Ahh! Finally, this week, we have the opening game of the college football season. So why are all the calls for tickets for the SECOND game of the year, Penn State? The answer is that Alabama has scheduled a cupcake opener.
Although Alabama is the reigning national champion of 2009, the eyes of the nation could hardly expected to be riveted on the Crimson Tide as it begins the 2010 season against prohibitive underdog San Jose State. The Spartans were 2-10 last year and have a new head coach in Mike McIntyre.
Kickoff Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium is 6 p.m. CDT. The only television coverage will be pay-per-view. The stadium now seats 101,821, and it will be full, though not jam-packed, even with perhaps 2,000 San Jose State fans squeezing in.
Most of the talk about the Crimson Tide schedule this year has focused on six of eight Southeastern Conference opponents having open dates before playing Alabama. The Tide's non-conference opponents in addition to San Jose State and Penn State are Duke and Georgia State.
For Bama, this is a purchased home game and a purchased victory. San Jose State gets a big payoff, which its athletics department surely needs, and its out-manned team probably gets pummelled.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said he does not concern himself with the out-of-conference schedule.
There are two schools of thought on opening games for the nation's elite. One is to have a meaningful contest, a game against a legitimate contender. Win it and the season is jump-started, confidence built. The last two seasons Alabama had those meaningful opening games, against top ten teams Clemson in 2008 and Virginia Tech in 2009, both in the Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. The 2008 and 2009 teams won 12 regular season games, and of course last year's team added the Southeastern Conference and BCS National Championship games to the record.
Would Alabama have been so good without those high-profile games? Probably. No one would ever suggest that a Saban-coached team didn't have its full concentration on the opponent regardless, but human nature is that Tide players in 2008 and 2009 could have felt a greater urgency to prepare for those opening opponents than players would feel about San Jose State.
Another part of that "tough opener" theory is that a team losing it still has plenty of time to win its way back into national championship contention.
There are other concerns, certainly.
Alabama's football program has the expense for the stadium, coach salaries, scholarships, room, board, travel, etc. that goes into having a big-time football team. And it also has to pay most of the freight for all other sports, softball and baseball, gymnastics and swimming, etc. Having a home game means millions more than a road game. You can have Penn State on the home schedule, but you're going to have to pay that back with a very expensive road game. San Jose State is one of dozens and dozens of teams that can be bought for a fraction of what will be made.
Part of the argument made by those who prefer the San Jose States of the world is that the SEC is tough enough without high-profile out-of-conference opponents. And few SEC members jump into the season against a tough opponent. Florida opens with Miami...but not THAT Miami. It's Miami of Ohio. Arkansas State and Jacksonville State, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin are the opponents of SEC teams on opening day. (LSU is in the Kickoff Classic against North Carolina, which is decent. Mississippi State against Memphis is okay. Kentucky opens with an in-state rival, Louisville, and Vanderbilt plays Northwestern in a Brain Bowl contest.
Over the years Alabama has had mixed results with opening games.
There has been much conversation recently about the documentary movie on Nick Saban, "Gamechanger." A highly-recommended book, "Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Alabama Football History," ($24.95 plus shipping, call 205-345-5074) begins with the opening play in the opening game of 1971.
Any poll of Alabama football historians would have the 1971 opening game in the Los Angeles Coliseum against Southern Cal at or near the top in important Crimson Tide football games. Bama had gone 6-5 in 1969 and 6-5-1 in 1970. Coach Paul Bryant was pinning all hopes on a switch to a new offense, the wishbone, in the daunting task against the Trojans. Alabama won that game, went on to an 11-win season, and would win three national championships in the ensuing nine years.
At the other end of the spectrum, Alabama won the 1964 and 1965 national championships and was pre-season number one in 1966. But Alabama opened the season against the unknown Louisiana Tech. Even the convincing 34-0 win couldn't prevent Alabama falling to third, and that was the final result in an 11-0 season. Bama was ridiculed for playing such a lightweight, and it almost certainly played some role in Notre Dame and Michigan State, who played to a 10-10 tie, finishing ahead of Alabama for the national championship.
Of course, a team doesn't always win the opening game. Alabama's 1965 team opened the season ranked fifth in the nation, lost to Georgia in the season-opener in Athens, 18-17, and Bama fell from the top ten. But the loss in the first game of the season and a series of other events, enabled the Tide to claw its way back to the top, winning the national championship in the Orange Bowl at the end of the year.
On the other hand, second-ranked Alabama lost its 1975 opening game to Missouri, 20-7, and fell to 14th. Playing a very good schedule that included non-conference games against Clemson and Washington, Bama finished 11-1, the final win a 13-6 victory over Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, but could never climb higher than third in the nation.
In 1999, Alabama went 10-3 and opened the 2000 season ranked third in the nation. Bama went to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA in the season opener and lost 35-24. From there the Crimson Tide spiraled to a 3-8 record (including a homecoming loss to Central Florida) and the end of the Mike DuBose era. (Hmm? Does that mean losing to UCLA was not a bad thing?)
(Although this discussion is of season-opening games, a terrible non-conference game can strike at any moment. The Crimson Tide can expect plenty of criticism for having Georgia State on the schedule on November 18.)
One thing not in the strength of schedule equation: fans. Tickets are high-priced at Alabama, particularly when the Tide Pride or Zone or skybox premium is added on. For the bucks being shelled out, most would prefer good football games, but there is no fan vote.
The ultimate question is whether the process to a national championship is better served by an opening game against a Louisiana Tech or a Virginia Tech.