Through resounding head-to-head victories and by luring away elite west coast recruits, Alabama has played a central role — as significant as any single entity — in the Pac-12’s disappearance from college football’s main stage.
But recent comments from coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne suggest the Crimson Tide could facilitate the conference’s eventual revival.
Saban and Byrne have publicly stated their preference for stout non-conference schedules, not only for Alabama but all major college programs.
Saban has argued that Power Five teams should play only Power Five opponents, although he has also endorsed a more reasonable end game that would suit the Pac-12’s needs just fine:
That Power Five teams schedule at least 10 Power Five opponents.
“I can promise you that we want to play more games against Power Five teams and should play more games against Power Five teams, all of us,” Saban told ESPN last week.
“If we don’t, fans are going to quit coming, and I can’t say I blame them.”
The intent isn’t to be magnanimous, to help the Pac-12 solve one of the myriad challenges facing its football product.
Instead, Saban has one eye on the strength-of-schedule component in the College Football Playoff selection process and one on the empty seats across the sport.
Even for fans as rabid as those populating SEC stadiums, there’s a difference between West Virginia and Western Carolina.
In fact, the Crimson Tide recently announced a series with West Virginia — and one against Wisconsin, too. Add those to a lineup of future home-and-homes that features Texas, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
“I think you’re starting to see a shift from a lot of programs in creating quality games that the program, the student-athletes, the communities, are going to be excited about,” Byrne told Montgomery Advertiser.
There is no panacea for Pac-12 football. A playoff berth this season would help, of course. But the conference faces structural issues on multiple fronts, from a shrinking California pipeline and tepid revenue/exposure generated by the Pac-12 Networks to an uncanny ability to get in its own way and the exodus of top west coast recruits to blue bloods across the Power Five, including Alabama.
But anything that elevates the quality of non-conference schedules — whether the push comes at the campus, conference or College Football Playoff level — would provide longer-term competitive benefits for the Pac-12, whose champion plays at least 10 Power Five opponents, often 11 and occasionally 12.
That’s not changing anytime soon, by the way. The Pac-12 has no plans to reduce the number of conference games from nine to eight.
The schools are generally opposed for the reason Saban cited (fan interest) and because of the escalating cost of bringing in a Group of Five or FCS opponent.
What’s more, the contracts with Fox and ESPN call for a nine-game conference schedule, according to commissioner Larry Scott.
And yet anecdotal evidence suggests less is best for playoff access: 11 of the 20 semifinal spots have gone to teams from the ACC and SEC, which play eight conference games; only nine have gone to the three (Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12) that play nine.
“It is frustrating,” Scott said, “and I wish we all did play a similar schedule, just from an equity and a fairness standpoint.”
In broad terms, the Pac-12 isn’t going to increase the victory total for its champion by swapping conference games for FCS foes. Rather, it needs more losses from other leagues via an upturn in the quality of their schedules.
Alabama’s goal is to play two Power Five opponents out of league each season: One via the home-and-home path, one at a neutral site.
Add that to the eight-game conference schedule, and the Tide would play 10 Power Five opponents (excluding the SEC championship).
“Let’s play at least 10,’’ Saban said in the ESPN interview. “It would be better for the players, better for the fans, and I think you wouldn’t have to worry that if you lost a game that you wouldn’t have as much of a chance to still be in (the College Football Playoff).”
The dynamics of scheduling make that goal more difficult than you might think — supply of available Power Fives must match the demand for the games — but if any program, any coach, can lend momentum to the movement, it’s Alabama and Saban.
The Pac-12 would be fully supportive of a shift.
In 2017, Alabama finished second in the SEC West, lost one game in the regular season and was selected for the playoff. The Tide played nine Power Five opponents.
That year, USC won the Pac-12 but had two losses and didn’t sniff the semifinals. The Trojans played 12 Power Five opponents, including the conference championship game.
Alabama was better (and won the national title).
But for any team, the likelihood of defeat in a single game and of losing more than once in the regular season moves in lockstep with the quality of competition.
“Once we started this playoff, we’ve had this conversation so many times,” Stanford coach David Shaw said, “we need to have some uniformity. It’s the only way that makes sense.”
Support for that cause, so crucial to the Pac-12’s position on stage, is coming from a most unexpected, and influential, source.
Agent of destruction; catalyst for rebirth.
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