Though Auburn's opener against Southern California is its most interesting in years, maybe ever, the truth is it has much more potential for damage than it does for good. Win it and you get lots of positive attention, but you still have to navigate a treacherous SEC schedule to win a championship. Lose it and you might be out of the national championship race. Lose it and you for sure have to win 12 straight to have a shot at playing in the big game in the Sugar Bowl. Fans love big nonconference games. They also love big bowl games and championships.
In 1983, Auburn played Texas in the second game of the season and lost 20-7. Auburn did not lose again. Had it played, say, Western Kentucky instead, the players from that team would be wearing national championship rings today. A Kickoff Classic loss to Miami in 1984 might have been the difference between spending the holidays in Memphis for the Liberty Bowl and in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.
There are lots of schools that need to play those kinds of games. Those in the SEC aren't among them. Strength of schedule matters only in the BCS rankings, and to be in that position an SEC school must play eight league games and the championship game. That is more than enough to take care of any concerns with the BCS computers.
I don't believe the majority of Auburn fans, at least not the ones I've heard from, agree with me. And they have valid points as well. Season tickets are expensive, and games against the likes of Western Kentucky aren't exciting. But fans of the most successful and enduring programs go to watch their team, not the opponent. Nebraska plays some of the most woeful teams in Division IA, but it has sold out hundreds of consecutive games in a remote college town. Nebraska fans go for the experience of being there, whether there is a high-profile opponent on the field or not.
Auburn created a minor stir last week when it announced it had canceled games scheduled against Clemson in 2006 and 2007. Not much mention was made of the fact that Clemson had already canceled games scheduled for 2008 and 2009. Auburn also canceled a two-game series with Virginia Tech scheduled for 2010-2011. The reason--and it is a valid one--that Auburn officials give is that they need to play seven home games for financial reasons. The difference in a home game against an opponent that will come for a guarantee and playing a game on the road is usually going to be in excess of $1 million.
Some schools have no choice. Florida must play Florida State home and home. Georgia must play Georgia Tech home and home. Others have different philosophies. Tennessee usually plays at least one nationally prominent opponent, but the Vols also have a 107,000-seat stadium and a little more financial freedom because of it.
The 12-game schedules allowed the past two seasons because of how the calendar fell opened up possibilities for more matchups like we'll see on Aug. 30 when USC comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium. There was widespread feeling that once the 12-game schedule came, it was here to stay. But the old 11-game schedule is slated to return next season. Even if there was interest in changing it, it's probably too late to do it.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips was a bit disingenuous in his tone after it was revealed that series had been canceled. He didn't bother to mention the two games Clemson had already canceled. Auburn didn't whine when Bowling Green canceled out of a game scheduled for next year. Having said all that, I believe Auburn needs to stop canceling series it has agreed to. Not playing Florida State under the circumstances in 1998 made sense, but it also brought a swarm of negative publicity. Every time Auburn cancels a game, that is going to be brought up. If someone asked me, I would say schedule more intelligently in the future, but suck it up, keep your word and play the games you agreed to. Of course, the safest bet of all is that no one is going to ask me.