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SEC Expansion, Conference Rivalries, and Matthew 7:3-5

It had been my plan this evening to respond to Senator Blutarsky’s thoughtful reply to my posting last night, but I have changed my mind, for two reasons. First of all, my answer essentially has been hashed out in the comments to my previous posting; viz., I believe it makes more sense to keep an eight-game SEC schedule until current out-of-conference contracts have been fulfilled and plan to implement a nine-game conference schedule four or five years hence, because that would save the league’s member institutions from having to pay liquidated damages for breaching their contracts, and because I believe the conference will expand to 16 teams within the next four or five years, anyway, so it makes no sense to implement immediately a change that might prove short-lived and cause more problems later.

The second reason I am writing a different posting from the one I originally had intended to author, though, is that I felt compelled to offer a retort to this posting appearing at Garnet and Black Attack, in which an SB Nation colleague writes:

As some of you are probably aware, there's a persistent myth among Dawgs fans that the only reason we ever beat Georgia--indeed, the only reason the game is ever anything other than a four-TD UGA win--is because the game happens early in the year. I've had to sit through more than one absurd conversation, disbelief in my eyes, as an UGA fan tried to convince me that UGA would enjoy a series record against the Gamecocks that would be more like Florida or Tennessee's if only UGA could get us on their November slate. Nevermind the fact that UGA has been Florida's whipping boy nearly as much as we have over the past 20 years, with the case similar with Tennessee until the Vols' recent decline. I've never quite understood why UGA expects to dominate us just as much as a team that has utterly dominated them has, but there it is. The truth behind our historically poor November performance, IMO, isn't that we don't have the depth to play hard into November; it's that our November schedule is backloaded with traditional powers. If the depth argument was ever true, moreover, it's probably not anymore, as Carolina has upgraded its recruiting over the past few years, hence the demise of the infamous "Orange Crush."

I must confess that the above passage left me more than a little confused. For one thing, I have been a fan of the Georgia Bulldogs throughout my 43 years, and I have never heard a Georgia fan say that the only reason the South Carolina Gamecocks “ever beat Georgia--indeed, the only reason the game is ever anything other than a four-TD UGA win--is because the game happens early in the year.” I have heard it said---indeed, I personally have argued---that, because the SEC East series between Georgia and South Carolina historically has been so close (eight of the last eleven meetings have been decided by margins of seven or fewer points), minor factors may have large impacts.

Home field advantage, for instance, appears to have some significance, as Georgia has scored 31 or more points in five of the last nine series meetings in Athens, while the Bulldogs have been held to 20 or fewer points on eight straight trips to Columbia. Likewise, South Carolina arguably derives some benefit from frequently opening the season on a Thursday, giving the Gamecocks two additional days within which to prepare for the Bulldogs. By the same token, it is not unreasonable to suppose that South Carolina benefits from playing the game earlier in the year, given the frequency with which the Gamecocks have followed up strong starts with late-autumn slumps.

In 1993, South Carolina started out 4-4, but finished 0-3; in 1994, 4-1 was followed by 3-4; in 1995, 4-3-1 became 0-3; in 1996, 5-3 disintegrated into 1-2; in 1997, 5-3 descended into 0-3; in 1998, a 1-0 beginning turned into an 0-10 run; in 2000, the Gamecocks leapt out to 7-1 before going 1-3 down the stretch; in 2001, 5-0 was replaced by 4-3; in 2002, it was 5-2 that collapsed into 0-5; in 2003, starting out 5-3 did not prevent wrapping up 0-4; in 2004, 4-1 gave way to 2-4; in 2006, it was 5-2 that was transformed into 3-3; 2007 saw South Carolina commence the campaign with a 6-1 run before falling to 0-5; 2008 brought more of the same, as 5-2 wound up being 2-4; in 2009, 6-2 served as prelude to 1-4; and, even in 2010, a 6-2 beginning slid into a 3-3 ending.

Admittedly, there have been exceptions. South Carolina started out 0-5 in 1992, but closed the campaign on a 5-1 run; the Gamecocks were a perfect 0-11 in 1999; 2005 saw a 2-3 opening stretch replaced by a 5-2 skein; and, of course, the Garnet and Black went 5-1 in the first half of 2011 and 5-1 in the second half. However, since South Carolina joined the SEC, November swoons have been the norm, if something that happens 16 times in 20 chances may be deemed “usual.”

I am not at all sure what Georgia’s records against the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers (the “traditional powers” who have been to the SEC Championship Game fewer times than the Red and Black in the last ten years) have to do with anything, since the transitive property has no application to college football. It is true that, over the last 20 years, the Bulldogs have fared considerably better against the Gamecocks than against either the Gators or the Volunteers, yet it is also true that, in the last two seasons, the Red and Black have gone 0-2 against South Carolina while going 3-1 against Florida and Tennessee, with the lone loss coming in overtime. The connection of one to the other is unclear to me; however, the tendency of a team to play its best football in September, and its worst football in November, over an extended period, would seem quite relevant to the question whether one would rather play that team in September or November.

My SB Nation coeval continues (with emphasis added, by me):

Despite the presence of cold, hard facts that appear to suggest it will be a futile effort, it appears that UGA supporters are in Greg McGarity's ear, urging him to strike while the iron is hot and to have the USC game moved to mid-season or later. I'll have to admit that I'm really annoyed about this while thing. Part of it is that it just really irks me that this fanbase has such a deep-set inability to admit when it gets beat by a better team. But part of it is about tradition. Opening the SEC slate with this game is one of Carolina's most cherished football traditions. It's something we look forward to every year, and the game gets a fair amount of media attention as one of the more significant early-season SEC matchups. Losing that over a fanbase's petty, irrational denial complex would be a crying shame.

