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How Alabama taught the rest of the SEC to game the scheduling system

Nick Saban and Alabama have mastered the scheduling game, which last year included a visit to Texas to play USC. (Getty)

ATLANTA – Alabama has had the best players and best coaching in college football for a decade, but there is another reason why the Crimson Tide rule the sport: scheduling.

The program has perfected a scheduling formula that features a splashy neutral-site game while resolutely shunning one thing: non-conference road games. ‘Bama hasn’t played a true road contest outside the Southeastern Conference since 2011, and doesn’t have another one scheduled until 2022. That, combined with the SEC only playing eight league games instead of nine, means that the Tide annually plays just four times per season in hostile stadiums.

Make no mistake, Alabama has earned its way to the top. But it also has gamed the system to a degree.

The rest of the league has taken note, and many schools have taken that page from the ‘Bama playbook. The SEC isn’t going into many snake pits in 2018.

Thirteen Power Five conference schools play just four true road games in 2018. Nine of them are in the SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. The other four: Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Louisville.

Average number of true road games per Power Five conference team this season: Pac-12 – 5.42, Atlantic Coast – 5.21, Big Ten – 4.93, Big 12 – 4.9, SEC – 4.36.

Instead of true road games, SEC schools are flocking to neutral sites: Alabama plays Louisville in Orlando; Auburn plays Washington in Atlanta; LSU plays Miami in Arlington, Texas; Mississippi plays Texas Tech in Houston; Tennessee plays West Virginia in Charlotte. Those locations are geographically friendly. The Rebels are the only SEC team that doesn’t figure to enjoy a pronounced fan advantage in those games.

In the College Football Playoff Era, schedule strength is an even hotter topic than it was before. It helped spur the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 to play nine conference games. It also spurred the SEC and ACC to schedule a ninth power five opponent annually.

But when the SEC became the first conference to get two teams in the playoff last season, Georgia and Alabama, complaints about the league’s scheduling model spiked. People lined up to take shots, particularly at the Tide, which got the fourth spot in the bracket after having beaten zero teams ranked in the Top 15 as of Selection Sunday.

Of course, Alabama more than backed up its inclusion by winning the national title. The opponent in the championship game was Georgia. When the league owned the title game, it gave the SEC all the cover it needed in terms of scheduling philosophy – why change what worked so well?

“The facts candidly speak for themselves,” commissioner Greg Sankey said here Monday, regarding SEC scheduling. “Stated succinctly, what we do works at both the national championship level and at a level that provides our teams meaningful access to post-season Bowl opportunities. … I do not presently anticipate any major change in our approach, but I do anticipate healthy and continued dialogue both now and in the future among our leadership.”

Then Saban, whose savvy scheduling has enhanced his success, stood up Wednesday and said he’d welcome a major change in approach. A minor change in approach already is underway, with Alabama scheduling a home-and-home series with Texas in 2022-23, but Saban doesn’t want to stop there.

“Neutral-site games really launched our program in Alabama when we first came there years ago,” Saban said. “But I think philosophically we’re sort of changing our thoughts on that and our future scheduling and trying to get more home-and-homes, which leads me to talk about what we need to do scheduling-wise.

“I’ve always been an advocate of playing all Power Five schools. I think we need to get – have more really, really good games on TV for the players. We can’t have fans who pay a lot of money for tickets and boxes and loges who support our programs to pay for games that no one is interested in watching.

“I’ve heard [SEC commissioner] Greg [Sankey] talk about the fact that we don’t want to play nine SEC games, but I’ve always been an advocate of playing nine or 10 SEC games and a couple other games against some other good opponents that everybody would be happy to watch.”

So it’s not like Nick Saban is scared of a difficult schedule. But he’s also not going to unilaterally take on a dozen Power Five opponents if nobody else is on board.

In the meantime, there will be home games against Arkansas State, Louisiana and The Citadel this season. And, once again, there will be just four true road games. It’s been the Alabama Way, and it has increasingly become the SEC Way, and it’s working.

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