Photo by Aaron Babcock

Go Big or Stay Home?

I’m starting to think Alabama might have some things figured out about how college football works.

While the Nick Saban-led dynasty has been dissected in countless ways — recruiting, development, coaching, etc., etc. — maybe it’s time to consider scheduling too.

Alabama and USC announced on Wednesday that they’ll play each other in Arlington, Texas to open the 2016 season. That will be the fifth consecutive season the Tide has opened the year with a high profile neutral site game. This season Alabama faces West Virginia in Atlanta the first weekend. Next season it’s Wisconsin in Arlington, then USC. Working backwards now, in 2012 and 2013 the Tide faced Michigan and Virginia Tech respectively, both neutral site games.  Over the past seven seasons (2008-14), there were only two changes to the Saban gambit of going big in week one: home openers against San Jose State and Kent State in 2010 and 2011, where the Tide not coincidentally faced Penn State in a home-and-home in week two each year. The two years before that? Alabama faced Clemson and Virginia Tech in Atlanta in 2008 and 2009.

The advantages to this approach are pretty obvious and multiple. A team is going to gain some favor with pollsters and pundits by playing a big non-conference game in week one. Win that and it resonates for quite a while and, in the new playoff era where everyone is already talking about strength of schedule, it means more than it used to. It’s something of a tone setter.

Fan engagement is obviously higher. Fewer and fewer people are going to bowl games now, but a big neutral site game in a new city, in a beautiful stadium, at a time of year where nobody’s season is yet a disappointment? For most fans, whether they go or not, that probably beats playing Neverheardofit State at home.

Then there’s the money. It’s getting better. Alabama took home $4.7 million for playing Michigan in 2012. In 2017, Florida and Michigan will get $6 million each to kickoff the season in Cowboy Stadium. With numbers like that, schools are getting pretty close to the revenue of an actual home game.

So what’s the downside? There doesn’t appear to be one. Better to lose early than to lose late and teams typically aren’t going to be punished too severely for a loss to another top-15 type program in week one.

Now let’s compare that “go big” approach to Nebraska’s “stay home” method, which hasn’t really changed in the past 20 years. To recap, Alabama’s opening game opponents from 2008-14 were Clemson*, Virginia Tech*, San Jose State, Kent State, Michigan*, Virginia Tech*, and West Virginia*. (Neutral site games denoted by an asterisk.) The average point spread in those games was Alabama -19.93, and the Tide was ranked in the AP Top 5 to start the season in every year minus 2008. The average point spread in the neutral site games? Alabama -12.7.

Here are Nebraska’s season openers over that same span: Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Southern Mississippi, Wyoming and Florida Atlantic again. The average spread in those games, was Nebraska -26.14, and the Huskers haven’t started any of the seasons ranked higher than eighth in the preseason AP poll. Since 1993, Nebraska was a favorite by a touchdown or less in its season opener one time: Oklahoma State (+7) in 2003. The Huskers haven’t opened a season away from Lincoln since playing at Iowa in 1999. You have to go all the way back to 1988 to find a game where the Huskers had anything at stake at all in a season opener. No. 2 Nebraska beat No. 10 Texas A&M that day in East Rutherford, N.J.The last neutral site game to open the season — and also the last time the Huskers faced a ranked opponent in week one — was the Kickoff Classic against West Virginia (+17) in 1994. The Huskers won the national title that year.

Coincidence? Yes, it’s definitely a coincidence. Alabama isn’t beating everybody because it plays a tough game to open the season. Alabama is beating everybody because it’s damn good. But that approach has reinforced that perception right from the start in five of its past seven seasons. You never know what might be the deciding factor now that we’re dealing with a selection committee.

But we do know that Nebraska’s game against Florida Atlantic probably won’t factor in one bit. It might be time to rethink that. While the Huskers don’t have the quite the reputation that Alabama does currently, I can’t image that if Nebraska was actively interested in pursuing some of these big season kickoff games that there would be too many organizers unwilling to listen.

These are the new bowl games and Nebraska fans’ reputation in that regard still holds.