Yesterday evening, I put out a tweet noting that Florida's football game at Texas A&M this year will be the team's first regular season trip west of Fayetteville since tying USC 19-19 in in September of 1983. Looking that up was interesting to me because not only is that before I was born, it was two months before my older brother was born too. I wasn't expecting it to set off a frenzy of criticism about Florida's scheduling policies, but it set of a frenzy of criticism about Florida's scheduling policies.
So for that flimsy reasoning, I'm going to go over why Florida doesn't travel outside its home state for non-conference games. Indulge me for now; I mainly just want to have everything in one place so I can link to this from now on. For the record, I'd prefer to see the program both play Miami more often and go outside the southeast for non-conference games.
Those in charge don't agree with me for a wide variety of reasons. Like I said, I don't agree with all of these, but this is why they do what they do. Don't focus on one of these over the rest, because it's the entire package that drives policy.
1. The SEC schedule expanded.
Once upon a time, the SEC schedule wasn't fixed and teams generally didn't play more than six conference games per year. During that era, Florida typically played three big games out of conference: Florida State, Miami, and some other big team. Take the 1977 schedule for instance, and you'll see FSU, Miami, and Pittsburgh. Or, how about Steve Spurrier's Heisman campaign in 1966? You've got FSU, Miami, Northwestern, and NC State.
In 1988, the SEC schedule expanded to seven games. Not coincidentally, 1987 was the last year of Florida and Miami playing annually. That didn't end the other big non-conference game; UF still played Oklahoma State in 1990 and at Syracuse in 1991. The league schedule expanding to eight games in 1992 did kill off the other big game though, as that '91 game in New York was the last non-conference game UF has played outside its home state.
2. Jeremy Foley is a businessman.
The year 1992 didn't just see an expanded SEC schedule, it also was Jeremy Foley's first year as UF athletic director. He's been great for the school in a number of areas, one of them being money. Florida athletics are among the best and most profitable in the nation, regularly donating millions back to the university ($6 million a year, lately).
He runs a tight ship financially, looking to maximize revenue. He must do this, because the dysfunctional state leadership in Florida doesn't ever give more than lukewarm support to higher education. If his athletics department had to go looking for a handout from the university, it would be a disaster politically.
3. Foley wants seven home games.
Part of maximizing revenue is ensuring that the team plays a certain number of home games per year. It used to be six with the 11-game schedule, and now it's seven with the 12-game schedule. He is not alone on that issue. Just look around and you'll find FSU, Clemson, Rutgers, Texas A&M, and the entire Big Ten on the same page, and that's just from the first page of search results for "athletic directors prefer football seven home games".
It's not hard to see why. In 2009, the profit from Florida's three cupcakes covered the expenses for all of the home games for the entire year. That doesn't even include seat license and luxury box revenue, by the way.
In the six seasons since the 12th game became permanent, only three of the other 13 SEC schools have had fewer than seven home games at least half the time. One is Georgia, thanks to aggressive scheduling, and another is Missouri, thanks to playing two neutral site games within its home state versus Illinois and Kansas. The third is Vanderbilt, but I'm not sure what to make of it as one of the years of six home games was when it took a paycheck to go to Michigan and lose in 2006. No one else in this discussion has served as someone else's guarantee game opponent.
4. The Cocktail Party complicates the quest for seven home games.
Most schools can get to seven home games with four conference home games, two cupcakes, and a pair of non-conference home-and-homes that aren't in sync with each other. If Florida was like most schools, it could have FSU and Miami rotating in such a fashion and still get seven home games.
The neutral site game with Georgia makes Florida not like most schools. Whenever the UGA game would have been a home game, Florida gets three conference home games, FSU at home, and three cupcakes to hit seven. When UGA would have been a road game, Florida gets four conference home games plus three cupcakes to hit seven. There is no way to do a second non-conference home-and-home series and still get seven home games every year.
Georgia's leadership, to its credit, has not insisted on seven home games. That's how it can have the neutral site game, the series with Georgia Tech, and still play another big non-conference game. As I said above, I wish Florida would lighten up and do the same.
