There’s a long list of reasons not to like seeing major college football powers play teams from the Football Championship Sub-Division (FCS) — the matches are inherently unequal because of different scholarship numbers, the games are rarely competitive unless your athletic director messes up and schedules North Dakota State and, if the game falls in late November, it drives Big Ten fans into a frenzy (that actually might be one of the positives.) Next year, the SEC tweaks its schedule to add more conference games on the penultimate weekend — Alabama plays Texas A&M in this schedule slot in 2020 — which will end some of the carping, maybe.
On this particular Saturday, though, the Crimson Tide needed the breather. There’s no particular advantage over Auburn, which played Samford and manhandled the Bulldogs in similar fashion. There isn’t an issue of scoring “style points” for the College Football Playoff Committee. Do you think the committee especially cares if Alabama won against WCU 66-3 instead of 45-3? But there were some psychological positives, perhaps for the players and certainly for the fans.
The past two weeks have been back-to-back trips through an emotional wringer, first with the 46-41 loss to LSU in the nation’s biggest game of the year. That was followed by the greatest Pyrrhic victory since the Battle of Asculum in 279 B.C., when the toll of victory was so high that the war was lost. That was the feeling, among many, when Tua Tagovailoa was on the Starkville turf. The win over Mississippi State simply didn’t seem to matter.
A blowout of Western Carolina doesn’t ease all that pain, either. But it was a game where some banged-up players got to rest, many young players got some game experience and the fans got to see enough highlight plays to have fun — including the dueling Road Runner touchdowns from DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle — with minimal stress.
To be honest, this would not have been the best weekend for Alabama to face Auburn. Western Carolina got a budget-boosting check for $525,000 dollars, or about a million dollars less than Group of Five opponents command these days, thus explaining why you still see FCS teams popping up on schedules at Alabama, Clemson, LSU and so forth.
So there were some benefits for Alabama, although Nick Saban wasn’t even off the field before he was talking about the future — which means the Auburn game.
In most seasons, there are national implications for the Alabama-Auburn game. There may be those implications for the Crimson Tide again, although the picture is murkier. Of course, Alabama has to win to have any playoff hopes. Depending on how some other games shake out, though, winning might not be enough. The loss to LSU altered Alabama’s ability to eliminate all doubt, and makes chaos more desirable. Still, Alabama has to do what it can.
No one thinks it would be a good thing for Alabama and Auburn to both be on the outside of the postseason playoff picture for the first time in a decade, although if it means spoiling Alabama’s season, Auburn would certainly live with it. But more than most of the recent meetings, there is a throwback feel to this game.
The national success is great, but there are memories of when the most important thing was to win against the cross-state rival simply for the sake of winning. If that is the atmosphere next Saturday, the game could be a classic.
But before that, Alabama, players and fans, needed a chance to take a deep breath, FCS or not.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt