Non-conference games are some of the most exciting affairs in college football, pitting teams in rivalries that have nothing to do with conference standing and everything to do with pride.
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate comes in the non-conference arena, when Georgia and Georgia Tech face off. The Colorado-Colorado State, Clemson-South Carolina and Iowa-Iowa State are all non-conference rivalries with regional implications, in addition to the USC-Notre Dame and Florida-Florida State rivalries having potential national championship implications this week.
However, Alabama misses out on part of that fun: and not just with rivalries, but with the generally tough games. If the Denver Post’s report is true and Alabama plays Colorado State in 2013 and 2015, the Tide is making strides, but is not there yet.
In recent history, the Crimson Tide has had the ritual of scheduling one seemingly difficult opponent per season, often several years in advance, and then filling the schedule with cream puffs and “directional schools.” (i.e. Western Carolina, Western Kentucky)
As a school, this presents benefits because this gives each team one non-conference win that can be respected while giving the players three other weeks that they can take a little easy and still come away with the win. The downside is, the school has no idea what will happen between the time the game is scheduled and the time the game is played, much less what happens before and after the game.
Looking at 2008, the Tide kicked off the season with a 34-10 win over Clemson, who ended the season at an intimidating 7-6. The following year, Alabama whooped up on Virginia Tech, who went on to struggle with Duke and lose to North Carolina, thus being sent to a disappointing Chick-Fil-A Bowl. This year, Michigan and Alabama met in Cowboys Stadium, the same Michigan team that now stands at 8-3 and not in contention for the Big Ten Championship game.
And we’ll never know what Penn State could have been had it not been for their mess of problems.
Those same problems exist with scheduling any school, since many scheduling efforts are done at least two years in advance. But could the effort to beef up the competition be at least considered? Please?
Does a team that is seriously considered for the national championship every year belong on the same field with a team that, in the best case scenario, will go to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, or the New Orleans Bowl, or the Liberty Bowl?
Does anyone really gain anything from Alabama playing Western Carolina or Florida Atlantic, other than the paycheck with which the losers leave Bryant-Denny Stadium?
Look at how LSU does it. In 2011, LSU played both West Virginia, in Morgantown, and Oregon at a neutral site. Playing those two difficult games, especially the one on the road, likely helped harden the team for their trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium in November, which was a victory for the Tigers.
In 2012, LSU made the point to host Washington, a team that will end the season with a winning record in the Pac-12 and has a chance at 6-3 in the conference, to help prepare them for Alabama’s return trip to Death Valley, which LSU won until the final drive.
In my eyes, it looks like a win-win. The fans get to watch a competitive football game and the team is better for it. Plus, you’re on a better television station and you likely have more butts in seats. So, let me paraphrase that for the athletic administrators out there: $$$$$.
Is it honestly fair to expect fans to sellout a stadium when a top-five team in the country cannot even get themselves on a national television broadcast? Even worse, the Tide’s opponent was so bad, Alabama was no selected for national television even based on the fact that the last few weeks of the season are here and the college football nation will watch almost any game that has a hint of BCS chaos in it.
It hasn’t happened yet, but the non-conference schedule could be a deal breaker for bigger things than just money and television viewers. If all things were equal, which team would win out: Oregon with a non-conference schedule of Arkansas State, Tennessee Tech and Fresno State, or a theoretical non-conference schedule for Alabama of a neutral site game with Virginia Tech, Colorado State, Houston and Southern Miss?
The non-conference schedule could be the ticket to four-team playoff coming soon.