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Kyle Gets Contrary: Why I Agree With Damon Evans, and Disagree With David Hale and Mark Richt, Regarding Out-of-Conference Scheduling

We here at Dawg Sports are huge David Hale fans, as evidenced by MaconDawg’s recent interview with the man himself. David is thorough, insightful, and informative, and he offers measured, reflective opinions without passion or prejudice. Respect for him in these parts is substantial. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we always see eye to eye, and this is one of those times when reasonable bloggers disagree.

Hale has identified a bit of a rift between Damon Evans and Mark Richt, as the former favors aggressive scheduling and the latter would like to tone it down a bit. Says the Georgia athletic director:

It was an exciting time at Arizona State. 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.

Coach Richt, on the other hand, is concerned about the effects of too much travel and the impact of too many tough contests in a row. Hale sides with the football coach, noting that the Florida Gators have done little to upgrade their out-of-conference schedule while continuing to point to the downtrodden Florida St. Seminoles as their tough non-SEC game. Hale attempts to bolster Coach Richt’s case by offering the following observations:

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.

While Hale makes a valid observation, I would point out in support of Evans’s argument that our favorite beat reporter is not quite comparing apples to apples there. Coach Richt’s contention is that it’s not the strength of schedule, it’s the frequent flier miles. Hale quotes the coach as saying the following:

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. 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.

The emphasis added is mine, and I believe that line undermines, rather than underscores, Hale’s position. The Bulldogs’ 2005 meeting with the Boise St. Broncos in Athens is not comparable to their 2008 clash with the Arizona St. Sun Devils, according to Coach Richt. How Georgia performed in the wake of home games against the Colorado Buffaloes in 2006 or the Oklahoma St. Cowboys in 2007 has no bearing on whether travel puts too much wear and tear on the team.

Moreover, the Red and Black’s somewhat sketchy record in their "next game after playing a non-region opponent" represents a dubious datum. Three of those five games were contests against the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2005, 2007, and 2008, each of which was decided by a touchdown or less.

Do we really have any basis for believing the Bulldogs were not dominant against the Palmetto State Poultry because they played home games the week before against teams that weren’t from around here? Is it truly plausible to suppose that a 56-17 thrashing of a MAC team between the hedges took so much out of the Athenians that they were not up to the task of putting away the Big Chickens one week later?

I would offer another theory: South Carolina played Georgia close in those three games because South Carolina almost always plays Georgia close. The Bulldogs and the Gamecocks have squared off on the gridiron 61 times; in 25 of those contests---more than 40 per cent of the time---the outcome has been settled by seven points or fewer. In the two decades from 1989 to 2008, nine out of 18 series meetings between the ‘Dawgs and the ‘Cocks were decided by no more than a touchdown, including six out of eight in the Mark Richt era. Hale has fallen victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by mistaking association for causation, but the Gamecocks’ crowing did not result from the Sun Devils’ rise.

I don’t buy the idea that playing a visiting team that came by plane rather than by bus saps the Red and Black’s strength for the South Carolina game any more than I buy the idea that the trip to Arizona left the Bulldogs listless for last year’s game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. I didn’t see a lack of effort in that debacle; I saw the best ‘Bama club of the last decade and a half controlling the line of scrimmage against a Georgia squad whose offensive and defensive fronts had been ravaged by injuries. That would have been true even if the Classic City Canines had played the previous week’s game at the Woodruff Practice Fields.

In short, I don’t buy David Hale’s and Mark Richt’s theory upon this particular point and I agree with Damon Evans because I agree with DavetheDawg that you schedule yourself into contention.

The USC Trojans did it in 2004 when they opened with a win over the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Texas Longhorns did it in 2005 when they went on the road and beat the Ohio St. Buckeyes. The LSU Tigers did it in 2007 when they throttled VPI. The Auburn Tigers did it in 2004 when they . . . oh, wait. They scheduled Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel, and Louisiana Tech---and they watched the national championship game on television, despite going undefeated. Therein lies the lesson.

Actually, therein lies one of the lessons. The other pertinent reality is that Mark Richt-coached teams do better when a tough opener requires the players to be intent in their offseason focus. When asked to implode a particular myth about my alma mater’s football team, I did not have to look long to settle upon the one most in need of debunking:

The biggest myth about the Bulldogs is that they're at their best when expectations are low. The 2002 Georgia squad was highly touted in the preseason and delivered on its promise with an SEC title, a Sugar Bowl victory, a 13-win season, and a No. 3 national ranking. The trend of successes and (relative) failures for the Classic City Canines in the Mark Richt era isn't about meeting or exceeding expectations, it's about offseason focus. When Georgia opens with a legitimate opponent (Clemson in 2002 and 2003, Boise State in 2005, or Oklahoma State in 2007), the team comes out of the gate ready and the sky is the limit. When the Dawgs kick off the campaign in a glorified scrimmage (Arkansas State in 2001, Georgia Southern in 2004 and 2008, or Western Kentucky in 2006), they tend to sleepwalk into the season and slip up along the way.

Under the Mark Richt regime, the four seasons that began with quality opponents produced a 45-9 record, four first-place finishes in the SEC East, three SEC championship game appearances, two conference crowns, three Sugar Bowl bids, and four top ten rankings. By contrast, the four seasons that began with directional nobodies resulted in a 37-13 record, no championships or championship game appearances of any sort, a best bowl berth (Capital One) that matched the worst bowl berth of the other four seasons, and three AP rankings lower than twelfth. I know which one I prefer.

Admittedly, if you schedule tough, you’re going to lose a few . . . but, if you schedule tough, you also can afford to lose a few, as evidenced by the Bayou Bengals’ ability to capture a national championship with two losses in their ledger. In 1981---when Georgia’s non-conference schedule consisted of Cal, Clemson, South Carolina, and Georgia Tech---the Red and Black lost at Fort Hill in September . . . and finished the regular season with a 10-1 record, an SEC title, and a No. 2 national ranking.

That may represent the happy medium between David Hale’s and Mark Richt’s position on the one hand, and Damon Evans’s and mine on the other. As LD has pointed out, there is a limit to how much importance ought to be attached to travel distance when assessing the quality of an out-of-conference opponent. The Tennessee Volunteers got more credit for playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish than for playing the Miami Hurricanes because the latter was a Southern team and the former was not. Knoxville is approximately 875 miles from Miami and approximately 495 miles from South Bend.

The solution, it seems to me, is to keep doing what Evans has been doing by lining up marquee games around the nation, including some close to home. We could balance out the near and the far a bit better---for instance, by playing Clemson twice in any given six-year period, if only so folks will know we’re still rivals---in order to keep the Georgia name in the national consciousness without overdoing the travel too much.

On the whole, though, Evans is doing a fine job of demonstrating why professional administrators with business degrees make more suitable athletic directors in the 21st century than former football coaches with aptitudes for fundraising and speechmaking. He is scheduling ambitiously because Evans has reason to believe he has the head coach who can win big non-conference games, and because Evans, as a Georgia alum, knows enough about the history of his alma mater to realize that, for the Red and Black, 36 regular-season games outside the South in a 50-year period is just par for the course.

Go ‘Dawgs!