Keith Strudler: Playing Alabama
Alabama head football coach Nick Saban does not want to talk about scheduling. He does not want to talk about why he played New Mexico State last week, where Alabama won 62-10 in a game that was not as close as the score may indicate. He also doesn’t want to talk about beating Duke 42-3 in the opening week, or why they’re playing lowly Western Carolina in November the game before the Iron Bowl. Saban made that very clear in a surly, 10-minute press conference on Saturday where he not only offered his philosophy of how college football should be scheduled, but also suggested the reporters try to get better teams to come and play Alabama, because he can’t find any that want to.
And to be fair, playing Alabama at the beginning of the season, the non-conference schedule as it’s called, is essentially guaranteeing your team an early loss. That’s not great for a program hoping to make the playoffs or even a coach trying to keep his job. There’s very little more demoralizing than starting a season with a lopsided, debilitating loss. And trust me, I’ve watched enough Labor Day youth soccer tournaments to know that’s true.
To be clear, there are several very good college football teams that scheduled other top teams to start the season. For example, last weekend LSU played Texas and Clemson hosted Texas A&M. All those teams were the top 12 in the country. So while Nick Saban may be correct in suggesting scheduling Alabama football may be difficult, it’s probably not impossible.
Of course, these kinds of early season blowout games are a fixture of college football, and for most are way more about finances than football. A whole lot of smaller Division I schools – what we call I-AA, or FCS – play Power 5 conference schools like Ohio State or Oklahoma to start their seasons in “guarantee games.” Meaning, when someone like Murray State becomes a sacrificial lamb to Georgia, they get a huge pay check that helps bankroll the rest of their season. That’s part of the fiscal underbelly of college athletics – unless you’re one the privileged in a major football conference, you probably have to find some unconventional means of balancing the books.
There have been a few notable upsets in this unwritten contract. Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007. Georgia Southern beat Florida in 2013. North Dakota State beat Iowa in 2016. So I’m saying there’s a chance. But for every one of these once-in-a-lifetime wins, there’s literally hundreds of sixty point slaughters, where the losing team probably leaves with more injuries than points.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue, or issues I suppose. First, should well-funded, semi-professional, big time college football teams play against teams simply hoping to leave with their dignity in tact? College sports is supposed to be a lot of things – educational and highly competitive to name two. It’s hard to explain what anyone on either side of the ball learns from a 50 point beat down.
Second, should underfunded, lower division universities use games like this to fund their football programs – and perhaps swimming and track as well? To be fair, if I were working at, say, Eastern Washington, I’d say absolutely. Because it may be the only way to keep the stadium lights on. But realize that paycheck comes at the expense of what should be a far more thoughtful athletic experience. Players take the field knowing full well they’re going to get pushed into next week in games that are slightly less watchable than Caddyshack II. That’s what we’ve justified as college football, a series of symbiotic decisions that make for some really bad sport. It’s entirely possible that instead of having big schools pay smaller schools to play the part of David, smaller schools should simply right size their programs and leave professional sports to the professionals – like Alabama. Which could mean the end of scholarship football outside of Division I-A, more streamlined budgets, and even a consideration of whether or not football fits into the larger athletic profile of the university. There’s a whole lot of Division I-AA programs that would do just fine – better perhaps – without a football team. Or at least not one that tries to play Ole Miss.
Which leads to the final question. Can anyone help Nick Saban find good teams that want to play Alabama? As an FYI, Alabama cancelled a home and home series with Michigan State a couple of years ago. Something about revenue from neutral sites. But Michigan State wanted to play. Which is probably another thing that Nick Saban doesn’t want to talk about.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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