On Friday morning ESPN reported Alabama and Louisville have agreed to play a 2018 game in Orlando to open the season. Immediately many on twitter derided the fact that the game was not a true road game.
Some expanded their critique to assail Alabama’s road scheduling and the SEC’s in general. Of course, they are right that Alabama doesn’t play many road games against teams from Power Five conferences. Usually they schedule a neutral site game at the beginning of the year and play the rest of their out of conference games at home, against lesser opponents.
The match up with Louisville is not a true road game. It’s going to be in Orlando, not Louisville. For many of us, that’s fine. Louisville and Alabama have good football programs; the game will probably be entertaining. The build up will certainly be worth watching, and the game itself will command a prime television slot on a major network.
Those who took the opportunity to criticize Alabama’s schedule aren’t really talking about the Louisville game; they are attacking Alabama and any other teams who they don’t perceive are playing enough quality out of conference games. Mostly they are critical of out of conference scheduling for one of two reasons. First, they like to see good football and don’t think games like Alabama and Florida Atlantic should be scheduled. However, that reason doesn’t fit well with the Louisville-Alabama announcement. This is a quality game that those who only want good football should laud.
The other reason is Alabama or insert SEC team is not playing enough true road games against Power Five conference teams, and they should be. Proponents will then usually make reference to another team who has played true road games, and hold that team up as a model.
Whether you want teams to play “true road games” is purely a matter of preference. There are no rules for playing true road games, no requirements [except maybe B1G in the future]. In fact, despite talk of strength of schedule, there’s no real reason to play “true road games”. Last year four teams made it into the inaugural college football playoff. How many played a road game against a power five team out of conference? None.
This attack on Alabama’s scheduling is not new. It often takes the form of an attack or disdain for Florida’s scheduling or the SEC’s in general. There is validity in the criticism. The SEC doesn’t play as many power five out of conference games as some other conferences do, but that’s not a function of conference affiliation; it’s a function of location.
There is no compelling reason for most SEC schools to play “true road games”. Making it into the playoff doesn’t demand you do. The fanbases are geographically concentrated, so the team doesn’t need to travel to play in front of them. Most SEC schools don’t have long standing rivalries with teams in far off conferences that need to be maintained. Those that do, South Carolina – Clemson, Georgia – Georgia Tech, Florida – Florida State, etc., play them. The biggest reason SEC teams don’t stray from the SEC footprint: there aren’t recruiting hotbeds that require SEC teams to go across the country for exposure and recruiting.
Most SEC powers are located in their recruiting area. Texas to Florida is the hottest recruiting area in the country. These schools don’t need to establish a presence elsewhere to recruit well. This is just as true of other, non-SEC teams in strong recruiting areas as well, like some ACC and Big 12 teams. Consider the graph below.
That doesn’t look like a big difference between other schools located in the Southeast. Road game scheduling is not so much an Alabama problem or an SEC problem as it is a recruiting hotbed problem.
The root of the “true road game” issue is a quality game issue. There is no denying that most every school has some terrible games on their schedule. This Alabama-Louisville game is not one of them. There are plenty of examples from most every team.
Poor match ups persist because they are good for the home team from a financial point of view; that’s why they are scheduled. They are not good for the long term popularity and thus stability of the game. Currently college football is in a strong position, but they are beginning to have attendance issues. They are trying to compete with HD TV by improving the game day experience. If they really want to improve the game day experience, they should improve the games.
There doesn’t need to be a rule to mandate better games. Any school could improve unilaterally, and if they do, the playoff committee should reward them for it. But even if the committee won’t reward them for it, their fans will. It is easier to sell out a game against Michigan than Eastern Michigan. Better match ups are better for fans and better for the game in the long run. Alabama – Louisville is a better match up, so praise it for being what we want to see: more good football.