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Final Thoughts on S.E.C. Out-of-Conference Scheduling

The scheduling practices of the Southeastern Conference's member institutions remain a source of much discussion in the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere. The issue has been addressed, in one fashion or another, by The House Rock Built, Every Day Should Be Saturday, Orange and Blue Hue, Saurian Sagacity, and Get The Picture.

As part of our recent exchange upon that topic, Tightwad took a hard look at the numbers and found the S.E.C. wanting. While I addressed some of his assumptions and ancillary observations, the heart of Tightwad's argument remains unexamined, so to that task I now turn.

Let me state at the outset that I, like other webloggers, am somewhat suspicious of Jeff Sagarin's rankings. For one thing, we are not told how he makes his calculations, so it is difficult to trust the outputs without knowing anything meaningful about the inputs. For another, his often eyebrow-raising rankings have been known to defy common sense. Finally, I have a poll proponent's natural aversion to Sagarin's "Revenge of the Nerds"-style mechanized methodology.

"Dave, I've decided to let Oklahoma play in the national championship game." (Photograph from Jeff's Robots.)

Nevertheless, Tightwad's quantitative analysis drew a response from a commenter who provided a more qualitative view, setting forth the out-of-conference slates of the Pac-10 and S.E.C. schools over the next four seasons. What he found is not favorable to the Southeastern Conference, despite the demonstrable upgrades in many of the league's slates.

From 2007 to 2010, Pac-10 teams will face two Division I-AA opponents, while S.E.C. schools will face 13. (Both of those numbers are apt to rise, as Auburn and Oregon State each have holes to fill on their respective 2007 schedules. The Beavers and the Plainsmen won't be playing each other next fall because . . . ?) As a percentage of non-conference games, the S.E.C. will play four times as many lower-tier teams (6.9%) as the Pac-10 (1.7%).

During the next four seasons, S.E.C. teams will play nearly twice as many bottom-dwelling Division I-A opponents (27) as Pac-10 squads will (14) . . . and the ratio would be worse if the reader compiling those numbers had not (somewhat charitably) treated Akron, Marshall, Memphis, Miami (Ohio), Rice, Troy, and Wyoming as halfway-decent teams because all have appeared in bowl games in the 21st century.

Despite having two more member institutions, the S.E.C. will play fewer out-of-conference road games against B.C.S. league opponents (22) than will the Pac-10 (24). One out of every five out-of-conference games played by Pac-10 squads between 2007 and 2010 will be road games against B.C.S. conference teams (20.0%), while just over one out of every 10 such games played by S.E.C. teams fit that description (11.3%).

Well, it's a college tradition everywhere except the S.E.C., at any rate. (Image from Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

The existence of regional rivalries helps to explain some of this disparity, as Tightwad acknowledges. Nevertheless, if we attempt to justify weak scheduling with arrogant condescension, we will do little more than spark message board melees and schedule ourselves out of national championship contention.

Let's take this down from the macro level to the micro level to see how this all plays out in reality. As I pointed out, Georgia used to travel quite frequently, playing 36 regular-season road games outside of the South in the 50 years from 1916 to 1965. That figure does not include contests played by the Bulldogs in Texas and Virginia, Southern states which are not home to Southeastern Conference institutions, so I am not even giving the Red and Black credit for scheduling away games against Texas A&M at Dallas in 1953, at Texas in 1958, at V.M.I. in 1966, at Houston in 1967, or at Virginia in 1914, 1916, 1920, 1924, and 1926.

Since Tightwad is a Golden Bears fan and Cal joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1916, the same year Georgia began taking road trips outside the South, it is fair to use that as a starting point. From 1916 to 1965, how many games did the Berkeley Bears play in states that are not home to current Pac-10 institutions?

During the period in which the 'Dawgs faced 36 opponents outside the boundaries of the Old Confederacy, California took on 29 teams beyond the borders of Pac-10 country. (As it turns out, the Bears faced Michigan at Ann Arbor on September 25, 1965, one week before Georgia played the Wolverines there in what remains the Bulldogs' last regular-season game played outside the South.)

I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it.

