Will Alabama football ever play another Mercer as college football changes? Never say never | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

This summer’s blockbuster announcement that Texas and Oklahoma would join the SEC and form a 16-team mega-league by 2025 has brought with it all sorts of excitement as well speculation, the stock in trade of any college fan base worth its foam fingers. 

That has included a great deal of conjecture and guesswork about what will happen to non-conference schedules. Some people envision an NFL-like schedule with only Power Five games, every one a marquee matchup. It doesn’t really work that way, even in the NFL, where for every Chiefs vs. Steelers matchup there is a Lions-Cardinals Thursday-night contest that doesn’t move the needle.

Others wonder that even if most of the major brands play only 10 Power Five games on a 12-game schedule, which seems likely, a reduction to two home-only games might mean the end of matchups between FBS teams like Alabama and opponents from the FCS.

In other words, while no one is putting games like Alabama-Mercer on the endangered species list just yet, there might be a push in some circles to curtail such games. It’s not something the NCAA, which has lost its superpowers, would mandate. But could it happen? 

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Contacted by the Tuscaloosa News on Tuesday, Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne would not speculate on future schedules, saying that there were “too many unknowns” right now to comment fairly on any given scenario. 

The first of those unknowns, of course, is for the SEC to determine exactly what schedule model it will adopt with 16 teams. That will probably be settled over conference calls and committee meetings for the next year or so, sessions that would make for some entertaining SEC Network programming as every school tries to position itself for 2025. There is still some speculation that Oklahoma and Texas might be incorporated into the schedules earlier, but there would have to be some mighty contractual maneuvering for that to happen. 

The slow drift seems to be, for most leagues, to have a nine-game conference schedule and an additional Power Five opponent. Even if future games against Texas, already on the 2022 and 2023 Crimson Tide schedules and likely to stay there as non-conference contests, and Oklahoma, which will face Alabama in the late 2020s, stay intact, UA will still have home-and-homes with Ohio State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Florida State and others. The Alliance, whatever it turns out to be, trying to change that but scrapping Alabama-Ohio State in favor of the Buckeyes vs. Cal isn’t exactly the best strategy for leagues looking to have the best-paying television contracts possible. 

Because it’s all about economics. 

There are arguments to be made that FBS/FCS games aren’t inherently fair. The 12-game, all-even schedule has its merits. But before anyone says we may never see Alabama play Mercer, or Furman or Georgia Southern again (the loss of Nick Saban’s “tin horn” quote alone would have diminished college football), consider this: Sometimes scheduling is unfair and not just for the FBS elite. Last week, Mercer played a team from Point University of West Point, Ga., an NAIA team more overmatched than the Bears might be today. Mercer won, 69-0.

Setting aside the classic 2011 Saban rant after Georgia Southern, good things can happen. The Citadel came to Tuscaloosa in 2018, scored first, got all sorts of social media exposure and seemed to have a memorable trip. Mercer will be well-coached and will give a good effort for the same reason that people buy a single $2 lottery ticket (in some states): You never know. And while it’s the other end of the spectrum, the SEC already has one loss to an FCS team this year as East Tennessee State handled Vanderbilt fairly easily last week.

One other point, going back to the economics. When New Mexico State comes to Tuscaloosa later this season, it will receive a $1.9 million guarantee. Mercer will get roughly a third of that, $600,000, budget-making money for the Bears. Will fans make much of a distinction in the two opponents? No, but at a $1.3 million difference, Alabama’s financial officers will. 

No one knows anything for sure until the SEC and the other leagues provide clarity, both on league schedules and the College Football Playoff. But, as in the Appalachian woods, you might still see a Bear from time to time. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecilhurt@gannett.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt