Mark Richt shook his head, trying to rattle off the list from memory.
It’s one daunting opponent after another, starting with Oklahoma State and ending with Georgia Tech, with few respites. Of its 12 regular-season games in 2009, Georgia will play 11 Bowl Championship Series conference opponents, a scheduling anomaly that is enough to send shivers down the coach’s spine even three months before the season begins.
Looking ahead now, Richt can’t help but wonder what he got himself into. This wasn’t the plan, but, when the decision was made to add home-and-home series against top competition, the wheels for this year’s daunting schedule were set in motion.
“The plan was never to have Oklahoma State and Arizona State and Georgia Tech,” Richt said. “That was never the plan. We did it because we wanted to do it for the fans and to get out of the Southeast region, but living through it is a little bit tougher.”
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The idea was simple enough. When the NCAA added a 12th regular-season game to its schedule, Georgia’s administration decided to use the extra date to add games with BCS-conference opponents from outside the Southeast region.
So, instead of the typical small-school pushovers, Georgia’s schedule has included big names during the past four seasons. The Bulldogs hosted Colorado in 2006 and Oklahoma State in 2007. They traveled to Arizona State last year. Boise State — not a BCS conference team but an annual top-25 contender — opened the 2005 season in Athens.
In terms of fan excitement, the experiment was a rousing success. The big-name opponents drew considerable interest around Athens, and thousands of Georgia fans packed Sun Devil Stadium when the team traveled to Arizona State last season.
But on the field, the schedule has taken its toll. In terms of wins and losses, Georgia is 4-0 in the non-traditional games, but the impact of the more difficult competition has shown up farther down the road.
Georgia eked out a one-point win over Colorado in 2006 but struggled in a come-from-behind win at Mississippi a week later. Four losses in five games followed.
In 2007, Georgia dominated Oklahoma State in Athens but looked flat a week later in a home loss to South Carolina. The loss potentially cost the Bulldogs a shot at the national championship game.
Last season, the Bulldogs thumped the Sun Devils, but the extensive travel took its toll and played a part in a disastrous first half against Alabama a week later, Richt said.
Opening on the road
Now this year, Georgia opens on the road for just the second time in Richt’s tenure. The first trip was a simple two-hour jaunt to Clemson, but this one could be one of the Bulldogs’ toughest tests of the season against a potential top-10 opponent.
“I’m not that thrilled about it,” Richt said. “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.”
Georgia will face an equally daunting test this season. Even if the Bulldogs can escape Oklahoma State with a win, the SEC slate starts a week later at home against South Carolina, followed by another long trip to Arkansas.
While Richt isn’t thrilled about the difficult schedule, athletic director Damon Evans said the scheduling serves a bigger purpose and helps the Bulldogs in their pursuit of a national championship.
“What big games do for you is give you national exposure in the voters mind, so that’s what I hope these games will do for us,” Evans said. “I don’t think it will backfire.”
Easier for Florida
Georgia’s chief rival in the SEC East, however, isn’t playing things the same way.
The Gators play in-state rival Florida State each season, just the same as Georgia does with Georgia Tech. But while Georgia has added additional high-level competition, a home date against Miami last season is the only BCS non-conference opponent the Florida has played since 2003. The Gators haven’t left the state of Florida for a non-SEC game since traveling to Syracuse in 1991.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will add to their frequent flyer miles with the trip to Stillwater this season and have scheduled road dates with Louisville, Clemson, Colorado and Oregon the next five years.
Evans, however, isn’t sold on the comparison.
“In Florida, they have two teams (Florida State and Miami) who have historically competed for national championships that they play,” Evans said. “We haven’t had that in-state rival that’s been at that high of a level.”
It’s not just Florida, however. Since 2005, the two teams dueling for the national championship have played a total of 10 non-conference games against BCS opponents. Including its 2009 slate, Georgia will have played that many by itself in the same time frame.
Still, it’s not the competition that bothers Richt. It’s the travel.
“If all these teams we wanted to play would always come to Sanford Stadium or even Atlanta for that matter,” Richt said, “I think it would be better for us.
Earlier this year, Richt suggested playing a neutral-site game in Atlanta, but the administration would have to work to make it happen. Because the Bulldogs already play one neutral-site game against Florida each year in Jacksonville, Richt said he would be unwilling to lose a second home date. If a BCS team wanted to give up one of its home games to make it happen, however, that might be a different story.
“I wouldn’t mind that if it was somebody else’s home game,” Richt said. “If they want to trade a home game to play in Atlanta, that would be great for us.”
While the prospect of turning one or more of those non-conference games into a battle in Atlanta remains a possibility, it’s far from a done deal.
What is certain, however, is that Evans’ policy of stacking the schedule with stiff competition won’t change soon.
“This year is quite interesting because we have two, but you won’t see a year like this in the coming future – at least that’s not in our plans right now,” Evans said. “But we would still like to add one. We’re still on track to do that.”