Sunday, September 5, 2010

week 1 thoughts: of title defenses and non-conference schedules

On Wednesday I talked to my brother Whit (who you may remember from basketball season) and had a confession to make: I wasn't really ready for the 2010 season.
"It's embarrassing that you would say that," he said. "Punch yourself in the face."
After I did so, I explained further: as I've said repeatedly, 2009 was such a special season on so many levels ... and I just wasn't quite ready to move on. I mean, really, to go 14-0, dismantle the evil Florida Gators in Atlanta and win the national championship in the Rose Bowl? There's no way to top that, maybe ever.
I certainly wasn't ready to move on in a season with this many red flags. Already this summer we had NCAA troubles, injuries and every other program in the conference basically say they're coming to knock us down. And furthermore, because of a ticket snafu, our seats this year moved from the lower bowl in the North end zone to the new upper deck in the south end zone, which appears to be in Moundville.
No, I just wasn't ready.
(Note: Apparently, the university wasn't exactly ready to start the season either -- I'm not sure how long it took everyone in the new section to find their seats, but we left our tailgate across from The Corner at 5:15 and settled into our seats right after kickoff. That's not peak efficiency, folks.)
Once we found our seats, it occurred to me that the parallels between this situation and life in general were myriad. Frankly, in life, you just can't live on the mountaintop -- we all have peaks and valleys, of course, but we live most of our lives in between them.
Anyway, that's how I took in Saturday's game: it's a new season, and the climb starts all over again. And if that means having to fight off the wolves to defend what we have, so be it. Bring 'em on.

The game itself, of course, was delightfully boring, just like it's supposed to be: our boys whipped an outmanned non-conference foe with a sharp offense and a defense that generally looked competent (if not dominant). As RBR noted today, much of the commentary on the game is in the context of how this game affects next week's game, the much-anticipated return of Penn State to Tuscaloosa.
In fact, the loudest cheer from the partisans in the second half came at the close of the game, when the public address said something to this effect: "... And we'll see you NEXT WEEK, when an old rivalry is renewed, as PENN STATE comes to Bryant-Denny Stadium!" It's fair to say everyone was way more excited for that than they were for Saturday's game.
Much of the offseason conversation, of course, has centered around non-conference scheduling, like it always does. Tuesday Morning Quarterback -- a noted critic of big college football -- noted (as always) that big colleges (and the SEC inparticular) tend towards softer (and more lucrative) non-conference opponents they can play at home.

Defending BCS champ Alabama opens by hosting San Jose State, which was 2-10 last season, including a 62-7 loss. Texas opens by hosting Rice, which is coming off a 2-10 year that included a 73-14 loss. For the second consecutive season, lower-division Florida A&M plays at Miami -- there isn't even a pretense here that the Rattlers, who lost 48-16 at Miami in 2009, are anything other than a hired pushover because this isn't a home-and-home; Miami never plays at A&M. The University of Tennessee opens by hosting Tennessee-Martin, which last season had a losing record in Division I-AA -- which the NCAA now insists on calling the FCS, perhaps for Football Cupcake Subdivision. The Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks, in turn, have found their own cupcake: They will host NAIA Lambuth.

Much of this debate, of course, will inevitably center around Boise State, which -- assuming it wins Monday vs. Va. Tech at RFK -- will spark a season-long conversation about whether it deserves a shot at the BCS national title. That conversation will inevitably sound like this:
Analyst No. 1: Boise wouldn't go undefeated in the ESSEESEEE!
Analyst No. 2: Nobody in the ESSEESEEE will play them!

It's a fair argument. When the NCAA added a 13th game to the schedule a few years back, fans like me hoped it meant we'd see more high-profile non-conference games; cynics like me knew that it would probably mean another directional school date. Perusing the SEC schedule, it seems obvious that most conference teams adopted the "meat-and-3" philosophy of non-conference play: one big game, three Homecoming slots (though, as Ole Mis showed us yesterday, those aren't really "guaranteed" wins, are they?). Just last year, Georgia played what passed for a "killer" non-conference schedule — at Oklahoma State, vs. Arizona State, plus their usual date with Georgia Tech — and head coach Mark Richt whined halfway through about it being too tough (UGA's '10 schedule: Lafayette, Idaho St., Tech and at Colorado).
Not to sound like an irritable old person, but ... well, this hasn't always been the case. In fact, thanks to the revolutionary College Football Data Warehouse, you can actually see what Alabama's schedule looked like during the halcyon days of the 1970s. Consider, for example, the 1980 season:
• vs. Georgia Tech (part of a short-lived attempt to renew that rivalry)
• at Rutgers (in the Meadowlands)
• vs. Southern Mississippi (why'd this series go away again?)
• vs. Notre Dame

Selfishly as a fan, I want to see that kind of schedule. I don't like shelling out tons of cash to sit in lousy seats and see San Jose St., Western Kentucky, UT-Chattanooga and Georgia State. The best-case scenario from a fan's perspective is what happened last night: an efficient, grind-it-out game that's over in less than three hours (and last night's game WAS over in three hours, which is awesome). The worst case is ... um, we already know.
Here's the rub: these games are scheduled, primarily, because they are cash cows. Over 100,000 people packed Bryant-Denny Saturday, mostly because their love for the program means they don't care so much who the opponent is, so long as they get to spend 6 hours tailgating and can enjoy a game where they can sing the fight song and celebrate the opening of another season. And those were just the people who went to the game. Lord knows how much money the university, the vendors and the city of Tuscaloosa made off San Jose State. Tuscaloosa doesn't make anything for a game in the Meadowlands.
Which, of course, is the whole point: as long as people continue to shell out big bucks (and money is there to be made) for these lousy games, they'll keep scheduling them. So we're to blame, but so are they, if that makes sense.

I'll have some thoughts on the game itself later on this week. Roll Tide.

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