“I do think they’re one of the top four teams in the country but I didn’t think they were going to get in the playoff with two losses,” Saban said. “So I voted the teams that I thought had the best chance to get in, but I do think after playing Georgia they were one of the best four teams in the country.” — Nick Saban
As we’ve all heard over the past few weeks, Georgia has taken the bold step of significantly upgrading its non-conference scheduling, adding a number of home and home series with P5 powerhouse programs like Texas, Oklahoma and Clemson. Smart gave three reasons for the move when asked. It’s one of those three I’ll explore in this post.
“We’re not running from Power 5s,” Smart said. “(The selection committee) has proven that later games in the year have more impact on who makes the Playoff, so if you can get a Power 5 team late in your schedule, I’m talking the last three or four weeks, you’ve got a chance to spike and send yourself into that conversation.”
As evidenced by Saban’s comment above, that’s a gamble on Smart’s part. One I applaud him for taking, but a gamble nevertheless. There’s no reason to think that the selection committee is ready to embrace that approach, particularly given the strategic whining we’ve heard from certain conferences that have whiffed lately on populating the CFP semi-finals field.
But there are other wrinkles that may complicate the equation Smart projects. One is that there are P5 non-conference opponents such as the ones Georgia is scheduling, and then there are P5 non-conference opponents such as the ones Tennessee is scheduling.
The Vols will host BYU this season before traveling to Provo, Utah, in 2023. They’ll travel to Oklahoma in 2020 before hosting the Sooners in 2024. Tennessee will host Pittsburgh in 2021 and travel there in 2022. And UT will play at Nebraska in 2026 before hosting the Huskers the following season.
Of course, nobody can predict the future, so maybe BYU has turned itself into a top ten program by the time UT travels to Utah. Or, maybe not. But you can be sure Fulmer will be pitching how his football program’s scheduling has taken a step towards the level that Georgia’s had should the moment prove convenient for doing so. It may not be a convincing argument, but it may also be an argument that serves to muddy the waters for a two-loss Dawgs team making a case for the CFP field.
Then, there’s the way the other half rolls, as Seth Emerson explains ($$):
The SEC is splitting into two tiers when it comes to scheduling: The upper-tier teams that are ramping up their schedules in expectations of being in playoff contention, and the rest of the league, which while no one would admit it publicly would consider a playoff run a bonus, and instead schedules so that it can win as many games as possible.
It’s about half and half. The traditionally stronger programs are pursuing bigger games, with the playoff at least partially in mind, but also jaded fan bases that are less likely to show up for Murray State. But the less-tradition-laden programs are less apt to pursue those games because wins are at a premium: When you talk to Kentucky coach Mark Stoops about perhaps ramping up his school’s schedule, the reticence is palpable.
“We’ve had our hands full with Louisville,” Stoops said. “They’ve had a very good team. So with the SEC schedule and with Louisville …”
Louisville! The thing is the media (and I include a certain 800-pound rodent in that reference) loves itself an underdog. You don’t have to look any farther back than last season to recall how Georgia’s trip to then ninth-ranked Kentucky was pumped up as a major head-to-head meeting with serious postseason implications. That talk quickly evaporated after Georgia won by seventeen, of course, but Cinderella is going to be given every benefit of the doubt should the situation arise.
That all being said, I do think that Kirby’s gamble lessens considerably over time, because we all know, despite Bill Hancock’s protestations to the contrary, the CFP is going to expand to eight teams. The irony there is, in an expanded field, nobody will blink twice with a two-loss team in the mix, but at least when it happens, we’ll have a better home schedule to enjoy. Let’s just hope that Kirby’s scheduling aggressiveness doesn’t come to bite him in the ass before then.