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September 7, 2012

Why does Alabama play these games?

TUSCALOOSA | Ask the question at your own peril. The line of inquiry, a most unpopular one met with derision and mocking glares, goes against the very fabric upon which the University of Alabama football complex was built and operates.

Yet the questions remain. It's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about: Why play Western Kentucky? What benefits does the No. 1 team in the country derive from playing today's game?

To Nick Saban and his players, the very proposal of such a query is disrespectful on every front. It's disrespectful to The Process, the philosophy and mission statement of Crimson Tide football, and it's disrespectful to the opponent.

"When you people start writing stuff about people that we're playing that doesn't give them the proper respect, that's not fair," Saban said this week. "It's not fair to them, to their players who work hard. It's not fair to our players, who need to respect them. And to make presumptions like you all make really, really upsets me. It really does. It's so unfair."

Anyone indoctrinated with The Process knows it's not about who you play. It's about how you play. Play to a standard, Saban says. And if you don't play to that standard, well … anyone remember Louisiana-Monroe in 2007?

That's Saban's take, but there are questions on the subject worth pursuing.

For starters, it's a matter of logistics. Year-in and year-out, Alabama contracts a 12-game regular season. Eight games are against fellow Southeastern Conference schools, leaving the UA decision-makers with four dates to fill. It is Saban's preference to begin each season with a marquee contest that energizes his team after a long, tiring training camp and excites the fan base: Clemson in 2008, Virginia Tech in 2009, a home-and-home series with Penn State the next two years. Last week it was the game in Dallas against Michigan, and UA will play Virginia Tech and West Virginia in Atlanta to start off the next two seasons.

"We did play two teams in these neutral-site games before, and played horrible the next week, because a lot of the same kind of stuff happened," Saban said, speaking of the hype that surrounded Alabama in 2008 and '09.

The other three games are usually against teams from mid-major conferences, or even from the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Divsion I-AA. This season it's Western Kentucky today, Florida Atlantic in two weeks and Western Carolina on Nov. 17.

Outspoken voices like Chris Fowler, host of ESPN's College Gameday, have questioned the scheduling of games like these. At halftime of last week's Alabama-Michigan game, Fowler specifically referenced the empty seats at Georgia's Sanford Stadium and Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as the Bulldogs and Gators hosted Buffalo and Bowling Green, respectively. Fowler's argument might have been better aimed at Oklahoma State, which beat FCS Savannah State, 84-0, or Florida State, which put a 69-3 whipping on Murray State, but his point remains.

"You have to wonder if these are the kind of games fans want to see," Fowler said.

A higher-ranked opponent would make television executives happy and provide a better game-day experience for fans, but is it the smart thing to do when you're chasing championships?

In the case of Alabama, is it wise to beef up an out-of-conference schedule that already features one high-profile matchup each season to go alongside the meat-grinder conference slate? After all, it is widely believed that the SEC will soon go to a nine-game conference scheduling model.

Consider also that teams aren't exactly lining up to play what Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart half-seriously termed the "next expansion team in the NFL."

Taggart even admitted he tried to find a way out of today's game.

"This was pretty much in place when I came back as coach," Taggart said. "We tried to work them and didn't get them worked out."

It isn't as easy as finding a team and plugging it into an empty date, Saban said while explaining the arduous task of out-of-conference scheduling.

"We need a couple of games next year," Saban said. "Look, it's difficult because if you're not willing to go home-and-home with somebody - which if you're playing a neutral-site game (like against Michigan this season) I don't want to go home-and-home in another game - so you've got to get teams who will come here and play.

"What's been very, very difficult for the next few years is the SEC's got to tell us who we're going to play and when before we can go schedule other games, so we're working through that right now.

"I'd rather play teams that are not going to be so different that you aren't improving your team against what they're going to face from other teams which you play in the conference, if that makes sense. Like playing Georgia Southern last year, that was a good experience for us that we may have to play that offense some other time, but drawing that right in the middle of the season, being so different, that doesn't necessarily - and they did a great job and I have a lot of respect for them and what they do, it's a great offense - but you're preparing your team for something that's totally foreign from what you're going to see any other time that they play.

"We'd like to play against teams that have some carryover in what we're going to do down the road versus someone else."

Western Kentucky fits that mold.

"I think Tennessee does a lot of things that we do," Taggart said. "I would say that's probably it (among SEC teams), and I see Alabama doing some of those things, too."

And it's not just Alabama that has scheduling difficulty. Florida State was originally set to face West Virginia today before the Mountaineers pulled out of the game in February. More than 70 schools said no before the Seminoles found a taker in Savannah State.

This type of game presents the opportunity, if Alabama plays to its standard, for back-ups and younger, inexperienced players to log valuable minutes, while allowing coaches to watch them in a game environment. It creates the possibility for increased playing time down the road.

Of course that way of thinking is so foreign to Saban that he refuses to speculate on the subject. Asked whether this game is valuable because it might afford back-up quarterback Phillip Ely playing time, Saban scoffed.

"It is presumptive," Saban said. "And it's typical of what you all would think and what our fans would think that because these guys play in the Sun Belt that they're not very good. It really is presumptive and so presumptive that I'm not even going to answer it."

So why does Western Kentucky agree to travel 600 miles round-trip to face an athletically superior team?

Money and exposure.

A total of $2.125 million will be paid to West Kentucky ($650,000), Florida Atlantic ($1 million) and Western Carolina ($475,000) for filling out Alabama's schedule. That money is vital to those respective athletic departments, former Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said.

"Playing these games is beneficial on a number of levels," Waters said. "The money is the obvious one. You've got to buy a lot of volleyballs, a lot of tennis balls and a lot of golf balls. So a game like this contributes to that.

"The other piece of that is the publicity that goes with it. The publicity of playing an Alabama on a national stage on national television is huge for a program.

"The rest of the story is from time to time this group of schools has actually won a game. Once you win one of those, it really becomes a signature win."

Scheduling up is a balancing act, Waters said.

"It comes down to how many of these game you play," he said. "You can play so many of them you can destroy your local fan base. That just creates all kinds of problems. The example is back in the days of old Northeast Louisiana. They literally were financing their entire athletic program by playing these types of games. They only played three or four I-AA games at home, and then they couldn't imagine why they didn't have anybody there. There's a fine line. You've still got to go out and win.

"You can play too many of these games and you come home and you're 0-4 and you've killed your ticket base. You've got to make your money at home, and sometimes that becomes difficult."


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Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron.suttles@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.


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