Years later, Georgia finally gets to play Texas A&M in football

Since Texas A&M joined the SEC and began to compete as a league affiliate, more than 600 football players have suited up for the Georgia Bulldogs and not had the opportunity to play against them.

That will change Saturday. Finally.

The Aggies (7-3, 4-2 SEC) are coming to Sanford Stadium to play No. 4 Georgia (9-1, 6-1) as an SEC opponent for the first time in history. Texas A&M officially joined the league in 2012. But because of a fluke in the conference’s 6-1-1 scheduling model, the Bulldogs and Aggies had to wait seven years before they could finally meet on the gridiron.

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“That’s kind of wild to think about,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the seven-year wait. “But, I mean, I know their fan base is passionate … from when we played there at Alabama. You will see their fan base in Athens because they all want to make this trip, just like it’ll be reciprocated when we go there whenever that is.”

That’s the worst part. Georgia will still have to wait until 2024 before it finally gets to play at A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.

It was simply an unavoidable consequence of expanding from 12 to 14 teams in 2012.

“It’s sad that doesn’t happen often, but our conference is big and we got a lot of good football teams,” Smart said. “So, it takes time to circle it and go all the way around it.”

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Greg McGarity had been Georgia’s athletic director just over a year when the league presidents voted in September 2011 to expand from 12 to 14 teams by adding Texas A&M and Missouri. With Missouri coming to the Eastern Division, the Bulldogs played them right away and every year since. And UGA has met A&M in every other sport at this point.

But because the SEC uses a 6-1-1 format for its football schedules — five division opponents, one rotating cross-divisional opponents (from among three) and one permanent cross-divisional opponent — it takes 12 years to cycle through them all home and away.

“We knew it’d take a bit longer to work through your non-traditional Western rivalries, but that was just the way it had to be with 14 teams,” McGarity said.

That’s one of the reasons many coaches favor going to a nine-game conference scheduling model. That would cut down on the length of time between non-divisional matchups.

“I think it’s good for your players to play everybody in a conference; I believe that,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think that’s good. I think it’s good to say you’ve played (every) team and played in (every) stadium. But when you have conferences as big as we have now, that’s just kind of how it goes.”

Said Smart: “I’m not really here to debate the nine-game schedule versus the eight-game schedule. It’s just that’s the way it fell, and that’s who we got.”

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The nine-game scheduling model comes up for discussion every year at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, as well as other derivations. But it doesn’t appear close to changing any time soon.

“Every time we talk about scheduling there’s probably 20 different factors that are involved,” McGarity said. “Whether it’s an eight-game schedule, nine-game schedule, 6-1-1 or 6-0-2 model, every dynamic is covered, and it certainly makes for lively discussions. But the current model gives teams the flexibility to schedule a non-conference Power 5 opponent every year. So it’s working from that standpoint and gives us access to the highest levels of bowls and the playoff. So, the model we’re using has worked.”

As it is, Georgia is playing Texas A&M for the first time since meeting in the 2009 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. The Bulldogs won that game 44-20.

Overall, the teams have met only five times, with the Aggies holding a 3-2 lead in the series. They’ve been to Athens once. The Bulldogs defeated No. 17-ranked Texas A&M 42-0 in 1980 thanks largely to the work of a freshman tailback named Herschel Walker in his first game at Sanford Stadium.

In a game considered a toss-up by oddsmakers, Walker ran for 145 yards and three touchdowns, one that covered 76 yards.

“That was the day Herschel showed off his explosive-run ability,” said Buck Belue, who was the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. “The crowd went nuts.”

For their part, Georgia’s players don’t seem to have given it much thought that they haven’t played Texas A&M to this point, and certainly not that the respective schools have met just once twice in the last 39 years.

The Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1 SEC) need to beat the Aggies to keep alive their College Football Playoff hopes. That’s really all that’s on the mind of the 70 players that will suit up for Georgia on Saturday.

“They’re just another team in the way of where we’re trying to get to,” senior linebacker Tae Crowder said.