Florida is entering a new scheduling era in 2022, but how long will it last?

Ten years ago, I took the time to write up a story detailing the rationale behind Florida’s then-infamous scheduling practices. I was tired of having to explain things anew in various forums, so I wanted to have something I could link to instead of writing and rewriting the same things.

In the meantime, UF took a baby step towards more adventurous scheduling with the season-opening game against Michigan in Arlington, Texas in 2017. However it wasn’t until into the Scott Stricklin era that Florida finally started lining up a significant number of contests against more significant opponents.

With the USF game last year kicking off a two-for-one with a G5 team and Utah visiting the Swamp this year, the complaints about the Gators’ non-conference schedules can end. It’s not just cupcakes plus FSU every year with the occasional home-and-home with Miami anymore.

A lot has changed in the last ten years. I’m going to take the arguments that UF would’ve put forward back then if it took the time to litigate the issue and reexamine them in light of how things have changed. I’m also going to take them in reverse order of what I did back then, since I think that sets up a more interesting story in the present.

It’s hard to argue with the results.

During the time when people complained that UF was “scheduling scared” or whatever — let’s call it the span from 1992 to 2020 — the team won all but one of its enduring SEC championships and three national championships. At no point were the Gators left out of the national title picture for not having a beefier non-conference slate.

It still is indeed hard to argue with the results. Bad coaching hires held the team back for stretches, but scheduling never did.

There is history with Miami.

At the time of writing, Texas A&M was about to join Florida as the only P5 teams with multiple other P5 teams within their own state but outside of their own conferences. Texas will join that club soon, and so will USC and UCLA (and, against their wills, Cal and Stanford).

The point still remains though. When Florida wanted to do multiple P5 teams in the non-conference on occasion, it always made more sense to pick Miami than someone from outside the region. There is history between the programs, and the travel was a lot easier to pull off.

And, for those people who only cared about UF leaving the state and not the region, most folks don’t realize how large the state of Florida is. The distance between Gainesville and Coral Gables is, for instance, almost five times the distance between Clemson, South Carolina and Athens, Georgia. But when UGA and Clemson play, they get credit for going out-of-state while Florida does not when it plays Miami.

The Cocktail Party complicates the quest for seven home games.

I will talk about the desire for having seven home games in the next section, but the annual neutral site game made it impossible to get to seven without all non-FSU, non-conference games being in the Swamp.

When Georgia is a “home” game, causing UF to lose an SEC home date, FSU comes to Gainesville. Three more home non-conference games then gets them to seven. When UGA is a “road” game, so is FSU. Four SEC home games plus three non-conference games in Ben Hill Griffin then get them to seven.

[Jeremy] Foley wants seven home games.

Florida really wanted to have seven home games. As I documented at the time, so did many other programs. Having at least seven of 12 regular season games being at home was a boost to revenue in the form of donations and ticket sales. It also plays well politically in a college town, where many hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses rely on football weekend revenue every year.

As I just showed, Florida couldn’t get to seven due to the Cocktail Party unless they only did one non-conference home-and-home series at a time. That series was always going to be FSU, and for historical reasons, any breach of the pattern was always going to be Miami.

Georgia and Oklahoma were in the same boat with annual neutral site games and still scheduled more aggressively than Florida did. Their administrations were more willing to live with six home games at times than Florida’s was back then. The point I wanted to emphasize, though, was that most programs around the country could get to seven while having multiple non-conference home-and-homes in a way that Florida could not.

Jeremy Foley is a businessman.

This section was about how the Florida athletics program has always been careful to make sure it makes ends meet with some left over. Higher education funding within the state of Florida never feels like a sure thing, so having the Gator athletic department going to the school for a handout was a scenario they always wanted to avoid.

At the same time, Florida aspires to be an Everything School. It wants to compete in every sport it sponsors, and it sponsors many sports. That was why getting to seven home games was so important: it was to help fund a sprawling and highly competitive overall athletics program.

It’s no secret that attendance has dwindled for cupcake games nationwide. UF has not been immune to that. To listen to Stricklin talk about it, not always hitting seven home games is worth the tradeoff of the boost of playing a bigger team at home in a second P5 non-conference home-and-home series.

Let’s take him at his word for the moment; I will trust that the UAA bean counters have done all the math. Even if it is not strictly true in every case that UF comes out ahead monetarily in the new scheduling system, the large and rising TV contracts that Florida benefits from probably more than make up the difference.

The SEC schedule expanded.

Decades ago, Florida used to play six SEC games plus FSU, Miami, and at least one other notable school in the non-conference. In 1988, the SEC schedule expanded to seven conference games. Afterward, Florida stopped playing Miami annually, but it kept FSU and the other notable non-conference foe. In 1992, the schedule expanded to eight conference games, at which point the rotating notable non-conference team disappeared.

I saved this for last, because it seems likely that the SEC schedule is going to expand again. It’s not a done deal, but I fully expect the league will go to nine conference games after Texas and Oklahoma officially join the league.

I don’t think the FSU game is going anywhere, but I do wonder about the future of the rotating notable non-conference opponent. The 2022 schedule reinstated it, but for how long?

To be sure, I don’t expect Florida to buy out any of the future series it has already scheduled. The one with Texas should go away, since the Longhorns will be a conference opponent before the planned tilts in 2030 and 2031, but I bet the rest will survive.

I expect Florida to use the schedules it has already lined up as a pilot program to determine whether it will keep signing up for more of these kinds of games. I suspect we won’t see any new marquee non-conference opponent announced until years after the 16-team SEC has been playing. It may turn out that this is just a decade-long experiment, from Utah in 2022 to Notre Dame in 2032.

It’s entirely possible that after facing the Irish in ’32, Florida will go back to only having FSU and cupcakes in the non-conference schedule. And, of course, picking up a series with Miami once or twice a decade.

It may be that the old talking points about Florida and scheduling come back ten years from now. Although, after how the last year or two has gone, I hesitate to predict anything about how college athletics will look a decade from now. It may be that come 2033, the landscape has changed so much that no one will pay attention to Florida’s non-conference schedule anymore. Your guess is as good as mine.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2