with the annual game against Florida in Jacksonville.
If Alabama wants to play neutral-site games every year, as they will have six times in eight years between 2008 and 2015, that’s fine. But it can also schedule a home-and-home on top of that and still host 13 games at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a two-year period. Georgia has mostly done this since the FBS went to 12-game schedules in 2006 without suffering financial damage.
The Crimson Tide are far from the only culprit in the SEC. Auburn does not have a non-conference road game scheduled following its September trip to Kansas State. The Tigers are going the neutral-site route in 2015 for the second time in four years, opening against Louisville at the Georgia Dome. Neither the Tide nor Tigers have fulfilled their obligations to schedule major-conference opponents, with only “Group of Five” teams scheduled from 2016 forward.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban told CBSSports.com last month that the series with Michigan State was dropped because the Spartans were not interested in playing the Crimson Tide at a neutral site. Financially, Alabama can absorb the costs without significant financial ramifications. Is Saban simply avoiding road games against marquee non-conference opponents? That would contradict his longtime desire to have power-conference teams play only other power-conference teams.
Auburn has been even less forthcoming with its future scheduling plans. Athletic director Jay Jacobs said in April that he had been holding off on scheduling games past 2015 until the SEC determined its future scheduling format, which was agreed upon and announced this spring.
Like Alabama, but unlike Georgia and three other SEC East teams, Auburn does not have a rivalry game against a power-conference opponent outside of the SEC. In theory, this would make the Tide and Tigers more likely than Georgia to schedule a team like Notre Dame. But Wednesday proved otherwise.
While strength of schedule is (and was in the BCS era) a factor in determining who plays in the College Football Playoff, its value and impact are more arbitrary now that a selection committee rather than a mathematical formula will conduct the ranking of the teams. How much additional value are teams with two highly competitive non-conference games given as opposed to teams with just one?
Those are unknowns until at least Dec. 7, when the selection committee’s final rankings for the 2014 season will be revealed. What is known is that Georgia is still maintaining an aggressive scheduling philosophy above and beyond what the league now requires of it.
LSU (Syracuse, UCLA, Arizona State, Oklahoma) and Texas A&M (Oregon, UCLA) have scheduled multiple road trips to imposing venues in the coming years (h/t FBschedules.com). Alabama and Auburn? Crickets.
As passionate as Alabama fans are, they’ll eventually grow tired of going to sterile NFL venues in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta when they could make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Lincoln, Ann Arbor, Austin or Seattle. Neutral-site games aren’t going away, but they need to be either less frequent, in the case of Alabama, or supplemented with home-and-homes in most years.
Georgia has debunked the notion, many times over, that a season with six home games is a season without profit. That’s a safeguard that athletic departments should no longer be able to hide behind.
Play your neutral-site games with $125 tickets and alcohol sales and luxury suites galore, Alabama and Auburn. But go play a road game sometime too. It won’t ruin you. You might even have half of an opponent’s stadium in your colors, as Nebraska fans famously did when the Cornhuskers made their first trip to Notre Dame in 53 years in 2000.
For now, let’s all thank Georgia for taking a calculated risk and scheduling two games that will move the meter as much as any SEC non-conference game has. Hopefully the rest of the league’s powers aren’t far behind.