Will the 10-game Power 5 football schedule ever return? Fans hope so | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

A little more than a century ago, when the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces marched off to war in Europe, the question was posed in a popular song: “How You Going to Keep ‘em Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paris?” Ultimately, you couldn’t, and America, for many reasons, became an urban society rather than an agrarian one. 

The 2021 version currently in the news would phrase a similar question in a different way: “How You Going to Keep 'em from Buying GameStop after They’ve Been Day Traders?”

The point is that big events – whether wars or pandemics or financial uncertainty – create ripples. They are catalysts for change, even among established institutions or vast swaths of the country that are usually resistant to change. People or governments try something different, and sometimes people like it. 

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One things fans seemed to like in 2020, among the very few likable things: football schedule flexibility. Whether it was the SEC’s 10-game schedule or the flex scheduling that resulted in a late-season game like Coastal Carolina-BYU, the vast majority of fans like having as many entertaining games on their television as possible.

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Alabama fans celebrate after Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

A quick return to 2020 doesn’t seem likely, though. The 2021 SEC schedule released on Wednesday was a return to business as usual: eight SEC games, four non-conference games. One team plays 10 Power Five games (Georgia, with a super-marquee opener against Clemson and its traditional closer against Georgia Tech) and everyone else plays nine, including Alabama-Miami, Texas-Arkansas and UCLA-LSU among others. (LSU also plays Central Michigan which will be worthwhile if only for hearing Ed Orgeron’s pronunciation of “Chippewas.”)

There are also a couple of the Power Five-Group of Five matchups that media talking heads constantly request: Florida plays at South Florida. Liberty plays at Ole Miss (Lane Kiffin vs. Hugh Freeze!). 

Yes, Alabama plays Mercer, which will inspire some chuckles, cupcake memes and the occasional aside that the Crimson Tide “doesn’t play anybody.” Had the two teams played to conclude 2020, the Jeff Sagarin predictor would have had Alabama as a 66-point favorite.

But as of 2020, the “Alabama Schedule Conspiracy” is no more. People can advance it if they please, but here is the conversational antidote: Alabama played the 11 best teams in the SEC, including Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M, then went on to play Notre Dame and Ohio State. That’s 13 straight games with no FCS teams, no Group of Five teams, no SEC schedule-padding and thus no conspiracy.

As noted before, ripples can move slowly. Nick Saban, a long-time advocate for nine SEC games, still isn’t getting a lot of support from elsewhere in the league, and you have to get to nine before you can play 10.

Vanderbilt rotates onto the Alabama schedule in 2022, but that will be counterbalanced by a home game against Texas, the first of a home-and-home series. The neutral-site games that have been a staple of Alabama scheduling are going away, perhaps not forever but certainly as an annual fixture. By 2025, Alabama will be playing 10 Power Five games (West Virginia and Florida State), and that trend seems likely to continue from then on. 

There are two final points. First, the non-conference games like Mercer are important for the financial bottom line. Second, despite a spectacular performance in Miami at the CFP Championship, Alabama was a banged-up, mentally-drained team as it left the field, a consideration worth discussing with Saban before expanding the playoff. 

There has to be a limit, on one hand. On the other, the more good games the better, and that may be where the ripples finally lead.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Cecil Hurt