As we learned yesterday, Alabama will play USC on Sept. 3, 2016 in the Cowboys Classic in AT&T Stadium, the shining, shimmering football monolith in Arlington, Texas.
The Alabama-USC rivalry has been dormant for a few decades but it remains historic. The Crimson Tide currently hold the winning record of 5-2 over the Trojans, but the teams haven’t played since the 1985 Aloha Bowl and I know we all vividly remember that game. Alabama and USC famously played home-and-home games in 1970 and 1971. These games are two of the Crimson Tide’s most significant, with USC and Sam Cunningham running wild in Legion Field in 1970, and Bear Bryant unveiling his version of the wishbone offense in ’71, returning the favor to USC. Showtime even made a documentary about the two games and about the friendship of Bryant and legendary USC coach John McKay. The teams then played their last regular season games against each other in another home-and-home series in 1977-78, with each team winning its game on the road.
Other than reuniting a lost rivalry, the major on-field narrative for the intangible prospect of this game is that Lane Kiffin – if still employed at this juncture – will get to face his former team. But away from the field, the major gripe with the matchup is these teams couldn’t figure out a way to play a home-and-home series. It will be Alabama’s third trip to Jerry Jones’s playplace in five years, with consecutive season openers for the Crimson Tide being played in Texas in 2015 against Wisconsin and 2016 against the Trojans.
The fact that these blockbuster matchup games are exciting is inarguable – even Alabama’s blowout against Michigan felt like a high-profile event – but it robs many fans of seeing these great non-conference opponents in person. The various NFL stadia used for college football – AT&T, Georgia Dome, soon to be Lambeau Field - are excellent facilities, but they aren’t the same as a collegiate home or away game. Neutral site games feel like grasping at money, when plenty of money would be made flying the Trojans into Tuscaloosa, and flying Nick Saban’s team to Los Angeles.
But the neutral site game has become almost a given under Saban. During his tenure at Alabama, Saban’s team has only played three opening games in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The rest have either been in Arlington or Atlanta. While playing teams like Clemson and Michigan is beneficial for the program, it takes another home game away from the fans. Fans that are at the cruel mercy of the SEC scheduling rotation.
In darker days of the program, Alabama would open its season at Legion Field, the rusting remnant of a dying stadium, but at least it felt home game adjacent. The only meaningful non-conference opponent to schedule a home-and-home against Alabama under Saban is Penn State. Other than the Nittany Lions, Alabama’s home non-conference opponents include an illustrious group of Western Carolina, Georgia State, Kent State, Chattanooga State, North Texas and Georgia Southern.
Excluding the Iron Bowl, if, for some reason, Florida, Texas A&M and Mississippi State are marginal this season, Bryant-Denny Stadium may miss out on the classic games to which it has become accustomed.
While neutral site games have become de rigueur for major programs, some intrepid teams are rejecting the trend and scheduling home-and-home series, much to the delight of college football fans. Georgia and Notre Dame will play each other in 2017 and 2019. LSU went rogue and booked UCLA in 2021 and 2024, and scheduled a series against Arizona State in 2022 and 2023. Michigan and Oklahoma are now set for matchups in 2025 and 2026. These latter examples, of course, are dependent on college football still existing in 12 years but the intent is there.
Additions to stadiums like Alabama’s Bryant-Denny, LSU’s Tiger Stadium and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field cost millions. It makes little sense that a program would choose to give Jerry Jones that revenue as opposed to filling the school’s newly renovated grounds.
Especially in this new era of a mildly confusing playoff system, the more quality opponents played, the better. Why not let your season ticket holders and students see these perennial powers in your own stadium?