Through 1965, a good argument could be made that Georgia's out-of-conference scheduling was superior to Cal's. The Bulldogs played more cross-sectional road games than the Bears, despite the fact that the Red and Black's home territory (as I have defined it) covers several more states than the Blue and Gold's.

Moreover, all of Cal's bowl games during that period were home-state affairs, while the 'Dawgs took part in postseason play in California and Maryland, in addition to Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. The Golden Bears are not helped by the fact that, in the early years of football at Berkeley, Cal faced such daunting opponents as Hastings Law, the Berkeley Gym, the Commerce Club, the 1898-'99 alumni, and high school teams from Redlands, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Even so, Cal was hardly insular, even during that 50-year span. The Bears played only two games in nearby Colorado and Utah, but they traveled to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas half a dozen times. Counting the 1929 Rose Bowl, California had ended its season against Georgia Tech six times by 1940. (Despite the significantly shorter driving distance, Georgia had ended its season against Georgia Tech just eight times by that same point.)

Furthermore, we must look at what the two teams have done since that time. From 1966 to 2006, Georgia did not travel outside the South so much as a single time as part of its prearranged slate. 32 of the Bulldogs' 33 postseason appearances during that period were confined to five Southern states (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas), with the lone exception being the 2000 O'ahu Bowl . . . which we fired our coach for getting us into. Over those selfsame 41 years, though, the Bears played 57 regular-season games outside the four Pac-10 states (Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington). 57? Now, that's variety!

Regrettably, I didn't have time to break it down along red state/blue state lines.

While eight of those 57 games were in neighboring Colorado, New Mexico, or Utah, 17 of those contests were in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, or Texas. Cal has played 15 cross-sectional out-of-conference road games in the last decade and the Bears have confined themselves to Pac-10 country in just seven of the last 49 seasons . . . and, in three of those seven years, the squad from Berkeley appeared in bowl games played in Florida, Hawaii, and New Jersey.

What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that California won more than seven games in just seven of those 41 seasons, posting a .500 record six times and finishing the autumn with more losses than wins on 19 occasions. Since 1966, Georgia has won eight or more games 25 times, finished at .500 on five occasions, and had four losing seasons. The Bears were taking their show on the road even when they weren't very good, while the 'Dawgs were sticking close to home even while winning eight conference crowns.

There are those who will scoff at Pac-10 football, sneering that Cal could afford to play better non-conference opponents than Georgia because, after all, the S.E.C. is better than its West Coast counterpart. If that is so, though, why is it that, since 1966, Pac-10 teams have won or shared seven national championships, very nearly equaling the nine earned by the S.E.C.? Yes, I know . . . S.E.C. teams beat up on each other. Well, guess what: Pac-10 teams do, too.

While I believe the S.E.C. is the nation's toughest conference and I appreciate the fact that at least some fans from the Pac-10 share that view, that excuse is insufficient to justify the disparity between the two leagues' non-conference scheduling.

As strange as it may seem, a win over Western Kentucky impresses exactly no one.

I believe Tightwad gave too little credit to the importance and legitimacy of regional out-of-conference rivalries. Notre Dame and Southern California may have a good thing going because Knute Rockne's wife had the good sense to want to get the heck out of Indiana in November, but the Fighting Irish justifiably take their local rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue seriously, too.

Since the turn of the new millennium, in-state and border rivalries between Georgia and Clemson, Auburn and Georgia Tech, and Florida and Miami have been renewed, however intermittently, and this is a good thing. It does not reflect poorly upon those schools that they chose to schedule grudge matches against historic foes of comparable quality rather than going far away to face equally good teams with whom they had no longstanding heritage and, hence, for whom they had no passionate disdain.

Even so, cross-sectional series such as Ohio State's and Texas's recent tilts rightly are rewarded and, even with such impediments as the neutral site game with Florida and the in-state rivalry with Georgia Tech, Georgia has no excuse for scheduling seven Division I-AA opponents between 2000 and 2009 after playing none between 1993 and 1999.

