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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.


Meat said...

You're last two paragraphs sum up my thoughts. We want to be where Florida is. They recruit nationally and command national attention. They did it by winning and winning convincingly, not by scheduling fun opponents.

Anonymous said...

Great Post!!! I agree.

Chris said...

I much rather play a bigger team than a Tennessee Tech... Florida's 3 out of conference games other than FSU's are flat out boring and not fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

Well put!

Anonymous said...

Good argument but on playing the SEC the following week and losing or nearly losing, I disagree...if the out of area trip is so exhausting..given air travel..are the coaches keeping a firm hand on the players on Sunday and then, the coaches, being prepared from the get go on Monday to game plan the week's opponent or are they failing in their responsibilities. These are young, healthy players who should be able to respond to the nex week..don't give them an excuse of a tiring road're ready or not..champions don't get an easy road..they earn whatever laurels they get. If we beat OSU I expect the Dawgs to be ready for the Gamecocks..mentally and excuses for them or the coaches. This is what they do..prepare, plan and execute their schemes for the next opponent. Are maybe we should just play the next patsy that needs a payout...we're either championship caliber or not...NO EXCUSES....GATA DAWGS!! I believe you can do it!

Anonymous said...

Beating the crap out of 3 high school teams every year (see Florida's 2009 schedule) isn't the path I want to take to a MNC. I pay a lot of money to see UGA football and I'd much rather watch a compelling match up every week. Also, going to a non traditional OOC game is an awesome experience. I had a blast in Tempe last year, leave for OK Friday morning and already have a house reserved in Boulder.

aaaw_34 said...

David, I think you touched on the real problem. But its not the tough out of conference games. The fact is last year we played LSU (not their best team) then got waxed by Florida the next week. It appears we have trouble playing back to back tough games whether they are out or in conference.

Irwin R. Flecther said...

This is stupid. One of the only reasons LSU kept their high ranking after losing in OT to Kentucky was because they played and demolished VT in 2007.

And travel time? Really? How many opponents in conference do we have to travel more than 300- 350 miles to play?

Travel time? Are you serious?

Have you ever seen a map? Do you know how far USC is from any of its opponents, let alone places like Fayetteville, AK, Columbus, OH, and South Bend, In.

This is just nit-picking. Everyone is grasping at straws on why Georgia is only good enough to win 10 games a year and not 13 and so they are picking every little thing apart.

I don't think we are at a competitive disadvantage because of our scheduling. South Carolina is a tough game for UGA every year. In any close game, there are one or two plays that could change the outcome. Do I think the game we played the week before has anything to do with the execution on those plays? Absolutely not.

Dawg19 said...

I haven't met one gator fan yet that appolgizes for their scheduling. Hard to argue with two of the last three MNC's...

LSU beat VT in 2007 at home and then had Middle Tennessee State the next weekend, not a tough SEC game.

Irwin R. Flecther said...

Gator fans don't complain about their schedule because they beat UGA. That is the real isn't scheduling, it isn't out of conference games, it is beating Florida.

The only thing between UGA and 'Florida-like greatness' isn't a couple of powder puffs on the schedule or a couple more wins over South Carolina. It is beating Florida.

2001- Played Kentucky at home prior to Florida. Lost to Florida. That loss doesn't keep us out of the SEC championship game, but it does probably bounce us from a BCS at-large bid.

2002- At Kentucky. Loss to Florida. This loss keeps us from being in the BCS title discussion.

2003- UAB at home. Loss to Florida. Made it to the SEC championship, but this loss prevented the Dawgs from being in the BCS at large discussion.

2004- Beat Florida. Hoo-ray. Out of title picture because of a home loss to Tennessee...Tennessee was game 5...the 4th of those at home.

2005- Arkansas at home. Lost to Florida. The only reason this doesn't keep us out of the BCS title discussion is b/c of the perfect storm of Texas and USC...

2006- At home vs. Miss. State. Loss to Florida. Sure, we weren't going anywhere that year great. But a win against Florida probably keeps our 10 win streak alive.

2007- Bye week. Beat Florida. Finish with the highest ranking since 1980 after getting leapfrogged by Tennessee into the title game. *(by the way, we played Ole Miss at home before we got plastered at Tennnessee)

2008- At Lsu. Loss to Florida. This loss keeps the Dawgs from a rematch against Alabama in the Ga Dome for the SEC championship.

We need to stop whining and moaning about why we lose to 'lesser' opponents like South Carolina after non-conference BCS opponents and start taking care of business against Florida. We can try to imitate everything Florida does...but until that includes kicking the living hell out of your border-state rival in Jacksonvile, it will not result in any improvement. We have gone as high as we can without beating Florida consistently. That is the next step. Period.

David Hale said...

Irwin -- (great name BTW) thanks for the comments. They're fair and well informed. I'll have a little bit more on this issue later today, but I'll admit, you've swayed my opinion a good bit.

aaaw_34 said...

David, The bottom line is we are a top ten program. We are trying to become a top 5 program. As Irwin said "I don't think we are at a competitive disadvantage because of our scheduling. South Carolina is a tough game for UGA every year. In any close game, there are one or two plays that could change the outcome." which is true.
The problem is either we need a little better coaching or a couple more top players or whatever else to make it to that level. We have so many close games because of where we are as a team. Last year we beat SC and KY by a combined 11 points. Florida beat them by a combined 108. And one of those games followed LSU. There are other similar examples. Now you don't have whip somebody by that kind of margin, but like Irwin said, if its close anything can happen.
We have been about 10 to 14 points away from the top 5 level where we want to be. Close games eventially breeds loses. But its us not our schdule that needs to change. And maybe we have.

David Jones said...

Interesting discussion.

I would like to point out, though, that this year is unusual in that we have three OOC teams from BCS conferences. I've read somewhere (and I can't find it now) that Evans has said his ideal schedule is GT, 1 BCS team (home-and-home), 1 non-BCS team (@ home if possible), 1 FCS team (always @ home).

If travel is truly that big a problem (and I'm doubtful - all the Pac-10 and Big12 teams travel those kind of distances for IN-conference games with no problem), then the better issue might be the timing of the marquee away game.

Of course, these games are scheduled so far in advance, it's impossible to guess how good or bad a team will be when the game actually arrives (Colorado was coming off two division titles when that game was scheduled, and they stunk in 2006).