Granted, it's fair to say that Georgia has a lot less to lose here than we do. Georgia has many SEC rivals, whereas we're still in the process of trying to carve out our identity in the conference. You won't see me argue that point. The game simply means more to us. Still, I don't see why we should have to give the tradition up, given the situation. As one of the four schools intent on keeping a permanent intradivisional rival, UGA is already forcing concessions from the rest of the conference, most of the members of which would prefer to do away with the scheduling imbalances created by UGA, Auburn, 'Bama, and Tennessee's rivalries. The least the conference could do is let the rest of us keep a few of the things we want.

Though I will leave aside the question of the pettiness, irrationality, and denial, vel non, of people like me, I will begin by stating what I believe I have stated consistently: Georgia was beaten by better South Carolina teams in each of the last two seasons, a fact for which I have criticized Mark Richt, and which I readily admitted when I wrote that “the Palmetto State Poultry simply are a better team than the Classic City Canines right now, and they proved it on the field of play.” I defended the legitimacy of the Gamecocks’ 2010 SEC East championship and argued that the Garnet and Black remained the division frontrunners this year.

More galling than those scurrilous animadversions, though, is the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously insisting upon preserving “one of Carolina's most cherished football traditions” and lambasting Georgia for being “intent on keeping a permanent intradivisional rival.” Well, if “part of it is about tradition,” might we be so bold as to suggest that the Gamecocks’ cherished tradition, which dates back to 1992, might not be any more sacrosanct than the Bulldogs’ rivalry with the Auburn Tigers, which dates back to 1892?

In fact, when South Carolina initially joined the league, the Gamecocks were the opening opponent on Georgia’s slate for the first four years, then the Garnet and Black were moved to the second game of the season starting in 1996, a season that saw several other changes in the conference schedule. (Most notably, Jim Donnan’s first season in the Classic City was the first fall since 1958 in which the Bulldogs did not end the season by playing Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech in succession.) There the game has stayed for most of the seasons since, though not without exception; in 2003 and in 2008, for instance, South Carolina was the third opponent the Athenians faced.

Besides, Georgia and South Carolina played one another regularly long before the Gamecocks joined the SEC. Though the two teams often met early in the autumn, frequently in the season’s third or fourth game, they also had a history of meeting on such dates as October 30 (1971), October 31 (1970), November 1 (1980), and November 18 (1939). For the record, the ‘Dawgs were 4-0 against the ‘Cocks in those four late-season outings, by a combined margin of 122-51, for an average differential of 18 points per game. I’m just sayin’.

Meanwhile, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry got underway in 1892 with the first college football game played south of Raleigh, N.C. Georgia and Auburn did not meet in 1893, but, since the resumption of the series in 1894, the gridiron rivalry has been interrupted three times: in 1897, following the death of Red and Black player Von Gammon from injuries suffered in a game; in 1917 and 1918, during World War I; and in 1943, during World War II. It cannot seriously be suggested that this tradition---quite literally, the oldest in the Southeastern Conference---should be sacrificed while we labor to preserve a “tradition” that has held sway for 14 of the last 20 years, which no one outside of Columbia, S.C., ever noticed was a tradition in the first place.

Given that startling separation from reality, it scarcely seems worth mentioning that, despite appearances “that UGA supporters are in Greg McGarity's ear,” McGarity was asked whether he would like to move the South Carolina game, and he replied: “I don’t think it matters. I think you gotta play them all and what order they’re played in, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well play them. We just know we’ve gotta play them and whenever that date is, line them up and go.” It is not the first time our conference coevals from Columbia have made presumptions concerning Greg McGarity which were not supported by the facts.

What makes these wildly inconsistent positions and these outrageously hyperbolic broadsides so offensive is the fact that, when South Carolina fans criticize Georgia fans for appearing indifferent to the Gamecocks’ concerns, Bulldog fans respond by being reasonable and conciliatory. When the shoe is on the other foot, though, at least some among the Garnet and Black faithful are prepared to take the preposterous position that the order to which they have become accustomed in the last two decades is more important than that we have been endeavored to preserve for the last dozen decades.

I have no idea what red-and-black-clad bogeymen did to these hypersensitive souls when they were impressionable youngsters, but, in case they haven’t noticed---and, judging by their unneighborly behavior, they haven’t---those of us who routinely have been falsely accused of such disdain have gone out of our way lately to be accommodating. If you don’t believe me, visit the archives and take a look at my BlogPoll ballots and SEC Power Poll ballots this season, or search for the term “Palmetto State Poultry,” which I have used less frequently since learning (to my surprise) that some South Carolina fans (inexplicably) find insulting an innocent nickname analogous to such similar shorthand designations as “Bluegrass State Bobcats,” “Classic City Canines,” “Fort Hill Felines,” “Magnolia State Mongrels,” “Music City Mariners,” and “Sunshine State Saurians,” which no other fans appear to find objectionable.

There is just no satisfying folks who evidently are determined to see slights where none are intended and obviously are unconcerned with the tone they take with their perceived antagonists, who, honestly, have been minding our own business and causing them no trouble whatever. I would respectfully suggest that pettiness, irrationality, and denial may be character traits which are not exclusive to those of us whose loyalties draw us to Sanford Stadium, but, rather, may be shared by some who call other Southeastern Conference venues home.

Go ‘Dawgs!