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What Do CBS and ESPN Have in Store for Future SEC Football Schedules?

As a youngster growing up in Bulldog Nation, I always thought of November as "hate season," because that was when the Georgia Bulldogs closed out their fall slate against the Florida Gators, the Auburn Tigers, and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, in that order, every autumn, without fail. (Evidently, Team Speed Kills is paying homage to this venerable tradition by hosting what amounts to "hate week" this week, though I’m sure Year2 doesn’t view it that way.)

In declaring this an invariable, and inviolable, tradition from my youth, I am not exaggerating in the slightest. The Saurians, the Plainsmen, and the Engineers were the final three opponents on the Red and Black’s regular-season schedule every year from 1959 through 1995. Johnny Griffith, Vince Dooley, and Ray Goff spent the entirety of their respective careers on the Sanford Stadium sideline facing that trio, in that sequence, annually; that scheduling practice, which began in Fran Tarkenton’s junior year, was not interrupted until Mike Bobo’s junior year.

That changed in 1996---coincidentally, Jim Donnan’s first year at the Georgia helm---when the conference schedule that had been reshuffled several times over the preceding decade was shifted anew. Don’t look now, but, as Senator Blutarsky has noted, it’s about to happen once again:

The Bulldogs have opened Southeastern Conference play the past 20 seasons against South Carolina, but that run is coming to an end. Georgia's SEC opener this year will be at Missouri on Sept. 8.

It's unknown whether the league's new Tigers will remain Georgia's first SEC foe in 2013 and beyond or if South Carolina moves back or even another East Division team takes the spot. League officials are hoping to release more specifics about future scheduling later this summer.

"I think what you will see is probably a great deal of movement in those games," Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity said. "I'm just guessing here, but once our TV partners weigh in, I think providing traditional games that from a television standpoint are attractive would be part of the mix there.

"I think what you may see there is a variation on when you may play certain teams, and that will obviously be determined at a later date once TV has a chance to weigh in and meet with the commissioner to find out what is best for all concerned. I don't think there is going to be anything definite as far as when you play most of your teams."

The quoted article noted the long-term fluidity of the Red and Black’s early-season schedules. Beginning in 1959, the year that “hate season” became a perennial fixture at the end of the slate, Georgia annually opened the autumn against the Alabama Crimson Tide. That trend continued through 1965, when, thanks to the Saturday Evening Post scandal, the regular rivalry with the Red Elephants concluded, being replaced the following fall with a yearly series against the Mississippi Rebels that persisted into the 21st century.

The Ole Miss game, though, took place later in the season, so the Clemson Tigers replaced Alabama as Georgia’s earliest recurring foe. The Classic City Canines met the Fort Hill Felines in every autumn except one from 1967 to 1987, meeting in the second contest of the campaign in twelve of those years. Beginning in 1992, of course, the South Carolina Gamecocks were given pride of place at the head of the schedule; perhaps ironically, since the league last expanded, the Red and Black have opened their SEC slate against the Garnet and Black more times (20) than the ‘Cocks have opened their conference schedule against the ‘Dawgs (17).

That ongoing cycle is turning ‘round once more, and McGarity’s remarks make it abundantly clear that the present rotation is so plainly driven by money that the power brokers feel no need even to engage in the pretense that it is about anything else. Although I would like to see the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party moved later in the season, that likely will not happen due to CBS’s desire to televise the Georgia-Florida game annually. Since this is all about boosting the attractiveness of the league’s broadcast inventory, it is likely that ESPN will want the SEC schedule staggered throughout the season, so that there will be quality contests every Saturday rather than weekends on which every conference club is shellacking a tomato can.

At the moment, then, we may benefit from the Western Division’s ascendancy, as the most compelling games to televise likely will not be found on the Bulldogs’ schedule unless they represent rivalries that have been in place for generations. (That may have had as much to do with preserving the permanence of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry as any other factor.) Over the long haul, though, are we looking at regular rearrangements of the schedule? Given the decisions to eschew consistency that already have been made, oftentimes at our request, it would seem likely that the order of a given season’s SEC slate could bear no resemblance to that of the preceding or succeeding season. McGarity as much as said, “We’ll play when ESPN tells us to play,” and the Worldwide Leader that paid the big bucks for the right to say so cares not one whit for any attribute of college football that might remotely be called traditional.

What quirks, therefore, might we see in future SEC schedules? Consider these possibilities:

  • In recent years, Georgia athletic directors have made a concerted effort to arrange an open date before the trek to Jacksonville at least as frequently as the Gators get a bye week before battling the Bulldogs, but the SEC’s broadcast partners aren’t going to want both Georgia and Florida to be idle (and, thus, unavailable to appear on television) on the same weekend. That may make it more feasible for both teams to enjoy alternating off weeks---one team gets a pre-Cocktail Party bye in odd-numbered years, the other in even ones---but it could also mean both clubs have to take the field seven days prior to clashing by the St. John’s River.
  • Related to that, there was a time when the fixed nature of the SEC schedule seemed significantly to impact series trends. For years, Florida faced Auburn one week before facing Georgia, Georgia faced Florida one week before facing Auburn, and Auburn faced Georgia one week before facing Alabama. During that period, the Gators fared better against the Tigers than against the Bulldogs, the Bulldogs fared better against the Gators than against the Tigers, and the Tigers fared better against the Bulldogs than against the Crimson Tide. Since those formerly rigid arrangements have been relaxed, Georgia’s domination of Florida, Auburn’s domination of Georgia, and Alabama’s domination of Auburn all have ended. Will greater fluidity in the SEC schedule serve to make several series more competitive, and is that apt to benefit the Bulldogs, one of the league’s historic haves, against the conference’s increasingly feisty former have nots?
  • If schedules are going to be cast into chaos purely at the whim of television programmers, how crazy could the shakeups get? When the Florida St. Seminoles and the Miami Hurricanes began competing as ACC rivals, the Worldwide Leader moved the in-state showdown to Labor Day, much to Bobby Bowden’s chagrin. In 1982, Georgia and Clemson did exactly the same thing, moving their annual affray to the season’s first Monday so that ABC could air the first night game played between the hedges in decades in a contest pitting the two most recent previous national champions. Could we be looking at, say, the Bulldogs opening some season in a Labor Day confrontation with the Gators, the Wildcats, the Commodores, the Rebels, the other Bulldogs, the Volunteers, or the Bayou Bengals? If we did, it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented; the Red and Black started seasons against Florida in 1904, Kentucky in 1942, Vanderbilt in 1952 and 1956, Ole Miss in 1955, Mississippi State in 1966 and 1967, Tennessee in 1968, 1980, 1981, and 1988, and Louisiana State in 1990. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

These are turbulent times for intercollegiate athletics, and for college football most of all. As has been the case throughout human history, profit remains the solvent no cultural inheritance can withstand and the majority of changes are for the worse, so it is difficult to greet McGarity’s words with anything other than either wary skepticism or outright dejection. Nevertheless, upheavals untethered from tradition invariably make matters more interesting, albeit oftentimes in the same sense that a five-car pile-up arrests our attention more completely than an uneventful ordinary drive home. Our brave new world looks less and less like everything we have known before, and, while that reality will, and should, prompt much regret, the shifting state of affairs at least has the virtue of being intriguing as long as the roller coaster remains wildly in motion. If we passengers cannot control our vehicle’s pell-mell place, at least we ought to enjoy the ride.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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