Art of a schedule: Coaches focus on several factors

It’s really a small window to plan out a 10-week football schedule.

By the time region alignments were set earlier this year, coaches across the state had about a week to scramble to fill out their non-region schedules.

“It’s pretty cut throat for a scramble,” Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis said.

There are a lot of factors that play into who a team will schedule. Some schools may want a team that will draw a large fan base, so they can make money. Others may want a team they feel like they can beat as they build their program. While others may travel hundreds of miles to get prepared for a possible long road trip in the playoffs. Then there are teams that just want the best competition available, whether it’s locally our out of state.

“Our goal is to get playoff caliber teams on our schedule that will make you a better football team,” said Peachtree Ridge coach Bill Ballard, whose team plays three non-region games against top-10 opponents. “Our non-region gets us ready for the tough region schedule. We’ve got to be able to compete with North, Norcross, Collins Hill, Mill Creek, Duluth.”

With Gwinnett’s Class AAAAA schools, Region 7 needed to pick up three non-region games and Region 8 two.

Tonight’s Mill Creek vs. Dacula game was a natural non-region game for both schools that are separated by less than 10 miles and it brings a large ticket gate.

“When we try to pick up games for our schedule, we’re not looking to travel two or three hundred miles to play. That’s not my first option,” Dacula coach Kevin Maloof said. “I don’t mind going to South Georgia when it means something — when the money’s (postseason) on the line. But (in the regular season), there’s no need to do that. There’s plenty of good (opponents) in metro Atlanta. And really, there’s no better football, I think, than in Gwinnett County.”

Grayson’s two non-region games are part of high profile showcases. The Rams played in last week’s Corky Kell Classic and will participate in North Gwinnett’s National Football Challenge.

“I don’t look at money as much as probably our athletic director and principal,” Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “I look at games that will challenge us. You probably make more money than you would in an average game, but I don’t look at that. I’m sure our principal and AD smile when they get the check, though. But you don’t get in these games unless you won previously.”

While making money off a game is nice, for many teams it’s about building a program and scheduling games they feel they can win. Take Shiloh for example. The Generals have posted consecutive 4-6 records the last two years and wanted to schedule two teams that could challenge them to get over the hump. Shiloh plays Newton, a playoff team last year, tonight.

“We try to find a middle of the pack team. You have to crawl before you walk,” Shiloh coach Keith Wilkes said. “We felt like we’ve competed the last two years and have started to branch to more middle of the pack teams and work our way to the top.”

Shiloh’s second non-region game is against Tift County and playing a South Georgia team has become a common theme for Gwinnett schools lately.

South Gwinnett traveled to state power Lowndes last week and Peachtree Ridge went there the two previous seasons.

“I think I’ve always had the philosophy to play the best you can possibly play,” Ballard said. “Even when I was at Tucker we tried to do that. You try to get a travel game that’s more than 25-30 minutes away that gets you ready for the playoffs.”

Class A power Wesleyan will play two teams with South Georgia roots in Seminole and Twiggs County.

“People think it’s funny, but that’s the kind of trips we’ll have to make in the playoffs,” Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen said. “And it exposes our kids to a different part of the state and they meet different people, which is good. And it gets our brand out state-wide. We want people to know Wesleyan state-wide, so a little bit of marketing is involved.”

Then there are teams that just want to play the best, whether it’s in-state or out-of-state.

North Gwinnett’s three non-region games are all high profile. The Bulldogs played in the Corky Kell Classic in the Georgia Dome last week, host Alabama power Bob Jones in the National Football Challenge tonight and will play nationally ranked Crenshaw (Calif.) on ESPN next week. Grayson is part of the National Football Challenge and will take on Spain Park (Ala.).

“We’re trying to play teams that are going to be a challenge and exciting to play. Playing in the Corky Kell is exciting for the kids,” Conn said. “With the Challenge, playing on TV versus a team from out of state is exciting for our team and community. It gives us a playoff feel and that’s our goal to be in the playoffs at the end of the season.”

Many coaches started thinking about possible opponents for this year towards the end of last season. They start by evaluating players that are returning next season and will put out feelers with other coaches about possible games. Conn had to turn down a game in Daytona because he had already committed to North’s challenge.

There’s typically a short list of ideal teams to play, usually from Gwinnett or Cobb County. But spots can fill up fast if you’re not quick. An open date for your team might not work for the school you would like to play.

“The list gets dwindled down pretty quickly and you just hope a spot is available,” Jarvis said.

Dozens of phone calls and e-mails are exchanged daily and by the end of the week a rough draft of a schedule is put in place. During that time your non-region opponents could change three different times before it’s finally set.

In the end, those two or three non-region games are put in place to help get the team ready for the all important region schedule.

“You don’t get too much stronger than the region we’re in,” Wilkes said.