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Neutral Site Games Helping Bama Make it Back to Atlanta Any Way It Can

By War Eagle Atlanta 

Toilet_mediumEight complete seasons have passed since Alabama last made it to Atlanta for an SEC championship game. That's the second longest drought from any SEC team that has gone to Atlanta, right behind Mississippi State's last (and only) appearance in 1998. Needless to say, Tide fans are especially hungry for a return since the arrival of Nick Saban, but little did they know it would come so quickly, albeit not quite under the scenario they imagined.  

Earlier this year, not too long after our Chick Fil-A bowl victory, the Tide and the Clemson Tigers inked a deal for a one-game series to be played in the Georgia Dome to kickoff the 2008 season. With a payout for both teams listed to be two million apiece, it was enough for the Tide to eschew that all important 8th home game that pushes most athletic departments across the nation out of the red ink each year. Okay, good move on their part. Hat tip to the Tide for scheduling a quality OOC opponent on such short notice. Clemson looks like they're loaded this year and will most certainly be a pre-season top 10 team.

But now we learn that Bama and Duke are almost set to agree on another game to be played in the Dome, probably in 2010. Wow. Duke, huh? In the Dome? Clemson I can see, but Duke? Are you sure the Chick Fil-A bowl hasn't switched to a pre-season format? Couldn't you throw the Dukies a few bones to lure them to Tuscaloosa? What could our crimson cousins possibly want by scheduling all these games in a neutral site like Atlanta? Probably the same thing they wanted by scheduling FSU in Jacksonville last year--EXPOSURE. 

Give Saban credit. He knows that while the average Bama fan is sitting around waiting for Tuberville and the Tigers to collapse from within like the Roman Empire, he's got to go out and start assembling the tools to make it happen. And we all know how he does it--recruiting. Perhaps Nick looked west and decided he wasn't quite satisfied with the lock the Tide has on the state of Mississippi when competing against us, so maybe he's now turning his attention to the fertile prep fields of Georgia and Florida. 

But the Tide doesn't have the same name recognition that it once did in the 60s and 70s. They aren't the regional recruiting superpower they used to be, hence trying to gain additional exposure in the southeast, especially in the state of Georgia. Florida certainly has a bumper crop of talent, but there's a lot of sharecroppers picking that field. Although more than twice the size of Alabama in terms of population, Georgia has only two Division 1-A teams to feed prep talent to. (Ironically, compared to four in the yellowhammer state). 

But the Tide knows that there's really a third team that competes solidly for Georgia prep talent--the Auburn Tigers. We certainly have a greater presence and history in the Peach state than they do, which is probably why we're seeing this big push all of a sudden for them to get their name out there--and what better place to do it than on the same field that the SEC decides their champion. I mean, they've forsaken Birmingham and Legion Field forever, right? So why not? Especially when you consider the short term alternative to reach Atlanta--a few Peach Bowl invitations, perhaps (which they've never been to in 40 years). 

But all Bama-bashing aside, I like the idea of these neutral field match ups. Now wait a minute, I know what Auburn fans are thinking. We all have negative connotations associated with the term neutral field, especially after being fed that happy horse sh*t that Birmingham was a neutral site for the Iron Bowl for 40+ years. But hear me out. Perhaps no team in the country has a greater tradition with neutral site games than we do, considering that all our old rivals declined to travel to Auburn to play for the greater part of the series history. We never got Bama to come until 1989, we played them in Bama'ham. Tennessee didn't come until 1980, we played them in Birmingham, too. We played Georgia in Columbus for the first 60 years or so, and we played Georgia Tech the first 58 years in ATLANTA! 

But with scheduling these days sometimes done a decade or so in advance, these neutral site games resolve perhaps the biggest problem with coordinating the home-and-home--when to pencil in the return game. Few big name schools are going to pay a house call without a return visit to their place. And face it, fans are getting more vocal with their complaints about playing the cupcakes of the CFB world.  

Having a one-game series in an agreed neutral site eliminates the need for two games, thus making scheduling of these games astronomically easier for all parties. This means that you can schedule more prestigious teams, which will probably lead to the TV rights getting picked up for a princely sum, which will give both teams that all important exposure. Also, I'm a firm believer that the road to an eventual playoff might include the mandatory scheduling of BCS teams to play at least one or two OOC BCS teams each year, and such an existing climate in CFB would facilitate that goal tremendously. 

Certain venues like the Georgia Dome are actively seeking these type of match ups, as well are as some NFL sites. For quality games, the payout can be enormous--as much as most bowl games. And since the team is forgoing that extra home game, I think the conference allows them to keep more of that payout. Also, fans get a chance to travel a bit, and for the better teams, that always fires up the fan base, especially when they're getting the chance to travel to some big city and party the whole weekend. 

Yes, many fans may think of the neutral site game as an anachronism, a relic of the past. Really, the only big game that is still played on a neutral field is the Red River Shoot Out, between Texas and Oklahoma, played in Dallas. It's going on it's 79th straight year. But I think that this concept will once again become a big part of college football. Not with annual rivalries, but with the quality OOC match ups that are starting to be brokered by the likes of ESPN and the other networks.

ESPN was pivotal in arranging our last two season openers with Washington State and Kansas State. Granted, these were not on neutral sites, but these teams were motivated to travel by the money and the exposure. Personally, I really enjoyed the chance to play teams from the Pac 10 and Big XIII, even if it was only one game. Naturally, it would be impossible to get bigger schools such as Oklahoma, USC, or Michigan to agree to similar terms as those schools did, but they might agree to a one-game contract played on a neutral field. 

Just imagine the possibilities then of who you might schedule. Perhaps we could meet Oregon in a game in Dallas in the new Cowboys stadium. Or perhaps we might get to butt heads with Boston College in a game in Charlotte. No one is saying that you have to do it every year, but just once in a while might add significant excitement to a otherwise bland home schedule. Which would you rather see, Tennessee Martin in Jordan-Hare, or perhaps travel to Atlanta to play Miami or Florida State?

I rest my case...