Nick Saban is king of neutral-site games. What will new era of Alabama football schedules be like? | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Amid all the uncertainty about the direction of college football and the SEC, there will be one absolute when Alabama football faces Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta less than two weeks from now.

The era of the neutral-site opener, a fixture and a friend on Alabama schedules for the better part of 15 years, will end where it began. The Crimson Tide’s 2008 win over Clemson was one of the watershed games of Nick Saban’s tenure, an announcement that things were not going to be the way they had been in the recent past or, for an older generation of Alabama fans, they were going back to the way they had been in the 1970s.

Saban shrewdly used the game to increase Alabama’s exposure in key recruiting areas (Dallas and Orlando) and also to assure that the Crimson Tide would have a prominent television presence (and a month-long August buildup) for games with the likes of Michigan, USC and Wisconsin, among others.

There has been some grumbling among rival fans, many of whom won’t be satisfied until Alabama’s schedule consists of Georgia, Auburn and the NFC Central, that the games were always played in the extended SEC footprint. (Any question about whether Dallas is SEC territory has been settled by the expansion slam dunk.) 

The move away from neutral games to home-and-home series began well before Texas and Oklahoma announced they were coming about. Saban has been a strong supporter of the move, which enhances the value of tickets in Tuscaloosa even if it will occasionally send the Crimson Tide into hostile territory.

Athletics Director Greg Byrne has put together an impressive slate of future opponents for those series. Optimistically, things will work out for Alabama to keep playing those games, many already under contract. There is an air of mystery, though, for at least a couple of reasons.

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First,  the SEC has to settle its own internal scheduling model when the 16-team reality arrives. There has been a flurry of speculation that the Longhorns and Sooners would become full-fledged members before the 2025 date engraved on the official SEC invitation. There now seems to be more caution about those predictions. Contractual obligations do matter, as do the millions of dollars that would be required.

The continued presence of Texas and Oklahoma for four more years would not doubt cause a range of Big 12 reaction, from awkwardness to outright acrimony. There is also speculation that the new alliance expected to be announced by the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 will seek to limit games between those leagues and the SEC, since cutting off your nose to spite your face never goes out of fashion in some circles.

Discussions are already underway about future scheduling models, including the possible (or probable) move to a nine-game SEC schedule. Even when that decision can be made, there remains a general commitment on Alabama’s part to maintain marquee non-conference series, so long as it doesn’t place itself on an island by dong so.

At that point, I think most SEC teams would simply play 10 (or 11) Power Five teams and one or two FCS opponents. Regardless of “The Alliance,” I don’t see Florida State calling up Florida and saying, “We aren’t going to play you any more,” and once that exception is made, what’s to prevent others?

One thing seems certain: the Alabama-Texas home-and-home series scheduled to begin in Austin in September 2022 is going to happen, whether as an expedited SEC series or as a couple of social gatherings where you meet the future in-laws. Alterations might have to be made in some future contracts, but at this point, they seem to be more like icing a cake a little differently, not blowing up the cake with a cherry bomb.

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