The question comes up every year around this time. With Alabama in the hunt for a national championship and with the Iron Bowl looming in two weeks, people are always asking, "Why is Alabama playing [insert cupcake team here]?"
Last year it was Western Carolina. In 2011 it was Georgia Southern. It was Georgia State in 2010 and Chattanooga in 2009.
This year, the Mocs are back as the annual pre-Auburn sacrificial lamb.
Nick Saban is a perfectionist and has every detail of his program down to a science. That includes scheduling.
The obvious answer to why this game is where it is has to do with the grind of the season. Alabama had its seemingly annual late-season struggle against Mississippi State on Saturday and isn't exactly playing up to the level it will want to be at when it faces Auburn in a historic Iron Bowl.
Playing Chattanooga gives Alabama a perfect opportunity to get back into a groove.
It also lets Alabama heal up.
The Tide are relatively healthy heading into the final stretch of the season. Cornerback Bradley Sylve is still trying to work back up to full speed, but he is really the only nagging injury Alabama is dealing with right now.
Last season, Amari Cooper sustained an injury in the LSU game, but he was able to have a strong finish to the season against Auburn, Georgia and Notre Dame.
Alabama isn't alone in this strategy, as SI.com's Stewart Mandel points out:
I've said it before, SEC scheduling strategy is genius. Play a big game early to get set in the polls, squeeze in an FCS in Nov. to rest up.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 17, 2013
If you think Saban just wants the easiest possible schedule for his team, you're wrong. In addition to its eight-game conference schedule, Alabama typically plays three "cupcake" games and one bigger game towards the beginning of the season.
This year it faced Virginia Tech in Atlanta. The year before it was Michigan in Dallas. The Crimson Tide had a home-and-home with Penn State in 2010 and 2011, and they played Clemson and Virginia Tech in Atlanta in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
This strategy gives Alabama nine games a season that should be competitive.
And Saban actually would be in favor of more. He has been a strong proponent of a nine-game SEC schedule, even if it would give him one more hurdle to a national title.
As Saban said to Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples:
If you look at it through a straw and how it affects you and you're self-absorbed about it, nobody's going to be for it. I shouldn't be for it. We've got a better chance to be more successful if we don't do it. But I think it's best for the game and for the league. That's what I think. So I'm trying to look at it from 1,000 feet.
He's also expressed the idea of only being able to play teams from five major conferences.
“I’m for five conferences – everybody playing everybody in those five conferences,” Saban said in May, according to AL.com's Don Kausler, Jr. “That’s what I’m for, so it might be 70 teams, and everybody’s got to play ’em.”
And it's not like teams are exactly lining up to come to Bryant-Denny Stadium to face the No. 1 Tide.
We need a couple of games next year. Look, it’s difficult because if you’re not willing to go home-and-home with somebody — which if you’re playing a neutral-site game, I don’t want to go home-and-home in another game — so you’ve got to get teams who will come here and play.
Should Alabama schedule games against teams like Chattanooga at the end of the season?
It's very rare that you see a team play a schedule like South Carolina did. The Gamecocks played North Carolina and UCF in addition to their annual game with Clemson.
And until other teams start scheduling that way, there's no reason for Alabama to put itself at that kind of a disadvantage.
As it stands, everyone gets four non-conference games and gets to choose what it does with them. Alabama has it down to a science, crafting a schedule that gives it a good amount of difficulty, but setting itself up for late-season and postseason success.