A look at why Alabama is playing New Mexico State this week
Alabama and New Mexico State will meet on Saturday in a football game few, if any, have circled on their calendar. The two programs are located more than 1,200 miles apart on a map and are even further away in terms of status. They’ve never played each other before and have no historical ties to speak of.
New Mexico State has a few reasons to travel halfway across the nation to take what Las Vegas says will be a 55.5-point beating from the No. 2 Crimson Tide. The biggest comes in the $1.7 million the Aggies are guaranteed for making the trip. The real question is how these two schools on opposite sides of the college football spectrum even found each other and how such games come together.
New Mexico State athletics director Mario Moccia compares the process to a trip to the grocery store. Imagine Alabama as the customer, combing through its shopping list while searching for what’s available at what prices.
In college football, that grocery store is a software program called Gridiron, and its manager is Dave Brown.
Brown, the former ESPN head of college football scheduling, spent the better part of three decades matching up schools for the network’s high-profile games. Now, he’s viewed as a savior among college athletic directors who can use his subscription service to easily access schedules and any other information needed to piece together future games.
“It’s a very good service. I can look and say, ‘We need a game on this year and this date and we’d be interested in playing somebody from this conference,” Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said. “I can physically go in there and look and see who has opportunities and openings in just a few seconds.”
It’s not just the big schools that work with Brown either. The college football matchmaker is connected to a wide array of athletic directors across the nation and is partially responsible for most non-conference games in the sport.
“You remember that guy who used to marry all those people in mass? I think they called them the Moonies,” Moccia said. “Dave Brown has put together just as many marriages as that organization did way back when.”
For Brown, playing Cupid generally boils down to three essential components — a team willing to go on the road, a team in need of a home game and a date that works for both. While it might sound simple, the complexities of the process have been keeping him in business for years.
"When I’m looking at a situation, those are the things that jump out to me,” he said. “Can we agree on a date? If so, great. Then, as the great Lee Corso said, ‘Not so fast, my friend.’ Because if somebody can’t go on the road, it’s just a short conversation. You’d be surprised how fast all of that whittles away at the options.”
Why New Mexico State needs this game
Like the arranged marriages Moccia referred to above, the buildup to this year’s matchup between Alabama and New Mexico State lacked much romance.
According to an article from the Las Cruces Sun News, the Aggies were given permission to bolster their athletics department upon joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005. By 2010, the department’s deficit had amassed to a staggering $9.5 million.
The New Mexico State Board of Regents claims the spending far exceeded what it should have and has called for the debt to be paid back to the school by 2021. Adding to matters, New Mexico State, which went on to join the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, was then voted out of the conference, forcing the Aggies to become an Independent beginning in the 2018 season.
The litany of misfortune only makes the gleaming payday at the end of Saturday’s game even more enticing.
“It’s not just I need money to make my department operate,” Moccia explained. “I also need money to go to my mortgage payment that the state is mandating.”
Last week, New Mexico State received $600,000 for its trip to Pullman, Wash., which resulted in a 58-7 defeat to Washington State. Along with the $1.7 million for playing Alabama this week, the Aggies will get one last hefty paycheck this season when they collect $1.5 million for a game against Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 9. The gauntlet is far from ideal for Moccia who has a goal of playing in just one guarantee game per season once his department’s debt is paid off. However, for right now, the combined $3.8 million will have to do.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to operate with having just one, but I sure hope I don’t have to play two SEC teams in the future,” Moccia said. “If you look at our future schedules, we have Alabama, we’ve got Florida, Missouri, we’re talking to Texas A&M. Eventually, I’d like to schedule a Power 5 team that isn’t necessarily a world-beater.”
It’s worth noting that as glum as things may seem for New Mexico State, there are reasons for the Aggies to be excited about their trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Moccia points to the 2017 season where receiver Jaleel Scott tallied eight receptions for 149 yards and two touchdowns for the Aggies in a 37-31 defeat to Arizona State. Moccia believes Scott’s performance against Pac-12 competition played a part in him becoming a fourth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens the following year.
“This is something we use a lot in recruiting,” Moccia said. “Being a low-resource school, in addition to playing time and other things like that, we tell those kids they are going to be playing against big competition. We tell them they will be playing Alabama, you’ll be playing the University of Mississippi. Those are games where I don’t care who you are, you can prove yourself.”
Why Alabama is paying up for the game
Alabama’s scheduling decisions are made by three people: Byrne, head coach Nick Saban and deputy director of athletics Finus Gaston. Byrne and Gaston do most of the leg work with the latter handling the majority of the financial matters. However, Saban still has a major say in the process.