5. There is history with Miami.
Florida played Miami every year from 1938-1987 except when UF didn't have a team due to WWII in 1943. The series even has a goofy rivalry trophy, the Seminole war canoe. Whenever Foley is going to occasionally relent on his seven-home-games requirement, it will be to play Miami. It will not be to play a team from out west or up north.
Florida is in a rare situation of having two major in-state rivals that aren't in their conference. FSU and Miami used to be there, and FSU did play both UF and Miami anyway, but the terrible ACC of the 1990s made that doable. Texas A&M is now in the same boat after having left the Big 12. We'll see what the Aggies deem doable when it comes to playing Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU in the future, depending, of course, on mutual interest.
6. It's hard to argue with the results.
Florida football pays the bills for most of the rest of the sports, same as everywhere. By consistently maximizing revenue as Foley has, UF has been able to invest more in the other sports. The results speak for themselves.
Florida has won 21 of the last 24 SEC All-Sports awards, and it's the only school to sweep all three categories (men's, women's and overall) in the same year. UF has been in the top ten of the Director's Cup all 18 years it has existed; the rest of the SEC combined (including A&M and Mizzou) has only equaled UF's 18 appearances in the top ten. If you do a weighted scoring system (10 points for first, nine for second, etc.), Florida would have a score of 118. The next highest is Georgia at 37, and no other SEC school has even 10 points.
It's worked out pretty well on the gridiron too. Since 1992, the year after the last non-conference game outside the state, Florida has won three national titles, seven SEC titles, and ten SEC East titles. It's probably difficult for Foley to consider changing a system that clearly isn't broken.
So why are all of these not good excuses?
If Florida played only six home football games every couple of years, it would not cause the entire athletic department to fall apart. Billy Donovan, Mary Wise, and Rhonda Faehn wouldn't resign in protest, thereby jeopardizing the success in the Director's Cup and SEC All-Sports contests.
Even if playing true road games would cause a drop in revenue below what Foley would prefer, the reemergence of "kickoff" games provides a new opportunity. The Chick-fil-A games in Atlanta are projecting a payout of $3.1 million per team this year, more than Florida made off of home games and well above what it made off of the Cocktail Party in '09.
In 2010-11, Florida football turned a $46.5 million profit. The program as a whole had net income of just over $10 million. It was able that same year to scrounge up $1.6 million in donations to waste on redundant statues of the school's three Heisman winners (the third tribute to them, after the Ring of Honor and special Heisman signage in the stadium). I'll bet Foley could throw an annual "Beat Miami" black tie dinner and make up the lost ticket revenue from doing a home-and-home with the Hurricanes.
Of course, the head football coach probably wouldn't be on board with two non-conference BCS series. Ask any SEC coach from the past couple decades and most all will tell you that the conference is so tough, they prefer not loading up on difficult out of conference games. Sure FSU and Miami have had a tough decade or so, but a team from the state of Florida went to all but one national championship game between 1992 and 2002. There's no guarantee that those teams will continue to struggle. Florida is far from alone here; as best as I can tell, only Georgia among SEC teams appears committed to playing two BCS opponents in the non-conference just about every year going forward.
Florida gets more criticism than most schools for its non-conference scheduling even though it's not out of line with most major programs. Big Ten football basically subsidizes the MAC's existence after all. The combination of the entirely common home game requirements, the regular season neutral site game, and having two big time non-conference foes in its home state means Florida doesn't leave its own state for non-conference games. Even if Florida scheduled aggressively like fellow neutral site rivalry participants Georgia and Oklahoma, it still wouldn't leave the state because the second big game would always be against Miami.
I'd love for Florida to take a scheduling strategy like what South Carolina has started to do, which is mix in non-Clemson ACC teams from the region every so often. The Gamecocks don't play the likes of UNC and NC State every year, but they will have played each of them twice across the seven seasons from 2007-2013. Four out of every seven years for UF sounds good, with two games being against Miami and the other two against a team like Georgia Tech. Or hey, they could actually travel outside the region! Foley's got a friend in Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, and OU likes to go for big non-conference games. Why not?
Reasons 1-6, plus probably some more that I don't know about, are why not. I can't see it changing either until the top schools of I-A break off into their own division.