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Why the 'Dawgs Will Have a Better Season Against a Tougher Schedule in 2007

Fotodog effectively has put out the "Do Not Feed the Kyle" sign by requesting a moratorium on bowl- and playoff-related issues until the postseason is completed, so I now shift my focus, astonishingly enough, back to the topic of Georgia Bulldog football.

I hope no one minds if I change the subject to direct our attention here.

In a recent posting in the diaries, a reader asks facetiously whether it is too late to forfeit next fall's Alabama game now that Nick Saban is on the job in Tuscaloosa and both Charles Johnson and Danny Ware are N.F.L.-bound.

I know SSideDawg is just kidding, but some folks are concerned and I, for one, am not worried . . . and not just because Paul Oliver is coming back, either. Paul Westerdawg is right that Georgia's 2007 schedule is tougher than the Red and Black's 2006 slate, but the sequence of next fall's games sets up much better for the Bulldogs.

For the benefit of the four or five denizens of Bulldog Nation who do not yet have the 2007 schedule committed to memory, here it is:

Sept. 1: Oklahoma State (Athens)
Sept. 8: South Carolina (Athens)
Sept. 15: Western Carolina (Athens)
Sept. 22: Alabama (Tuscaloosa)
Sept. 29: Ole Miss (Athens)
Oct. 6: Tennessee (Knoxville)
Oct. 13: Vanderbilt (Nashville)
Oct. 20: open date
Oct. 27: Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: Troy (Athens)
Nov. 10: Auburn (Athens)
Nov. 17: Kentucky (Athens)
Nov. 24: Georgia Tech (Atlanta)

In 2006, the 'Dawgs opened the season with 11 straight games before getting a bye. In 2007, Georgia will play seven games in a row, have the week off, and then play five games in a row, which is much more manageable.

Damon Evans deserves substantial credit for standing his ground, even during the nerve-wracking days before the 11th-hour deal with Oklahoma State was done, and refusing to give up the October 20 open date. 2007 will be the first season since 1991 in which the Red and Black have the week off prior to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party . . . and it will be just the second autumn since 1992 in which the Gators don't have a bye week on the Saturday before facing Georgia. (The last time Florida had to play the Bulldogs seven days after facing its most recent previous opponent was in 2004 . . . when the Red and Black won in the Gateway City.)

In addition, the Bulldogs get breathers between tough tests after facing legitimate opponents on each of the season's first two Saturdays. Georgia gets to tune up against the Catamounts before Mark Richt, the only Georgia coach ever to have won in Tuscaloosa, leads the 'Dawgs back into Bryant-Denny Stadium. A home date with the Rebels separates the Red and Black's games against the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers. The Trojans bridge the gap between contests against the Gators and the Plainsmen. The Bulldogs will host the Wildcats one week before taking on the Yellow Jackets.

We continue to hold out hope that Reggie Ball will come back for a second senior season. Hey, with his math skills and the ineptitude of the Georgia Tech registrar's office, it could happen! (Photograph from Eyetide Media Inc.)

Obviously, the experience of 2006 has taught us not to take any conference opponent lightly, but, given that slate of opponents and venues, you'd have a hard time lining them up any better than that. While the Gamecocks, the Rebels, and the Wildcats have given Georgia fits in the last season or two, the 'Dawgs face all of those opponents between the hedges. In the Classic City, the Red and Black are 24-6 against South Carolina, 16-4-1 against Mississippi, and 24-3-2 against Kentucky. In road games as the head coaches at their present schools, Steve Spurrier is 6-3, Ed Orgeron is 1-9, and Rich Brooks is 3-17.

Nick Saban is a fine coach and, after repeatedly whiffing mightily, Mal Moore managed to pull a terrific hire absolutely out of thin air. I applaud Alabama on corralling a quality coach to lead its foundering program.

Nevertheless, I am not worried that Coach Saban will get the Tide turned around before the end of September. In 1995, when Coach Saban took over a Michigan State squad that had gone 5-6 overall and 4-4 in Big Ten play the previous fall, he led the Spartans to a 6-5-1 record, complete with a 4-3-1 conference ledger and a 19-point loss in the Independence Bowl.

While Coach Saban orchestrated a more complete turnaround in his first year in Baton Rouge, guiding L.S.U. from a 3-8 season in 1999 to an 8-4 Peach Bowl championship campaign in 2000, his initial Tiger team stood at 3-3, with two lopsided S.E.C. losses, after October 7. Besides, who among us can say for certain that two unsuccessful seasons in the N.F.L. have not diminished Nick Saban the way they reduced Steve Spurrier?

We'll know Nick Saban has made it as an Alabama head football coach when he gets his picture taken with Warren St. John. (Photograph from Warren St. John.)

There can be no doubt that the Bulldogs' home opener against Oklahoma State represents a real challenge; that much was made clear by the Cowboys' dismantling of the Crimson Tide in the Independence Bowl, in which the Pokes piled up 419 yards of total offense---207 on the ground, 212 through the air---and scored 34 points on Joe Kines's defense.

I would rather see Georgia open against a legitimate opponent, though. In addition to my general preference for tougher out-of-conference scheduling, I believe the prospect of facing a true test on Labor Day weekend keeps a team focused throughout the offseason. An opening day win over a valiant opponent can springboard a successful season, whereas a thrashing of an inferior team counts for next to nothing. Perhaps this is why Georgia's 48-13 win over Boise State in 2005 jump-started an S.E.C. championship campaign, while the Bulldogs' 48-12 win over Western Kentucky in 2006 yielded little.

Suppose, though, that the unthinkable occurs and the 'Dawgs leap out to an 0-1 start. Would that doom the Red and Black's chances? Hardly; Ohio State lost early to Texas in 2005, yet the Buckeyes recovered and made it to a B.C.S. bowl game. This season, California's embarrassing start in Knoxville did not prevent the Golden Bears from getting within one game of securing a Rose Bowl berth.

I am not attempting to ratchet up expectations unrealistically for the 2007 campaign; it seems to me that 2008 is more likely to be the Bulldogs' year. Nevertheless, I believe the schedule, while tougher, breaks in Georgia's favor and, after the winning run on which the Red and Black ended the 2006 season, I have renewed confidence in the ability of Coach Richt's team to finish the drill against a challenging yet still favorable slate next fall.

Go 'Dawgs!