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August 25, 2012Fans making the early-season pilgrimage to Cowboys Stadium, whether they come from Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor, may be witnessing the end of an era - or the beginning.
No one is quite sure what will happen to games pairing big-time college football programs from different conferences in the future. Some think that, as leagues expand and more schools find themselves with nine-game conference schedules (the Southeastern Conference seems to be floating in that direction, too), sheer economics will deter teams from giving up home games.
Money was a consideration for Michigan that almost scuttled Saturday's game between the Wolverines and Crimson Tide.
"When we give up a home game, that's a significant impact on our budget and our year," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told the Detroit Free Press this week. "(But) ESPN wanted it to be us, Alabama wanted it to be us, two historic programs, that's what we do. ... I wasn't going to tell them no if we could make it financially viable."
The $4.7 million buyout sounds like a financial windfall, but both schools actually make more from a home game. On the other hand, there is no putting a price tag on exposure - especially for the team that wins.
America is anxious for any college football at this point in August, but Alabama-Michigan is the game people want to see, a sort of perfect magnetic storm attracting interest from all angles.
Alabama is the defending BCS champion. Michigan has one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game in Denard Robinson. Both are ranked in the top 10, and ranking does matter, although it matters more as the season wears on.
Oklahoma and Notre Dame, also two of the elite historic programs, play on Oct. 27 in Norman, Okla., but that game has attracted far less attention and won't even register for most fans unless it has some bearing on the BCS race (possible, since Oklahoma may well be favored to win all its games).
LSU and Oregon, last year's Cowboys Stadium opener, matched two explosive teams (and ultimately did have BCS implications) but those teams, even though both are in the top five in the current AP poll, don't have quite the same cachet.
At this point, Alabama still has a few big name nonconference games on future schedules - Virginia Tech in Atlanta next year, West Virginia there in 2014 - a home-and-home with Michigan State beyond that (if it indeed remains unaltered). Nick Saban likes such games, and as long as he (or his influence) is still in Tuscaloosa, other games are possible. UA has hoped for a matchup with Notre Dame for years, but the two have never managed to make all the details work.
I know 2020 seems as far in the future as Star Trek, but it would be great to see Alabama and USC work out something to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic games from the 1970 and 1971 seasons. Nebraska, Texas, Ohio State, Penn State after Reconstruction - all would be intriguing.
Perhaps the coming Playoff Era will facilitate that in two ways, by generating so much revenue that teams will be less stingy about relinquishing home dates and by rewarding teams (especially in an eight-team format) for strength of schedule. Hopefully, Alabama and Michigan will play a classic that will further whet the already insatiable appetite for good games - and dollars will not overwhelm sense when it comes to big-time pairings.