Nick Saban knows the trick: For the early-season games, schedule a pretty big (out-of-conference) name that’s either not that good or is middle-of-the-road.
The strategy is flawless. If you win, people talk positively. If you win big, Kirk Herbstreit wants to give you a lick-job. If you lose…well, losing always sucks, but it’s not the end of the world (b/c the opponent’s got a pretty big name).
USC has been doing it for years. Check out USC’s first two games of each season dating back to ’02:
2002: Auburn*, Colorado
2003: Auburn*, BYU
2004: Virginia Tech, Colorado State
2005: Hawaii, Arkansas
2006: Arkansas, Nebraska
2007: Idaho, Nebraska
2008: Virginia, Ohio State*
*Notably, Auburn (in ’02 and ’03), Virginia Tech (in ’04) and Ohio State (in ’08) could hardly be described as “not that good,” at least when USC scheduled them, but all three wound up being “middle-of-the-road.”
This ain’t a knock on USC. Pete Carroll is a genius when it comes to national perception, and it looks like Saban recognizes the strength of such a strategy. With the placement of Virginia Tech on Alabama’s ’09 slate (plate), it will be the second year in a row The Tide will open the season on national television, in a recruiting hot bed (Atlanta) against a top-tier ACC program…that’s top-tier ACC program, which is relative to the rest of the weak ACC.
This year, UA opened its magical season with Clemson, an over-ranked team with glaring weaknesses. ‘Bama crushed the #8 Tigers, 34-10, and captured boulder-down-the-side-of-a-mountain momentum, regardless of how bad Tommy Bowden’s squad (at the time) was.
USC opened with Virginia, a team that’s not that good, but the Trojans walloped the Cavaliers, 52-7, and leapfrogged Georgia (who opened with no-name Georgia Southern) to claim the #1 spot. Nobody was (is) claiming the Cavs were (is) a great team, but Virginia has a decently respectable name in college football.
UA loses some key players after this season and will have an unproven quarterback leading the ’09 charge. Surely, The Tide will be ranked outside the preseason top-10. In a college football atmosphere in which perception is reality, indeed, Alabama’s scheduling of Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies is a genius move. And there’s no doubt Saban was waiting to see how this year’s contest vs. Clemson, as well as the entire ’08 season, played out before making the VT matchup final.