In 1967, Cal's conference schedule included eventual national champion U.S.C. and a U.C.L.A. squad ranked No. 1 as late as mid-November, yet still the Golden Bears went on the road to face preseason No. 1 Notre Dame and a Syracuse squad that finished the year 8-2. In 1968, Cal took on the Trojans, who were the country's top-ranked team at the time they met, yet still the Bears traveled to face Army, Hawaii, and a Michigan squad which wound up ranked 12th. In 1976, the Golden Bears' Pac-10 slate included Rose Bowl-bound Southern California and Liberty Bowl-bound U.C.L.A., each of which concluded the campaign with a top 15 ranking, yet still Cal found the gumption to confront Fiesta Bowl-bound Big Eight champion Oklahoma in Norman and Sugar Bowl-bound S.E.C. champion Georgia in Athens.

Gratuitous photograph of Ray Goff during his playing days.

Granted, times have changed in the last three decades, as Cal has not played two non-conference road games outside of the Pac-10 states, Colorado, and Utah in a single autumn since 1997, when the Golden Bears traveled to the Lone Star State to face Houston and to the Pelican State to tangle with Louisiana Tech.

Jeff Tedford's squad still has managed to put the sounds of the Pacific Ocean pounding the Golden State shores behind them long enough to face the Aggies at Las Cruces, the Cornhuskers at Lincoln, the Cougars at Provo, the Falcons at Colorado Springs, the Golden Eagles at Hattiesburg, the Illini at Champaign (twice), the Scarlet Knights at Piscataway, the Sooners at Norman, the Spartans at East Lansing, the Utes at Salt Lake City, the Volunteers at Knoxville, and the Wildcats at Kansas City . . . all in the last nine seasons. Even with Georgia Tech annually, and Clemson periodically, on the schedule, surely the 'Dawgs can be released from the leash long enough to go test their mettle in places where folks don't know that Friday is Robert E. Lee's 200th birthday.

The maddening part about it is that, for the larger part of their history, the Bulldogs have had a pretty good record in this respect. Based upon the schedules presently in place, the Red and Black will have played 40 regular-season non-conference games outside the region in the century between 1916 and 2015.

That is an otherwise fine record marred by an extended phase which, not coincidentally, began with the 15th game of Vince Dooley's tenure as Georgia's head football coach and began coming to a close at the conclusion of Vince Dooley's tenure as Georgia's athletic director.

No offense, Vince, but we didn't schedule like this 'til you got here and we quit scheduling like that once you were gone.

Georgia isn't scared to barnstorm the country taking on the toughest teams in every region. W.A. Cunningham wasn't scared . . . he took the Red and Black to Annapolis to face Navy in 1916. Herman Stegeman wasn't scared . . . he took the Bulldogs to Cambridge, Chicago, and New Haven for games against the major powers of his day.

Harry Mehre wasn't scared . . . he engineered the 1936 tie with Fordham that put Georgia football on the map. Wally Butts wasn't scared . . . he led the Classic City Canines into battle in New York thrice and in Ohio once in his first four seasons on the job. Damon Evans isn't scared . . . he put together the schedules that have the Bulldogs playing in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oregon in the next nine seasons.

This problem is team-specific, not conference-wide; Tennessee has been putting together gutsy non-league slates for years, while South Carolina's upcoming schedules include The Citadel, Furman, South Carolina State, and Wofford. This problem isn't endemic to Georgia, it was unique to Coach Dooley and, whatever one may think of the manner in which his service as an employee of the University of Georgia concluded, there can be no question that the Bulldogs' cross-sectional scheduling was reinvigorated by his departure, resuming as soon as he was gone the admirable levels it had attained in the years before his arrival.

Many would accuse me of lese majesty for laying these scheduling sins at the feet of the man who remains perhaps the most beloved living figure in all of Bulldog Nation, but October 2, 1965, was a long time ago.

How long ago was October 2, 1965? So long ago that Kristin Davis, pictured above, was barely seven months old at the time. (Photograph from Celebrity Wonder.)

S.E.C. scheduling has improved, but it hasn't improved enough. We're either a nationally prominent program or we're not. We're either the best conference in the country or we're not. We're either willing to prove it on the field or we're not. I don't know about you, but I'm ready for some football . . . anytime, anywhere, against anybody.

For what it's worth, Georgia is 7-0 against Pac-10 teams in games played in the Empire State of the South and 1-4-1 against Pac-10 teams in games played in the rest of the country. I'm ready to change that. Aren't you?

Go 'Dawgs!