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Why It Matters That Georgia Schedules Games That Matter

You will not be shocked, I am sure, to learn that I am not a regular reader of Salon, so I am grateful to my SB Nation colleague at Carolina March for pointing me in the direction of someone called King Kaufman, who writes:

The top-25 teams play roughly 100 nonconference games, and they managed to schedule five against each other, one-tenth of what they could have scheduled.

TH finds fault with this, for two reasons. First of all, he questions Kaufman's ciphering:
The math is right, if a little misleading. After all, juxtaposing 100 (the number of nonconference scheduling oportunities [sic.]) with 5 (the number of games) is dirty pool - each game has two Top 25 teams, filling 10 of the 100 chances to play.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I believe Kaufman and TH are saying the same thing in two different ways. The Salon writer says the five games pitting top 25 teams represent "one-tenth of what they could have scheduled" and the North Carolina blogger replies that those five games are "filling 10 of the 100 chances to play." Isn't 10 out of 100 the same as one-tenth?

TH's larger quarrel, however, is with the system itself. He writes:

When one loss in the third week of the season can eliminate you from championship contention - but not necessarily the team down the road who was ranked higher in the preseason - you have a massive incentive not go out [sic.] and schedule a Top 25 team. No strength of schedule component in a math formula somewhere is going to change that, and with the costs this high, no one's going to take a chance.

Much like my preseason BlogPoll ballot, that is a defensible theory that has been slain by subsequent facts. The sea change in this respect occurred in 2005, when two cross-sectional marquee non-conference contests captured the attention of the nation on the days they were played.

I am referring, of course, to the Longhorns' trip to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes and the Trojans' trek to South Bend to clash with the Fighting Irish. The winners of those two contests, Texas and Southern California, used those victories to springboard undefeated regular seasons culminating in a classic Rose Bowl showdown for the national title. However, the losers of those two contests got credit for quality losses in tough games, enabling Notre Dame and Ohio State to square off in the Fiesta Bowl at season's end.

Good teams distinguish themselves by playing other good teams competitively. Wins in such outings are huge and losses are not necessarily fatal, as evidenced by the B.C.S. bowl invitations extended to the Buckeyes and the Irish. While teams continue to schedule more than their fair share of patsies, the steady upgrade in non-conference scheduling is clear.

To cite the example with which my readers and I are most familiar, Georgia has road trips upcoming to play Arizona State, Clemson, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma State, and Oregon. Damon Evans has attempted to arrange games with Cincinnati, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Oregon State. The 'Dawgs are on the hunt for a top-tier out-of-conference opponent for 2011 and 2012.

There is a method to Georgia's madness, as we have seen this opening weekend. When a team's season-opening opponent is expected to provide nothing more than a glorified scrimmage in a paycheck game, the host squad often turns in a lackluster performance or worse.

The prospect of facing legitimate opposition in the campaign's first outing, however, lends focus over the summer to a team that knows it must be prepared to play its best game, at the risk of finding itself sitting at 0-1 come Labor Day.

Not only does soft scheduling become a risky proposition for a would-be national championship contender that must rely upon the strength of its slate in making its case, it also can contribute to inadequate preseason preparation by players who treat the initial contest of the autumn as a tune up for the ones that really count.

Consider, for instance, the fates of Mark Richt's first six squads:

  • The Bulldogs opened against Arkansas State in 2001, against Georgia Southern in 2004, and against Western Kentucky in 2006. In seasons in which the Red and Black began the fall facing opponents from the Sun Belt or from Division I-AA, Georgia went a combined 27-10 overall and 15-9 in conference play. The 'Dawgs did not represent the Eastern Division in the S.E.C. championship game in any of those three seasons and the Classic City Canines ended those campaigns with trips to the Music City, Outback, and Chick-fil-A Bowls, respectively.
  • By contrast, the Red and Black began the 2002 and 2003 seasons with games against longstanding rival Clemson and followed that up with a nationally-televised game against up-and-coming Boise State in 2005. Those three years culminated with ledgers of 34-7 overall and 21-6 in league play for the 'Dawgs, who made three appearances in the conference title tilt and captured a pair of S.E.C. crowns en route to two Sugar Bowl berths and a Capital One Bowl trip.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that a quality opening matchup necessarily will translate to a successful season. There is, however, a correlation and it is not difficult to explain how the increased intensity of spring and summer workouts could translate to causation. In the Mark Richt era, better opening opponents have meant better Bulldog teams.

We shall see whether the Bulldogs' 35-14 victory over Oklahoma State pays similar dividends this season. However, there is no mistaking the fact that the trend is for prominent programs like Georgia to arrange games with opponents closer to their own weight class, nor can there be any doubt that this is what is best for the sport.

Go 'Dawgs!