What Will Happen with 12th Game?

The college football gods graced us with a 12th game last week, and done right, that might be a good thing.

Given the motives – and bank accounts – of athletic departments across the country, including the University of Alabama, it probably won't be.

Unless college athletic directors and football coaches make a concerted effort to use the 12th game as the cherry on top of the proverbial ice cream sundae, this addition to the college football schedule will be nothing but a huge tease.

Given the scheduling attitudes of this state's major institutions, that seems likely, at least in the near future.

Here's a look at Alabama's non-conference opponents from 2004-06:

Utah State (twice), Southern Miss (twice), Western Carolina, Middle Tennessee State, Hawaii, Louisiana-Monroe and Florida International.

The highlights of that group are a Conference USA power (Southern Miss) and a gimmicky Western Athletic Conference team (Hawaii).

I'll wait while you go grab your checkbook, Alabama fans.

Sure, the SEC is one of the toughest (if not the toughest) conference in college football. But beyond that, it's like a tour of the Hostess factory.

Mal Moore is not completely to blame for this: the Crimson Tide athletic director is just doing his part to keep Alabama bowl-eligible during one of the roughest periods in its long, illustrious history.

Moore postponed a home-and-home series with Penn State in the wake of the NCAA probation and the game of musical chairs Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula played behind the head coach's desk in 2002-03.

The theory was simple: water down the schedule, make Shula's job easier and ensure a bowl bid while the Tide worked its way back into championship form. The formula worked last fall – kind of.

Alabama finished 6-5, with the difference-making victory a 52-0 blowout of Division I-AA Western Carolina.

Of course, that win – and the Music City Bowl trip that followed – came with a price: Brodie Croyle's health. Up 31-0 in the first series of the second half, the Tide's heart and soul rolled right, and his right anterior cruciate ligament crumpled.

Minus the sparkplug quarterback, the offense struggled mightily despite the best efforts of Marc Guillon and Spencer Pennington.

Croyle could have hurt his knee at any point in the schedule. Maybe he would have blown it out during a non-contact drill in an average Wednesday practice, or in the first half against South Carolina two weeks later.

But he did it against Western Carolina, which makes the scheduling of the game look rather dubious.

With Croyle, Alabama could have won nine games last season. Without him, the Tide was vanquished by an average Minnesota team in chilly Nashville, the final insult coming when the Gophers' marching band blared out "Rocky Top" after Pennington's final pass went wide.

Had the injury happened against, say, Georgia Tech or Texas, it would have seemed worthwhile. As it was, Croyle's crumpled knee went for naught. Alabama would have won that game with him or without him.

Which brings us back to the 12th game, in a roundabout way.

A scheduling quirk allowed the 12th game in 2002-03, and the Tide played a well-received home-and-home series with Oklahoma, part of a trend that also saw Arkansas take on Texas and Auburn face off with Southern Cal, among others.

Chances of that happening again immediately are slim, especially since the new rule legislating a 12th game also included a clause which states a I-A team can schedule a Division I-AA team and count it against the six victories required for postseason eligibility each season, rather than once every four seasons as per the previous rule.

Furthermore, a 12th game means the opportunity for another home game, which further fattens budgets.

At Alabama, like most major Division I-A schools, football is the athletic department's bell cow, generating a huge portion of a school's revenue.

Moore bases UA's budget on seven home games, which, under the old setup, left marquee home-and-homes out of the question.

"When you're playing 11 games, you can't play (opponents like Penn State)," he said last fall, when the 12-game schedule was a mere proposal. "When you go to Penn State to return the home game, now you have six home games."

A 12th game could make those kind of games easier, but it also could become just another slot for a designated creampuff. It's easy to see an eight-home-game schedule turning into a trend across college football, especially in this age of ever-increasing salary and facility "arms races."

Expect that trend to manifest itself, at least temporarily, at Alabama. The only open dates on the 2006 schedule are Oct. 7 (in between games at Florida and home vs. Ole Miss) and Nov. 25 (in between the Iron Bowl and a potential date in the SEC Championship Game).

Neither date is exactly prime time for a matchup with, say, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Boston College or any team that could even dent momentum during a critical stretch of the season.

Chances are Moore will simply fill the date with Directional School State or a Division I-AA opponent to be named later.

If that's the case, then the 12th game is just a waste of our time – and players' health.

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