“We’re going to schedule games that fit within his vision as the head football coach,” Byrne said. “We talk about philosophies. We talk about opponents. We talk about all those things. He’s been very open to the home-and-homes that we’ve created and continued to add other good games for us.”
Since Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama has primarily gone with a scheduling model that includes one Power Five team, two Group of Five teams and an FCS opponent as its four non-conference foes. Saban has been at the forefront of a recent push for Power 5 teams to only play each other. However, that’s more of a discussion for the future.
As far as Saturday’s matchup is concerned, New Mexico State was likely a product of convenience. Bill Battle was Alabama’s athletic director when this week’s deal was orchestrated in August of 2016. While Battle wasn’t available for comment for this story, here are a couple of things to consider.
As an Independent, New Mexico has more scheduling flexibility to work with. Schools tied to conferences are required to get their non-conference schedules approved before agreeing on future games.
That process can get tricky as conferences must balance out the number of teams that are allowed to play non-conference games on a given week to ensure that the league has a balanced schedule. For example, Alabama’s game against Southern Miss on Sept. 21 is possible because five other Conference USA schools played non-conference games while Marshall and Middle Tennessee had bye weeks.
It’s also worth noting that both the deal for this week’s game as well as the one for the game against Southern Miss were put together in 2016, a short turnaround as far as scheduling is concerned. Both New Mexico State and Southern Miss took on multiple guarantee games this season, indicating that they were in need of money and perhaps a little more willing to face an opponent of Alabama’s caliber.
“Let's be honest here, the Tide speaks for itself in terms of competitive excellence,” Brown said. “There might be a few teams who are looking for a more competitive balance and might be willing to take a bit less in a guarantee.”
So how did the $1.7 million figure come about?
Byrne said Alabama’s scheduling budget is based on ticket revenue. According to a report from AL.com, Alabama’s athletics department brought in $177.5 million in total revenue last year, giving it the ability to be one of the nation’s biggest spenders when it comes to scheduling non-conference games.
The Crimson Tide paid Arkansas State the same $1.7 million guarantee for last year’s Week 2 game and will pay Georgia State $1.3 million for next year’s Week 2 game. Figures have risen to a school-record $1.91 million which Alabama will dish out to Utah State for a game in 2022.
Programs are easily made aware of such figures through a subscription database called WinAD, which provides contract trends for more than 42,000 Division I and Division II schools. That helps alert programs like New Mexico State to Alabama’s willingness to spend, helping them get the biggest guarantee possible — like the $1.9 million the Aggies will receive when they return to Tuscaloosa in 2021.
A look at the future
There aren’t many fans anxiously awaiting Saturday’s home-opener. The forecasted 97-degree temperatures at kickoff have created even more apathy toward the lopsided matchup. That will inevitably result in several empty seats inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Last month, Saban even went as far as to say he doesn’t blame the fans for not showing up for games like these.
“I can promise you that we want to play more games against Power 5 teams and should play more games against Power 5 teams, all of us,” Saban told ESPN. “If we don't, fans are going to quit coming, and I can't say I blame them.”
Alabama has already made the push toward bringing more Power 5 teams to Bryant-Denny Stadium, scheduling several home-and-home series with high-profile programs. The Crimson Tide has home-and-homes with Texas (2022-23), Wisconsin (2024-25), West Virginia (2026-27), Notre Dame (2028-29) and Oklahoma (2032-33).
It’s worth noting that Alabama still has games against Group of 5 opponents on its future schedule as well. The Crimson Tide will face Georgia State and Kent State next year before hosting New Mexico State and Southern Miss again in 2021. Alabama even scheduled a two-for-one deal with South Florida which will see the Crimson Tide travel to Tampa, Fla. in 2023 before hosting the Bulls in 2024 and 2026. However, it isn’t inconceivable to imagine a future with less matchups between Power 5 and Group of 5 teams.
“I think the model is starting to change,” Byrne said. “Coach Saban and I have talked about it a lot. He’s led the charge to have the Power 5 teams play one another and have 10 or 11 a year. I think that’d be good for the game.”
Of course, that depends on who you ask.
“I would say that the Power 5 should also look at the health of college football as a whole,” Moccia said. “There’s 130 of us, and while I’m not telling them how to spend their money, if they ever did cut out the Group of 5 it might be stepping over a dollar to pick up a nickel.
“I think it might behoove the Power 5 schools to make sure that the enterprise of college football is healthy. I do think these games — while the Power 5 has a tremendous advantage and a tremendous winning percentage — it does allow the Group of 5 to remain healthy… That’s just the guy in this chair in Los Cruces, New Mexico saying that. But I think others would probably agree with me.”