Why Alabama football schedule in future has flexibility and could be great for fans | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

The 1986 Alabama football team opened the season against Ohio State on a neutral field, hosted Notre Dame in Birmingham, and took on Penn State in Tuscaloosa as part of an insidiously tough non-conference schedule that would never be assembled in today's environment.

That team, Ray Perkins' last as coach, won two of those three games but fell out of the SEC race with late-season losses to LSU and Auburn. Some important framing: Back in '86, the SEC was a 10-team league that played just six conference games.

We begin with this history lesson as means of illustrating the significance, and unusual nature, of what potentially could be coming to Crimson Tide fans as early as 2025: a schedule that, in modern context, could be as exciting as any slate UA has played since Perkins' last stand.

Beginning in that year, Alabama has stockpiled contracts to play non-conference Power Five schools at a rate of two per season for 10 years. Meanwhile, the SEC is mulling a move from eight to nine conference games when Texas and Oklahoma officially join the league.

The fusion of those two things – nine league games plus two marquee non-conference battles – would leave room for just one small-school opponent. Just one game that (usually) is uncompetitive, uninspiring, and results in fans making an early exit from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Imagine a 2025 Alabama schedule that includes the current SEC grind, plus Texas and OU, and also non-con tussles with Wisconsin and Florida State.

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Fans win.

Contracts for non-conference games have plenty of out clauses, of course, so this is no certainty. A couple weeks ago I asked Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne whether a nine-game SEC slate plus two Power Five non-conference games could co-exist on a UA schedule.

His 177-word response, boiled down to two, was "we'll see."

Alabama's aggressive contracting with top non-conference schools, he added, was conducted under the presumption of an eight-game SEC schedule. But he didn’t rule out taking on all comers.

Whether the SEC moves to a nine-game schedule is just one consideration for UA, however. Another is the College Football Playoff's expansion talks. Taking on 11 Power Five opponents on a 12-game schedule wouldn't make much sense with the current, four-team playoff model. The CFP selection committee lends weight to tougher schedules, but it's never met a schedule it respected enough to extend a bid to a two-loss team.

On the other hand, if the CFP were to unfurl a 12- or 16-team format loaded with at-large berths, Alabama would have all the more reason let its non-conference contracts play out.

For now, UA's diligence works to its favor. It's not difficult to drop a future non-conference foe if needed, but it can be hard to add one, especially on short notice. So while the direction of the sport sorts itself out, Byrne holds plenty of valuable cards: future contracts with Wisconsin, FSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State and more.

It'll be awhile before he has to show his hand, but he might end up signing off on the most compelling schedules a younger generation of Alabama fans has ever seen.

Reach Chase Goodbread at cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.