Question For Tide: Is Schedule Lucky?

Former Alabama Coach Paul Bryant had a legendary career, primarily because he recruited well and coached those players up. Bryant, though, was wont to point out the importance of luck – “injury luck and schedule luck” – in having a championship season.

Among many similarities to Bryant, Alabama Coach Nick Saban also recruits well and coaches well. Also like Bryant, Saban has had Crimson Tide teams that have been able to overcome tough schedules and unfortunate injuries en route to national championships.

Part of the “luck factor” is that it isn’t known until later, perhaps not until after the fact. No one can predict injuries, of course, and even schedule luck can change. An opponent can be much better or much worse at the time the game is played than appeared to be the case pre-season.

There’s more to schedule luck than just the strength of the opponent. Where the games are played is a part of the equation. In the preseason, it appears that Auburn and Georgia will be Bama’s toughest opponents, and both those games are road games for the Tide.

And so is when. And not just the way South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier spoke of preferring to play Georgia early in the season when the Bulldogs frequently have several players suspended.

For instance, an opponent with a new quarterback or a lot of youth may be tougher later in the season than early. Also, playing two tough games in a row while the second of those two has a cupcake prior can be a factor.

An early look at Alabama’s schedule indicates the Crimson Tide has a very difficult task ahead.

Throw out three games that should never be on the schedule of a team the caliber of Alabama. It is a travesty and an insult to Bama ticket-buyers that the Tide will play Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, and Charleston Southern.

The rest, though, is very, very difficult.

First of all, Alabama is part of the brutal Southeastern Conference Western Division. Every one of those seven teams is going to receive recognition in various preseason polls, meaning each could be nationally ranked.

Bama also plays the teams that are considered the top two in the SEC East, Tennessee the traditional extradivisional opponent and Georgia which rotates on the Tide schedule this year.

Other than the aforementioned three soft non-conference games, Alabama opens the season against Wisconsin, a team that will be nationally ranked when the Tide and Badgers meet in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 5.

Bad luck or not, that is nine teams on the Alabama schedule that will be tough tests.

Bama went through a stretch a few years ago when it seemed the SEC schedule was set up to give an inordinate number of teams open dates prior to games against the Tide. Although the SEC denied any intent, statistical evidence suggested otherwise. That, though, was then. There is no suggestion of conspiracy today.

As usual, Alabama and LSU will continue to have open dates before playing one another on Nov. 7 in Tuscaloosa.

The Tide also has easy games before three tough SEC games. They are:

• MTSU before playing Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa Sept. 19 (with the Rebels playing Fresno State the week prior).

• ULM before playing at Georgia on Oct. 3 (with Georgia playing an even weaker team, Southern University, the previous week).

• Charleston Southern before playing the final regular season game of the year at Auburn on Nov. 28 (with Auburn playing Idaho).

Alabama doesn’t benefit from the “looking ahead” factor. In some cases, the luck factor includes the opponent’s foe the week after playing a team, but no team looks past Alabama to the next week. Georgia, for instance, has a key SEC East game against Tennessee the week after Alabama, but the Bulldogs will be focused on Bama.

Bama has a tough four-game stretch in October – at Georgia on Oct. 3, Arkansas on Oct. 10, at Texas A&M on Oct. 17, and Tennessee on Oct. 24. Throw in games against Wisconsin and Ole Miss in the first eight weeks of the season, and one can see that Alabama is facing a difficult opening two months.

The Tide will be doing that with a new quarterback, new tailback, new featured wide receiver, etc.

Putting aside for the moment Saban’s lecture point of worrying about the process, not about a goal, fans (who have no control over the process) have goals for their teams. Other than wins over top rivals, the first goal is to win the SEC West.

All SEC West teams have six games against their intradivision rivals. Therefore, the difference can be which two teams they have drawn from the East.

Alabama definitely has the toughest draw with Georgia and Tennessee. The others:

Arkansas plays at Tennessee and home to Missouri; Auburn plays at Kentucky and hosts Georgia; LSU is at South Carolina and home to Florida; Ole Miss is home to Vanderbilt and at Florida; Mississippi State is home to Kentucky and at Missouri; and Texas A&M is home to South Carolina and at Vanderbilt.

Four SEC East teams have traditional non-conference games that serve as their difficult out-of-league experiences. They are Florida vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, South Carolina vs. Clemson, and Kentucky vs. Louisville.

Alabama’s difficult non-conference game has become an annual neutral site game, this year against Wisconsin in Dallas. These non-conference games come into play primarily in the quest for a national championship.

Other than Bama and the four teams with traditional opponents, the “tough” games for other SEC teams are:

Arkansas hosting Texas Tech, Auburn vs. Louisville in Atlanta, LSU at Syracuse, Missouri vs. BYU in Kansas City; Tennessee hosting Oklahoma; and Texas A&M against Arizona State in Houston.

What about Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt? None of them play a difficult non-conference opponent.

Although the difficulty of the schedule may change through the season, the preseason conclusion has to be that Alabama has a very difficult task, and if the Crimson Tide can successfully negotiate the regular season, Bama should be a championship contender.

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