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College football, take note: Georgia is showing you how scheduling should be done

Dan Wetzel
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Maybe it’s the College Football Playoff. Maybe it’s recruiting. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s stuck, geographically, between Alabama and Clemson, the two kingpins of college football, and needs to do something to stand out.

Maybe he has, like most fans, gotten sick of staring at college football schedules and seeing a bunch of mismatches and blowouts.

Whatever it is — and it’s likely a combination of the above — Kirby Smart has decided to turn Georgia football into a scheduling aggressor. In doing so, he’s flipping the script on the Bulldogs’ long-standing practice of doing little more than the minimum in non-conference play while leaning on the power of the SEC for its strength of schedule.

It’s reason enough for every college football fan to not only salute Smart, but hope that the trend extends (if it hasn’t already) to their own head coach and athletic director.

On Monday, Smart announced his latest scheduling deal — a home-and-home series with Oklahoma (at Norman in 2023, at Athens 2031).

It follows last month’s announcement of a home and home with Florida State for 2027-28. It adds onto future series with UCLA (2025-26), Texas (2028-29) and Clemson (2029-30 and 2032-33). There are also one-offs in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium with Virginia (2020), Oregon (2022) and Clemson (2024), as well as the annual game on alternating campuses with Georgia Tech of the ACC. Georgia also hosts Notre Dame this year.

According to Smart, he’s looking for even more top non-conference opponents as he eschews no-name and lower-division opponents. The goal: three Power Five non-conference opponents per year, preferably with all games played in on-campus facilities, to go along with eight SEC games.

“I’m not afraid of that,” Smart said last month.

It’s something he’s achieved for 2028 (Florida State, at Texas, Georgia Tech) and 2029 (Texas, at Clemson, at Georgia Tech).

From 1992-2001, besides a lone meeting with Clemson in 1995, Georgia’s only non-conference opponent from a major league was Georgia Tech.

Since 2001 there has been the occasional series — Clemson, Oklahoma State and Arizona State — but for the most part, the school was content paying tiny programs to get pummeled between the hedges. In 2015, the non-conference slate was Louisiana-Monroe, Southern and Georgia Southern.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart (L) and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick converse during Georgia Pro Day on March 20. (AP)
Georgia coach Kirby Smart (L) and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick converse during Georgia Pro Day on March 20. (AP)

That was then. This is the future, hopefully for the entire sport.

“Unfortunately, you can’t schedule these games but seven to 10 years out,” Smart said last month. “That’s so frustrating to me … but we thought three Power Five opponents — non-conference — would not be groundbreaking, but it would be a new thing.”

Preach, Kirby, preach.

He’s correct, it’s not groundbreaking, at least outside the SEC. Even as buy-games became fashionable, USC, for years, has tried (and largely succeeded) to play the most ambitious schedule imaginable. Oklahoma, for the most part, has done the same and Clemson tries to get at least two big-name games a year. There are others, too. The Trojans, UCLA and Notre Dame have still never played an FCS school. The Irish, as an independent, are particularly bold in scheduling, both in terms of opponents and travel.

It doesn’t always pan out every year — what appeared to be a quality opponent a decade ago may no longer be one by kickoff. You have to give credit for the effort.

Almost everyone else seeks one good non-conference opponent (at most) and then points to league play. That has, for years, been the SEC’s approach. And with the proliferation of early season neutral-site matchups, the sport has lost one of its unique quirks — the great non-conference home and home.

It’s good for season-ticket holders. It’s great for road trips. It’s better than antiseptic NFL stadiums.

Mighty Alabama hasn’t visited a non-SEC campus since 2011 when it traveled to Penn State (future dates at Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma are on the docket, but so too was a home and home with Michigan State and that got cancelled for more neutral-site games).

Playing in Atlanta or Dallas or wherever can be good for recruiting and good for revenue but are they good for a game that is increasingly dealing with attendance woes?

Smart believes a tough non-conference schedule can help the Bulldogs compete for playoff spots (especially if it expands): “I think there will be two-loss [playoff] teams in the future; if they’ve got a really tough schedule, they’ll be able to make it.”

It can serve as a recruiting ploy: “If you’re going to recruit the finest players in the country … they come to college to play big games … they don’t want to play the Little Sisters of the Poor. They want to play the best teams, so we want to schedule the best teams.”

It can excite fans, who are the base of the entire industry: “They want to see those kinds of games.”

Smart took over a very good program in 2016 and has both modernized and improved it. It reached the title game in his second season and took Alabama to the wire in the SEC title game last year. He’s signed Rivals.com’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2018 and 2019.

Now he’s shaking up the future by changing the way SEC teams generally schedule. It may even be spilling over.

Just Tuesday, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin took to Twitter to announce, “There are a couple future home-and-home series we are getting ready to announce. Just waiting on some final contract signatures in the coming weeks.”

More good games. More good news. Good deal for college football.

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