Athletic director Jay Jacobs said Saturday that Auburn, which has been looking for a new opponent since Southern Mississippi asked out of a scheduled Sept. 24 game, will probably play a Division I-AA opponent next season.
Jacobs is working with the Southeastern Conference office in an attempt to juggle Auburn's SEC schedule. As it stands now, the Tigers play most of their home games early and most of their sway games late. Jacobs and coach Tommy Tuberville would like for the schedule to be more balanced.
Should they be successful in that, Jacobs says, it might change things. But if they're not--and they don't expect to be--it seems all but certain that a Division I-AA team will replace Southern Mississippi.
In the big picture, it's not really a big deal. Numerous Division I-A teams play I-AA teams. Florida State opens next season with The Citadel. Ole Miss also plays The Citadel. LSU played Division I-AA Western Illinois and won the BCS championship in 2003 despite a loss to Florida at home.
Auburn's game against The Citadel became an issue last season, the first time three BCS conference teams finished with perfect records. In truth, it wouldn't have mattered who Auburn had played, but the perception remains that playing The Citadel played a role in keeping the Tigers out of the Orange Bowl.
Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill will be back for his senior season for the Tigers, who will open the 2005 season riding a 15-game winning streak.
As a result, there is considerable sensitivity among Auburn supporters about playing another game against a I-AA school.
With Georgia Tech already on the schedule, nobody at Auburn has any interest in playing a game next season against another nonconference team with a realistic chance of winning. The best-case scenario would be to play a weak team from a BCS conference. In the silly computer rankings that are part of the BCS formula, you at least get some credit for the strong conference games those teams play. But that's not going to happen, at least not before the NCAA approves playing 12-game seasons. Those teams want to play home-and-home, and Auburn isn't going to do that.
Why? That's a million-dollar question, literally.
According to Terry Windle, the Auburn athletic department's chief financial officer, a nonconference home game brings in approximately $1.7 million in tickets sales and $80,000 in concessions. Security and other expenses total approximately $125,000. A guarantee must be paid to the opponent. Georgia Tech will receive $300,000, the same amount Auburn received for its game against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta in 2003.
Auburn got $500,000 for going to Southern California in 2002 and gave USC $500,000 in 2003. Coast-to-coast travel expenses consumed most of both guarantees, meaning the games brought in basically nothing for the visiting teams.
When all the numbers are added up, Windle says, playing six home games instead of seven creates a shortfall of approximately $1 million.
Games against Division I-AA teams generate little excitement, but they serve a purpose. The Citadel fell between LSU and Tennessee last season. The last thing Auburn needed on that Saturday was another emotional, hard-fought game. They are also lucrative. Division I-AA teams don't have to be paid as much as I-A teams.
What Auburn did last season would have landed it in the championship game in any other season during the BCS era. That it didn't happen last season will always stick in the craw of a lot of Auburn folks, but it was like the perfect storm. USC and Oklahoma were ranked 1-2 in the preseason. For the first time in the history of college football, the top two teams in the preseason polls went undefeated through the regular season.
On top of that, the SEC was perceived, wrongly in my opinion, to be "down" last season. The Big 12, which wasn't nearly as strong as the SEC, is never considered down by the computers. Even the Pac-10, which was extremely weak behind USC and California, was rated better than the SEC.
But that's another topic for another time.
Auburn plays road games at LSU, Arkansas and Georgia next season. Georgia Tech, the opening opponent, is likely to be nationally ranked. Throw in the rest of the SEC schedule, and there will be no reason to apologize for whoever fills in for Southern Mississippi.
By the 2006 season, the NCAA is expected to have given the go-ahead to play 12 games. At that point, there'll be no reason for not playing a home-and-home series against an attractive opponent.
For the coming season, a Division I-AA opponent might be the best Auburn can do.