Could expanded playoff produce an unthinkable matchup on Alabama football schedule?| Hurt

Cecil Hurt
Sports Editor

There were two off-the-field stories, one national and one local, in college football last week. Locally, Alabama announced two more Power Five home-and-home series, one with Oklahoma State and another with Boston College. Nationally, the the College Football Playoff seemed on a fast track to expansion with a 12-team model that will likely be finalized some time this fall and become the law of the landscape as soon as 2023.

The stories were separate, but not entirely so. Alabama has been adding home-and-home series for more than a year now, abandoning the neutral-site games of the past decade for a more progressive plan by athletics director Greg Byrne, who probably had a glimmering that playoff expansion was coming but had a definite knowledge of the kind of home schedule that would sell season tickets in the increasingly luxurious Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The 12-team playoff model more or less assures Alabama of an annual spot but alos has another feature: the inclusion of at least one conference champion from outside the traditional Power Five. If you follow the rankings from 2020, an unusual year, there would have been two such champions, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina. Whether the voting behind closed doors in Dallas would have had the Chanticleers at No. 12 in a year where finishing No. 12 actually meant something other than a lovely parting gift is a different debate. But it also raises an interesting hypothetical question.

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Could the first Alabama-UAB football game occur in an expanded College Football Playoff?

First, a disclaimer or two: I don’t pretend to be privy to the inner workings of UAB athletics or the thought process of Mark Ingram (the athletics director, not the running back). I don’t know if the issue burns as white-hot as it once did in certain Birmingham circles. At this point, I hardly ever hear it mentioned in Tuscaloosa. The generation that drew an uncrossable line in the sand about such a game, and the grievances that prevented it, fade with time.

Still, UA’s leaders don’t seem in any rush to change what has been its scheduling policy for decades. Some of the strongest advocates in the Birmingham media have moved on. My opinion, which is that institutions have a right to schedule according to their own perceived best interests, has always been the same. Also, I’m not excluding Troy or South Alabama from the conversation, but their road seems even tougher than UAB’s. To repeat, despite Coastal Carolina’s notable season, it would take a near-miracle for the Sun Belt Conference champion to make the field.

UAB head coach Bill Clark raises the Conference USA championship trophy after the Blazers' win over Marshall at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Alabama’s home-and-home schedule seems full for the foreseeable future. There are plenty of vacancies for anyone who wants to come to Tuscaloosa for a “buy” game, where a team gets its paycheck and goes home. Whether an expanded playoff might squeeze those chances is one of the talking points to be discussed over the next few months.

Otherwise, Alabama doesn’t seem interested in offering a spot, and I don’t know what UAB’s interests would be in accepting even if Alabama offered.

UAB has been able to do a few things to enhance its longshot odds of making the playoff. It would probably help tremendously if UAB could work its way to a stronger conference, preferably the American. The new Protective Stadium might help, as does coach Bill Clark’s continued success. You would still say it’s a needle in a haystack, but given that UAB football was DOA a few short years ago and crawled out of its own grave, you never say anything is utterly impossible.

Perhaps the greatest irony would be the first game ever, live from Glendale, Arizona.

But remember, the two basketball programs have played once in their history, in an NIT game, and the College Football Playoff and the money associated with it are far from the NIT. So a chance of a postseason game? Hypothetically. A strong chance? Very, very, very unlikely.

Cecil Hurt