My personal nightmare came true Monday morning when it was announced that Auburn added Georgia Southern to the 2017 non-conference schedule. I spoke of the first time that match-up occurred last summer. Auburn also announced Louisiana-Monroe as another non-conference game for the 2017 season. That means two Sun Belt teams on the football schedule in 2017.
FBSchedules.com is a great resource as a repository of all future non-conference opponents. An examination of their records shows that Auburn also has two Sun Belt teams on the schedule for the 2016 season in Arkansas State and ULM (again). The 2015 season has Idaho which, yes, is actually a Sun Belt team. I know, it confuses me, too.
I'm an analyst by nature and by training, so I like to look for patterns and see what I can pull out from Auburn's non-conference slate. 2015 is a bit different and hard to judge because parts of the schedule were set before Gus Malzahn became head coach. 2014 was set long in advance due to the Kansas State game. However, looking at part of 2015 and the 2016 and 2017 schedule can show us a bit more about what to expect from Auburn's scheduling over the next few years.
First, it is now a part of the SEC rules that each team must play another Power 5 Conference team every season. For this season, that role is filled by a neutral-site game against Louisville. In 2016 and 2017 it's a home-and-home with Clemson. 2018 and 2019 are open, but 2020 and 2021 will feature a home-and-home with California.
The Cal series was originally scheduled for 2019 and 2020. That would have left Auburn with a single year missing a current P5 team in 2018. My original thought was that a pattern of "neutral-site game with a P5, then home-and-home with a different P5" was emerging. However, with Cal getting pushed back, that changes. It appears Auburn will have to find a new home-and-home for 2018 and 2019. I'm still a fan of that being Georgia Tech, but who knows who that will really be? We know it's definitely not Florida State, now.
What is a safe bet is that 2018 will be a home game and 2019 will be on the road. With the SEC's current schedule rotation, Auburn will play at Georgia and Alabama on even years. The Tigers want to avoid playing an away P5 game in years they have to travel to Athens and Tuscaloosa. I really think they would prefer to avoid a neutral-site game like this season as well, but it's too late to change that. I think this is one reason Auburn was ok with maneuvering the Cal series. It allowed Auburn to be more flexible in setting up a favorable schedule in 2018 and 2019.
Fans can talk all they want about how much fun it would be to see more big match-ups like Auburn vs Texas, Notre Dame, etc in a season, but the reality is that you're only going to get one P5 team per season in the non-conference schedule. Getting to the College Football Playoff is the name of the game. So, you have the required P5 game and then three other non-conference games. Two of these are what I am going to refer to as "The Filler."
Filler games are against Group of 5 (G5) conference teams that should provide easy wins. This season those games will be against San Jose State and Idaho. San Jose State was a decent team this season who had a chance to win their conference. Idaho is... a door mat. They are bottom of the barrel in the Sun Belt.
However, they ARE a Sun Belt team. For the moment. That means the five out of the next six "filler" opponents come from the Sun Belt Conference. When it comes to FBS Conferences, the Sun Belt is at the bottom of the totem pole even in the G5 in terms of perception.
So why schedule Sun Belt teams?
I think it's for a number of reasons. For one, they're mostly close enough that they'll bring fans. Idaho being an obvious exception to this. I think Auburn fans will be shocked in 2017 when Georgia Southern comes to town. Eagles fans travel well, and with a sizable alumni base in Atlanta, I think they'll travel as well or better than most SEC schools for that game. So, it helps with ensuring the stadium is filled.
Another smaller reason may be that Gus Malzahn has an affinity for Sun Belt teams due to his season as the Arkansas State head coach. The Tigers have the Red Wolves on the schedule in 2016 again, too. It could be a means to give those teams a chance to experience games on the big stage.
The name of the game is still wins, though. Auburn wants to win. So as one of the lower G5 conferences, Auburn should be guaranteed wins against Sun Belt teams.
Who in the Sun Belt do you schedule?
