Tougher openers loom due to college playoff

Ben Cook

August 12, 2013 at 11:23 am.

The much-anticipated college football playoff is still a season away, but the prospect of the playoff is already being felt around the Southeastern Conference.

Want some proof? Take a look at the opening week of the 2013 college football season.

Remember when September was the month when all college football teams played teams from the Little Sister of the Poor League? It was a time when coaches got a chance to see how their teams looked in what was little more than a glorified scrimmage against an outmanned team whose only reason for being there was to pull in a big paycheck. Well, that and to survive without getting killed. That is in the physical sense. It was pretty much accepted that they would get killed on the scoreboard.

But those days and those games are rapidly disappearing. Good riddance. Fans have been getting ripped off by their favorite teams by scheduling ridiculous games and including them in the season ticket packages. They were guaranteed yawners. And while fans got to see some players play that would not even be on the field in most games, those games did little to prepare a team for tougher conference games.

Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs have a tough season opener at Clemson. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

When strength of schedule becomes a measurable aspect of choosing the teams that will qualify for the playoff, athletic directors will have to rethink the out of conference opponents and make a decision on whether to schedule a cupcake or a quality opponent.

College football has helped this along with the advent of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic and the Cowboys Classic. It matches two name opponents to kick off the season and those games have been highly successful, which is a sign that fans are anxious for bigger games early in the season. Coaches may not like having to open with a tough opponent as opposed to playing a lousy one, but winning over a big-name team can launch a very good season, much like Alabama’s lopsided win over Michigan in last season’s Cowboys Classic did for the Crimson Tide.

Alabama will try to repeat that success this August 31 against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide has enjoyed playing in those season-opening games that have the same feel of a bowl game. In addition to the win over Michigan in Dallas last season, Alabama already has two victories in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic after beating Clemson in 2008 and Virginia Tech in 2009. LSU beat North Carolina in 2010 and Tennessee downed NC State in 2012. Of course, it can always work the opposite way. Georgia lost to Boise State in 2011 and Auburn dropped the 2012 game to Clemson.

Teams across college football have to beef up schedules much to the delight of their fans and perhaps to the chagrin of football coaches who like to get their seasons off on a winning note. So the upshot of all this is fans of college football are going to be treated to more entertaining football games, especially in the opening weeks. There will still be cupcake games, just not as many as before.

Take a look at the opening week’s schedule for teams in the Southeastern Conference. In the past it wouldn’t have caused a lot of excitement, but this season SEC teams will face six FBS teams of note. Beside Alabama’s game with Virginia Tech, SEC opponents will include two additional teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, two from the Big 12 and one from the Pac-12.

Georgia will open with Clemson, and South Carolina opens with North Carolina to complete the SEC vs. ACC portion of the opening week. The SEC vs. Big 12 matchups find Mississippi State meeting Oklahoma State and LSU playing TCU. Auburn opens with Washington State in the SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup. In a rare conference game in the opening week Ole Miss will host Vanderbilt.

Other SEC openers will feature a few of the perceived big school vs. little school matchups with Arkansas playing Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida hosting Toledo, Kentucky meeting up with Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky squad, Missouri entertaining Murray State and Austin Peay squaring off against Tennessee.

It is not a complete makeover of the opening week’s schedule, but it is a step in the right direction — and for that we can thank the looming specter of a college football playoff.

At long last.