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May 22, 2012

HURT: Majors should control opening weekend

How hungry is the University of Alabama football fan base for the arrival of fall? Well, something as simple as the announcement of a kickoff time for the first game - 7 p.m. on Sept. 1 against Michigan, if you managed to miss it - caused a social media buzz. Of course, this isn't a run-of-the-mill opener. Both teams will be in this year's top 10 and both are unquestionably in history's Top Five. It's the sort of matchup usually reserved for the postseason, and even then it's rare.

But with all the talk about the changes in postseason football, and particularly the new SEC-Big 12 "champions" matchup, doesn't it seem sensible that the conferences - especially what now appear to be the four soon-to-be super conferences (the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12 and the Pac-12) should take charge of opening weekend as well. With the coming playoff, even a four-team playoff, it makes more sense than ever.

To be honest, a Georgia-Oklahoma game would seem far more compelling to me on Labor Day than New Year's Day, if those teams are out of the playoff picture. Not every matchup can be Alabama-Michigan, and not every one can sell out an NFL-sized stadium in a neutral city in a matter of hours.

But shouldn't the leagues be taking ownership of those games, instead of the bowl committees in their respective cities? It's great that we have Alabama-Michigan and Auburn-Clemson (and while Clemson is now in the ACC, it may not be there forever, if the football-oriented schools start to flee) and even Boise State-Michigan State in the first week, but wouldn't it be even better if we also had Texas-USC and Virginia Tech-Nebraska, even if they were on campus, or nearby?

At the moment, the member schools don't want the conferences to take over the neutral-site openers. The reason is obvious, just as it is obvious why Alabama is in a game of that nature almost every year (cue the recent announcement of the 2014 season opener between the Crimson Tide and West Virginia). The games represent a big financial windfall - a guaranteed $4.7 million for each team in the case of Alabama-Michigan, not to be shared with anyone else.

But if the big conferences are going to be negotiating mega-multimillion dollar deals for post-season programming, wouldn't early-season programming be just as lucrative? And doesn't it feel like we're headed in the direction - maybe not by 2015, but perhaps by 2020 - of an entire schedule of major conference games? If leagues are expanding to 16 teams, that will mean at least nine conference games, if not 10. I am not saying that such a schedule would be best for Alabama financially - UA would still be carrying more of its share of the money load in a 16-team league that included Vanderbilt, and collects far more ticket and donation revenue for a lousy home game than most schools. But big-name scheduling does seem to be the wave of the future.

More big games, and a bigger playoff in which a 9-3 team, for instance, isn't automatically eliminated. After all, a four-team playoff with four super leagues is, in essence, going to be an eight-team playoff, with all the league championship games basically being quarterfinals. Will there be no more Alabama-San Jose State games, or Ohio State-Bowling Green contests? That's possible. Will those games be mourned? Not at all by fans sitting with a remote control, but deeply by athletic directors at schools below the super level. It would be a profound change, but the more that the television dollar comes into play, the likelier it becomes.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.




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