We're once again going with an outlier in Idaho for 2015, but for the other games you'll see teams that have either won the conference recently or have been competitive for it. Arkansas State won or tied for the conference in 2011-2013. ULM is one of the better Sun Belt teams every season. Georgia Southern was the first team to go undefeated in conference play in its first season in the conference when it won the Sun Belt this past season.
If you're going to schedule the lower conference, you schedule the better teams. Because while the name of the game is wins, it's also "wins that will look good to the Playoff Committee." Auburn may be in for a bit tougher road this season because of the Idaho game. The Tigers will have to hope Louisville (now an ACC team) and San Jose State will have good seasons. It wouldn't hurt for Jacksonville State to make the FCS playoffs, either.
It's all about perception. The Sun Belt may not be the best conference (though I think its underrated among the G5), but scheduling teams that are competitive in that conference or who are possibly going to be conference champions in the future will help with perception. It's hard to forecast that far in advance, but it's not a bad way to go about doing it. I really doubt Georgia Southern will have the same coaching staff in 2017 that it does now (I'd be shocked if Willie Fritz is at Georgia Southern past this coming season, honestly), but right now they look like a good choice for a future schedule.
Why not Troy State or South Alabama, then?
Not going to happen. Ever. You know the reasons why. Too big of a risk that those teams would win and it could impact in-state recruiting, money, etc.
Well, you can always ask Will Muschamp how this game can go for you, sometimes. Georgia Southern is used to being that fluff game, and beat the Gators in 2013. I could go into that game in detail, but don't worry, I won't.
This is the game affectionately known by some as "SEC-SoCon Saturday." They're usually held on the second to last Saturday of the season just before the big rivalry weekends and feature Auburn playing an FCS school from the SoCon like Western Carolina or Samford. This year that's not the case for Auburn, but it's not far off with Idaho filling that weekend. The Jacksonville State game will be the second game of the season on September 12th. Jax State isn't a SoCon team, but it's referred to that way because other SEC teams also fill the weekend with SoCon teams.
These games are lamented by fans who don't want to fork out the money for the tickets, food, driving, hotels, etc, just to see a glorified scrimmage. They're not going to go away, though. Playing an SEC schedule is brutal, and the coaches love these games for the break it gives the team before the big rivalries or a way to take a breath in the middle of the season as another off-week.
The Future Schedules
P5, two G5s, one Cupcake. Recent trends show the G5 will be a Sun Belt team and the cupcake to be an FCS team from the state of Alabama. Samford in 2014, Jax State in 2015, and Alabama A&M in 2016. 2017 will feature a game against Mercer from Macon, Ga.
There are no out-of-conference games currently scheduled for 2018 or 2019. I really haven't even heard any news of who Auburn is speaking with about the 2018 and 2019 games, but hopefully it is someone that will excite the fans. Cal is exciting. Clemson is decidedly MEH. We're tired of that game. I get that some folks feel the same about Georgia Tech, but we've only played them twice in close to 30 years and it's a historic rivalry.
Some of the Big 10 schools just aren't going to happen. They want SEC schools to make a return trip in late October or early November to take advantage of the cold weather, and SEC schools don't want to play a big-time OOC game in the heat of the SEC schedule. That's why so many of those match-ups are neutral-site games. It's likely those games will feature Auburn against an ACC, Big XII, or PAC12 team.
For the G5 games, I suspect Sun Belt teams to remain the norm for travel reasons. I also suspect it will continue to be teams at or near the top of the Sun Belt for the perception and "eye-test."
Cupcakes will be cupcakes, but they'll likely continue to come from Alabama and Georgia. It wouldn't shock me to see Kennesaw State on the schedule in a few years. Although, if KSU's head coach Brian Bohanon continues with the Triple Option he learned under Paul Johnson, then that very well might NOT be the case. Scheduling KSU prior to a game with Georgia Tech could make sense, or even prior to Georgia Southern even though the Eagles don't run the true triple-option at the moment.