Alabama head coach Nick Saban (left) with Michigan head coach Brady Hoke
"The SEC schedules cupcakes."
You hear this argument from fans of teams outside the SEC all the time, and it's simply false. Most SEC teams either schedule or already have a built-in rivalry with at least one quality out-of-conference automatic-qualifying team every season.
For reference, look at Alabama.
You know, that team that's won three of the last four BCS National Championships?
During two of Alabama's three recent national title runs (2009, 2012), it has opened the season at a neutral site against a quality out-of-conference opponent. In 2009 the Crimson Tide beat then-No. 7 Virginia Tech 34-24 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, and throttled then-No. 8 Michigan 41-14 in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas in 2012.
They will be making a return trip to the Lone Star State.
Alabama will open the 2015 season on Sept. 5 in the Cowboys Classic against the University of Wisconsin, according to a release from the university.
It's a wise move for the program.
It will be the sixth time during the recent wave of neutral-site kickoff games that Alabama has participated in such an event. It beat Clemson in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in 2008, and will return to the Georgia Dome in 2013 and 2014 to play Virginia Tech and West Virginia, respectively.
Not all programs are created equal, but having that big game looming at the start of the season certainly keeps the attention of players, and gives Saban and the rest of the coaching staff a great gauge of where the team is and what needs to be worked on.
Then, of course, there's the media exposure.
Opening weekend is typically a down weekend in terms of intriguing matchups, and with no NFL Monday night game, the ACC has locked up Labor Day night as its premier slot for opening weekend. Games get spread out (not as much this year as in other years), which means more eyeballs on the program from the casual fan.
Are you a fan of your team playing neutral-site games against out-of-conference opponents?
But it's much more of that.
These kickoff games—the ones in Atlanta and Arlington, in particular—are in very fertile recruiting grounds. Having the name "Alabama" plastered all over either talent-rich town for an entire summer in preparation for the start of the season is a huge recruiting tool.
Does it really matter for high school juniors and seniors? A little bit. But they aren't the primary target. Those players have already begun the recruiting process and have developed relationships with coaches from around the country.
The younger players are where this really becomes big.
That kind of exposure can and does vault Alabama to the top or near the top of the lists for aspiring college football players, oftentimes before they even realize that they have a list.
Good for Alabama for continuing to schedule these neutral-site games. At some point, it may backfire and cost the Tide a shot at the title. But if they lose one, they'd still win with the exposure the program gets.