Nick Saban asks how Alabama football schedule gets Auburn, Tennessee, LSU. Answer is easy | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

Nick Saban asked, and I'm happy to answer: money.

The Alabama football coach told that Southeastern Conference officials have suggested Auburn, Tennessee and LSU as Alabama's three annual opponents if the league moves to a nine-game schedule as expected. And he's clearly not thrilled with it, as that would pit the Crimson Tide against three of the league's toughest teams every year, while other programs would benefit from permanent opponents against lesser competition.

"They’re giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU," Saban said. "I don’t know how they come to that."

It's the dollars, coach. Always the dollars.

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It's in the best financial interest of the TV networks and, by extension, of the SEC, that as many of the league's best annual rivalries as possible survive the schedule reform made necessary by the league's addition of Texas and Oklahoma. Those rivalry games generate the best TV ratings, which in turn do the most to generate cash by the wheelbarrow for the SEC.

It's a simple equation for ESPN or any television partner, because the only concern for a network is revenue, not parity or competitive balance. Things like scheduling fairness is the league's problem, not ESPN's. In Alabama's case, the Iron Bowl obviously isn't going anywhere, and the Alabama-Tennessee and Alabama-LSU games draw too many TV eyeballs to be played on a rotating basis.

Think 2011 Alabama-LSU, the epic 9-6 game that carried national championship implications.

Think 1999 Alabama-Tennessee, when the Volunteers came to Tuscaloosa ranked No. 5 in the country and knocked off the eventual SEC champions. If LSU or Tennessee had been a rotating opponent for Alabama, there's a chance those games wouldn't have been played at all. The only way to ensure the TV juice from games like that is to lock the matchup in annually.

Let's back up a minute here for a reset, because Saban's comments advanced this conversation beyond what the SEC has made known officially.

The league hasn't yet announced it will go to a nine-game schedule with three fixed annual opponents for each school, but that's the direction the wind has been blowing for months, and it's blown harder since Texas and OU negotiated an earlier breakaway from the Big 12 for 2024 SEC entry. It's also worth pointing out that Saban has long-favored tougher scheduling, including the nine-game format, and has lined up a highly competitive run of non-conference games over the next decade-plus.

What he's not on board with is taking on three programs with the aggregate firepower of Auburn, UT and LSU every year, while others might get the good fortune of rotating tough and annualizing easy.

Per Saban, the SEC has considered a 10-year analysis to address scheduling balance in a nine-game model. He thinks a deeper dive would present a better picture.

“Look historically over a 25-year history, and the three best teams in the East are Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. You look historically at 25 years, Alabama, LSU and Auburn are the three best teams in the West. So we’re playing them all," Saban said.

Auburn, Tennessee and LSU have all had some disappointing seasons over the years, but they also invest in football success like few others. Over time, that has a way of helping a program surface and stay strong for the long-term. To Saban's point, having permanent opponents like Auburn, UT and LSU might balance well with other schools in a given year when one or even two of them is struggling. But over a couple decades, it's going to be unbalanced against a trio of fixed opponents that one might pick out of a hat.

A couple weeks back, I wrote that the College Football Playoff's forthcoming 12-team field should eliminate a lot of schedule complaints, because it will presumably reward a school that plays a tough slate and loses an extra game or two with a bid to the playoff party. I stand by that. College football is moving on from the era of two-loss teams having no shot at a national championship, and it will be better off for it.

As for the SEC, let's allow the format drama to play out and see what happens when the curtain is finally lifted. Perhaps the SEC scheduling wheel will ultimately spin a different way for Alabama, but the SEC is a business.

And nobody should be surprised if it makes a business decision.

Reach Chase Goodbread at Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.