Sept. 15, 2006
Reprinted with permission
ATLANTA – Putting together a college football schedule requires patience, negotiating skills and a crystal ball.
Georgia Tech’s Dan Radakovich has the first two. But unless he has his crystal ball hidden under his desk, locked in a cabinet or stuffed in a secret nook somewhere, he fills out a non-conference schedule the same way as his peers in the profession: With plenty of guess work.
“It’s a very inexact science,” Radakovich said. “All you can do sometimes is roll the dice.”
Sometimes you roll a “7” like the Yellow Jackets have this season: A marquee game against No. 2 Notre Dame at home to open the season followed by two more home games against small schools from a neighboring state, Samford last week and Troy on Saturday, plus the annual season-ender against rival Georgia.
Other times you get snake eyes like the 2004 schedule: Season opener against Samford, game against Connecticut in the middle of the season plus the Georgia game.
The challenge is to put together games that entertain fans, prepare the team for Atlantic Coast Conference play and generate revenue for the school.
And foresight is the key. Major college programs schedule as far as 10 years in advance. That ensures marquee matchups like the Notre Dame game and discourages the smaller schools on the schedule, like Troy this week, from starting a bidding war among the major colleges for a spot on their schedules.
The Yellow Jackets’ schedule is full through the 2009 season. They have two or more non-conference opponents already scheduled for the 2010 through 2014 seasons as well.
Radakovich’s predecessor, Dave Braine, set up most of those games, but Radakovich is actively recruiting opponents for the next decade.
And it won’t take Radakovich long to fill the holes. The ACC has released the league schedule – matchups and game sites but not dates – through the 2015 season. That information is all schedule makers like Radakovich need.
BALANCE IS KEY
Georgia Tech’s non-conference scheduling used to follow a simple formula: Play a heavyweight, a lightweight and, of course, Georgia.
Teams with national appeal qualified as heavyweights. George O’Leary’s Yellow Jackets played Arizona, Navy, Boston College, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame during the late-1990s. Chan Gailey’s first two Georgia Tech teams played Auburn, Brigham Young and Vanderbilt.
The lightweights came from the mid-major conferences or NCAA Division I-AA ranks: Furman, New Mexico State, Central Florida, The Citadel, Samford and Connecticut.
ACC expansion complicated scheduling. By adding traditional football powers Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College – and putting Virginia Tech and Miami in the Yellow Jackets’ division, meaning they play those teams every season – the schedule maker needs to be more cautious.
This season’s opener against then-No. 2 Notre Dame is one Gailey wished could’ve been rescheduled. The schools’ agreed on the game in the mid-1990s, long before anyone dreamed of ACC expansion.
Notre Dame is one of five Georgia Tech opponents ranked in the preseason top-25 polls.
“I wouldn’t have scheduled it,” Gailey said at ACC media days in July. “When this was scheduled, the ACC wasn’t like it is today. You have to be very smart about the way you schedule now the way the ACC is.”
Radakovich uses the intelligence provided by the ACC schedule to schedule future non-conference foes.
The Yellow Jackets haven’t played Florida State or Boston College the last three seasons because of the league’s divisional alignment and unbalanced schedule.
But the Eagles come on Georgia Tech’s schedule next year followed by the Seminoles a year later.
The 2008 season is an example of when Radakovich needs to be conservative with the non-conference slate.
“We play Miami, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Boston College plus Georgia. We don’t need another heavyweight that season,” he said. “You want to give yourself the best chance to be successful and play for a championship or a bowl game.”
FORECASTING IS VITAL
Pushovers won’t become Georgia Tech’s non-conference norm even with the ACC schedule’s increasing degree of difficulty.
Radakovich and Braine focused on scheduling opponents from other power conferences, particularly the Southeastern Conference. Four SEC schools in addition to Georgia dot Georgia Tech’s future schedules. They were careful to approach the lesser-successful SEC schools, though. The Yellow Jackets will face Mississippi, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, not Tennessee, Florida, Auburn or LSU.
“We want regional opponents from BCS conferences,” Radakovich said. “Those games will help our recruiting base and fit into where we want to be.”
Forecasting opponents can be risky, of course. Mississippi and Mississippi State have been powers in the past. The recent past even.
The Ole Miss team led by quarterback Eli Manning contended for a division title earlier this decade, and Mississippi State was a power under coach Jackie Sherrill as recently as the late-1990s.
Radakovich recalls when LSU contacted Arizona in 1997 about scheduling a game. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-1 season and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. The schools agreed to play two games, the first in 2003 and the second this season – last Saturday, in fact.
Arizona’s program has slipped drastically since the late-1990s. The Wildcats team that played host to LSU in Tucson, Ariz., three years ago went 1-10 the season before and got thumped 59-13 by the Tigers. Arizona is better this year, with Mike Stoops in his third year as coach, but still lost 45-3 to LSU.
“You just do the best you can,” Radakovich said. “Teams you think today will be incredible opponents could have a bad year. And vice versa.”
Georgia Tech’s players don’t stress over the schedule. Defensive tackle Joe Anoai and wide receiver Calvin Johnson said they liked this year’s setup, with two non-conference games against ranked opponents plus the two against Samford and Troy.
The Yellow Jackets can test themselves against top teams. Plus, they get two opponents early they should defeat. They can work on their schemes, get backups some valuable playing time and move two wins closer to bowl eligibility.
Gailey isn’t so philosophical about the schedule. His outlook is simple – and less stressful.
“It seems like we end up playing a strong schedule all the time,” he said. “One thing about it, nobody can ever accuse us from shying away from hard schedules.”
MAKING A SCHEDULE
Georgia Tech’s Dan Radakovich lays out the process of building a non-conference schedule.
Step 1: Put in Georgia for the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Step 2: Look over the ACC’s future schedules. The league office has released matchups and game sites through the 2015 season.
Step 3: Based on ACC schedule difficulty, decide on the type of opponents to approach. For example, Georgia Tech faces Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Boston College in 2008 – plus Georgia. Radakovich would not want any other powers on the schedule.
Step 4: Contact potential opponents. This happens both formally and informally. Radakovich could pick up his telephone and call the athletics director at another school or he might run into one of his peers at a conference or other gathering and broach the subject.
Step 5: Draw up a contract. For major conference opponents, Georgia Tech will often agree to play a “home-and-home” series. One year the Yellow Jackets will host a team like Mississippi State with an agreement to play a return game in a future year. For NCAA Division I-AA opponents or those from a mid-major conference, Georgia Tech will pay a “guarantee” – a six-figure sum for that team to come to Atlanta and play. The Yellow Jackets have two guarantee games this season. They will pay Samford $185,000 for last weekend’s game and Troy $250,000 for this week’s game.
Step 6: Send the dates for the non-conference games to the ACC office. League officials will then build Georgia Tech’s conference schedule around its non-conference dates. If there is a conflict, Georgia Tech will work with the league and its non-conference opponents to resolve it.