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Rev Her Slowly: Cranking Up the Season

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Quick! What happened in the inaugural game of this season that has only happened one other time since 2002? We opened with a non-BCS opponent. Yea, hard to believe--as much flak as we take for our OOC schedule--but we've been real steady with opening with BCS schools the last few years. We had USC in 2002 and 2003, GA Tech in 2005, then the two games brokered by ESPN, Washington State in 2006 and Kansas State last year. Only ULM in both 2004 and this year have been the exceptions going back into the early years of the Tuberville regime.

There's basically two schools of thought when it comes to season openers, start easy, or start tough. Auburn has usually followed the former format through out the years, so I took a look back to see if I could find any patterns or see any parallels, but it was like fishing in the Chattahoochee: I didn't know what I had until I reeled it out of the murky water and sometimes not even then.

The one big difference between college and the pros (besides the paycheck) is that we don't get the pre-season games to tune up the team. Granted, even one game would be helpful, it's not like we have to manage the roster or fit in under the salary cap. But with so much on the line, kicking off the season cold is akin to parking your dragster on the starting line the night before, then cranking it in the morning to turn a quick quarter mile. Sure, you might get right off the line, but you might blow your motor, and your season, too.

Hence the propensity for many big-name programs to start off with cupcakes, not just in the SEC, but all over. Coaches know the necessities of tuning things up before they really have to lay down the throttle. But with the rising influence of the computer polls in the rankings, measuring every statistic and category to the most minute detail, perennial contenders realize that they might be able to ill afford that easy start, lest they lose position in the polls.

Last week, a reporter from Memphis posed an interesting question to the SEC coaches about the idea of summer scrimmages with FCS (Div 1-AA) teams to serve as a makeshift exhibition season for the big boys. Evidently, Tubs was instantly intrigued. It would be as simple as bringing in say, Jax State to come in and line up against our boys in an informal atmosphere--i.e. on the practice field and not in the stadium in front of God and country and a huge crowd. The central idea is that you run up against a wall practicing against your own guys week after week, and that by bringing in some new tackling dummies, you might really get a chance to test yourself--all within the safe confines of a practice.

But since that scenario would take years to bear fruit, if at all, we're still stuck with our short-term choices. It seems like almost all in the SEC decided to take it easy early this year, save Alabama and Tennessee, and what a better illustration of the risks/benefits of this strategy than the Tide's opener in Atlanta.

Decided underdog Bama chose to take the SOS high-road and schedule Top 10 Clemson in the Georgia Dome to inaugurate what the Atlanta Sports Council (The People sponsoring the event, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and the SEC championship game) hopes to be the CFB equivalent of the Daytona 500 each year. The Gumps won big when they weren't supposed to, boosting their nothing-to-lose program immensely. Clemson, with higher expectations this season, got exposed badly. Each had equal access to the heightened exposure and added prestige that an early match-up of this caliber offered, but only one team was going to come away with the 'W'. Alabama is now gliding in the jet stream, while Clemson's season appears to be crashing down in flames.

So do we start with a solid opponent, or allow the team a tuner against a lessor opponent? I see nothing wrong with the format that we've put together this year. Start with a Sun Belt school, then move up to a C-USA opponent, followed by a SEC opener with one of the two Magnolia State teams in our division. See, we can't forget about easing into our SEC schedule, too. As a matter of fact, our SEC opener under Tuberville has been against either MSU, Ole Miss, or Vandy every single year except the first one, in 1999, when we opened with LSU (which just happened to work out fine in that case). Of course, with the success that the purple Tigers have had this century, we may not want to go back to that format--them either, with us.

And although we start this year with teams that some might consider 'easy', we still have West Virginia coming up in October to boost our OOC strength. I'm glad we'll have a few games under our belt before we play them, especially in Morgantown. But it seems that these OOC matchups with BCS schools are easier to fall into place early in the season because that's when most teams have the cupcakes scheduled, and the contract terms are probably a little bit more forgiving with the small guys than they are the big boys.

And although few can dispute the boost generated from beating a solid opponent early, you have to look at the consequences if you lose. We got jump-started with Washington State in 2006 and sort of got going with Kansas State last year, but it really dampened our hopes in 2005 with GA Tech, and USC in 2002 and especially 2003. I can even remember back to 1998, with an opening loss at Virginia, which was the beginning of the end for Terry Bowden. So you have to choose these games very carefully.

I, as with most fans, would say "Bring 'em on!" But the reality is you can't open every season against too strong competition. I say take the intriguing matchups when they're available, (there's still an open slot to play Virginia Tech next year in the Georgia Dome that the Gumps are still weighing. Hello? Jay Jacobs?). But in the off-years when the opportunities are more limited, don't be afraid to gradually throttle up the games and work out the kinks before crunch time.

Time for you guys to sound off. Tell us what you think we should do in the coming seasons.