Benjamin Cohen

Once upon a time Alabama’s big non-conference games were home and home

Alabama’s top non-conference games now played at neutral sites

This is probably just beating the head against the wall, particularly with Alabama having its marquee season opening game Saturday against fellow blue blood program Southern Cal. For the past nine years (including this season) the Crimson Tide has played high-profile games seven times to open the season.


Give former Athletics Director Mal Moore credit for foresight in seeing the benefit of the Alabama brand taking on a name opponent to start the season, and a primary benefit he saw was that neutral sites – Atlanta four of those seasons and Dallas three including this year – would pay big money to have the Crimson Tide.


Alabama (and all other athletics departments) have to pay big bills to support not only football, but a variety of sports that earn little to no revenue and are red ink sports – all the women’s sports and men’s sports with the exception of basketball.


Alabama has opened the season against the likes of Clemson in 2008 (Alabama won 34-10), Virginia Tech in 2009 (UA 34-24) and 2013 (UA 35-10), Michigan in 2012 (UA 41-14), West Virginia in 2014 (UA 33-23), and Wisconsin (UA 35-17) in 2015. In addition to mostly convincing wins for Coach Nick Saban’s Tide, those games reaped millions of dollars and national television exposure for Alabama. And unlike this weekend when there are so many high-profile games, in most of those seasons Alabama was one of the very few elite college football names with such an ambitious opening.


First and foremost, those wins are more impressive than the three seasons Bama opened the season against so-called cupcakes, the staple of many big programs. Those wins were over Western Carolina (52-6), San Jose State (48-3), and Kent State (48-7), all in Bryant-Denny Stadium.


Alabama fans and millions of others will be watching when ABC televises No. 1 ranked Bama against 20th-ranked USC from Arlington, Texas, at 7 p.m. CDT Saturday.


But would they not also be watching if that game was in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and played again in 2017 in the Los Angeles Coliseum?


Last year’s Wisconsin game (and the trip to Dallas) is no more than a dim memory today. Would it not have been more of an event if Tide fans had made the trip to Camp Randall, and welcomed the Badgers to Tuscaloosa in a return trip? Alabama vs. Wisconsin rather than Alabama vs. Western Kentucky?


Over the years Alabama has played many non-conference opponents in big games – a few of these neutral site games (Ray Perkins’s Tide opened the 1986 season defeating Ohio State at the Meadowlands, just outside of New York), many bowl games, and many noteworthy games under a home-and-home contract.


Some of those notable games were played against Southern Cal, the Tide and Trojans playing at Legion Field in Birmingham (which was Alabama’s primary home field for big games until Bryant-Denny was upgraded) and Los Angeles.


There were home-and-home contracts with Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA, Washington, Penn State, Nebraska, Boston College, Temple, Hawaii, and others. (Also a few dogs, Memphis, Cincinnati, Southwestern Louisiana.)


Opposing fans were in awe of Alabama’s following (and also wondered how Crimson Tide fans were able to get so many tickets in their stadiums). Many Bama fans share stories of the lifelong friends they made with fans of opposing schools at tailgates in places like Norman, Okla., and State College, Penn.


Check out authoritative histories of Alabama football and you’ll find that a game considered perhaps most important in Bama and Southern football history was the Tide’s 1922 win over Penn in Philadelphia in 1922. That 9-7 upset was as startling as it would be if Penn came to Tuscaloosa today and defeated Alabama.


Saban was asked whether he would rather play neutral site or home-and-home games. He said, “Well, I'd rather play here in Tuscaloosa. You think I like playing in Dallas better than playing in Tuscaloosa? The issue is getting people to play you in Tuscaloosa that are quality opponents and then when you do home-and-home, that means next year we'd have to play in California. So next year we wouldn't make any money, this year we would.

“This is a business decision but it's also a program decision in the tremendous amount of exposure, when you play a quality opponent like USC that has great tradition, has a very good team, a top-20 team. There's a lot of national exposure the program gets.


"I always go back to when we played Clemson, we weren't even ranked. They were ninth in the country and we beat them over there in Atlanta. That sort of ignited the whole program in terms of the exposure that we got and all those type of things.


“We think playing in Dallas is a wonderful opportunity for our players. We think they all enjoy it. It's a beautiful stadium, one of the nicest places in the country and they enjoy the competition of playing against a great opponent. So I'm sure this will be a tough, physical game for us and wherever we play it, we have to get ready for a challenge."


If one could wave a magic wand and return Alabama to the big home-and-home contracts, where would a Crimson Tide fan want to follow Bama?


Here are some that might be interesting, starting with the aforementioned Wisconsin, and including Austin against Texas, Michigan in the Big House, Ohio State in the Horseshoe. Alabama bought out of a home-and-home against Michigan State, which enraged the Spartans, but in light of the two bowl games played since then (Alabama wins by 49-7 and 38-0), Sparty might not be so anxious for that series.


Those are just the new possibilities. There would be nothing wrong with renewing the series with Penn State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Southern Cal, etc.


Even those thousands who couldn’t follow the Tide across the country might consider the missed trip to South Bend to be worth it to have Notre Dame in Tuscaloosa.


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It may seem those are bygone days, not likely to return. One can hope, though.

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