TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to college football, when is it too much of a good thing?
The saying goes back hundreds of years, at least to William Shakespeare using the line in his comedy “As You Like It.”
But it’s an important question nowadays in the sport, especially with the growing concern over concussions and head injuries.
That excess may lead to harm has been a continual theme for Saban since he arrived at the University of Alabama in 2007, one he doesn’t get enough credit for.
For example, Tuesday night he was asked about an idea the SEC discussed in the spring, going to a 14-week season every year with every team having two byes. Technically the season is already a 14-week schedule, but all of the major conferences now use the last week for a championship game with every other team getting a bye.
It would give players more of a break and time to recuperate during the season.
On face value, the idea makes sense.
But Saban disclosed why he’s against it: It would mean extending the season, with an earlier start.
“I personally … think that making the season longer is not in the best interest of the players,” he said. “We have played 15 games here two years in a row, and that’s a lot of football for a college guy to play.”
People might say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just one more week.”
Well, the NCAA already made the season a week longer, adding the 12th regular season game for the 2006 season. It gave schools an extra chance to make more money, especially those that didn’t play in a league with a championship game.
At the time, the American Football Coaches Association lobbied against it because of the added physical toll on the players. The NCAA also did so while ignoring its longstanding stance against having a playoff, claiming it would extend the season too long and detract from the players’ academics.
So much for those arguments.
Meanwhile, this past year the NCAA banned two-a-day practices, again claiming player safety, but allowed schools to compensate by opening training camp a week earlier. Mississippi State was one that did, beginning practices on July 25.
Alabama did not, waiting until Aug. 3. Saban, who is a stickler for routine and won’t change it unless absolutely necessary, tweaked his fall camp schedule by one day. That’s why Fan Day, when Alabama holds an open practice at Bryant-Denny Stadium, was on a Saturday after a decade of being on Sundays.
Although there’s no way to know for sure if starting earlier gave anyone an edge, here are the starting dates for each SEC team and their current record:
|Mississippi State||July 25||5-2 (2-2 SEC)|
|South Carolina||July 27||3-4 (0-4)|
|Arkansas||July 27||2-5 (0-4)|
|Kentucky||July 29||5-2 (2-2)|
|Tennessee||July 29||3-4 (0-4)|
|Georgia||July 31||7-0 (4-0)|
|Auburn||July 31||6-2 (4-1)|
|LSU||July 31||6-2 (3-1)|
|Vanderbilt||July 31||5-2 (3-1)|
|Texas A&M||Aug. 1||5-2 (3-1)|
|Missouri||Aug. 1||2-5 (0-4)|
|Florida||Aug. 2||3-3 (3-2)|
|Ole Miss||Aug. 2||3-4 (1-3)|
|Alabama||Aug. 3||8-0 (5-0)|
Yet those days and weeks add up.
“Like Miss Terry tells me all the time, these guys have to go to school,” Saban said, referring to his wife. “They have a family. They probably have a girlfriend, they have other responsibilities and things that they need to do and take care of which have a priority and we keep making the season longer.
“We want to add more playoff games, we want to extend the playoff games longer. So the season is really long. When you play 15 games in a college season, you’re basically playing the same as 17 or 18, games relative to the number of times you have to practice. If you have bye weeks, you’re still going to have to practice, and the players are going to have to practice because I don’t think that college players could take a whole week off and it not have a significant impact on how they perform and how they play.”
Saban is also on the record as being against expanding the College Football Playoff for the same reason, that the season is already too long. Maybe he’d support a quarterfinal round if there weren’t conference championships, but considering the money at stake, there’s no way the Power 5 leagues will give them up.
But in many ways, this is the same thing over and over again.
For example, in 2006 the NCAA made two major rule changes to shorten games. The first mandated that the game clock start as soon as the ball was struck on a kickoff instead of touched by the receiving team. And after each first down the clock began running when the official made the ready-for-play signal.
Part of the push for approval was the notion of player safety.
Games were shortened by nearly 15 minutes, scoring was down and each team had an average of seven fewer plays per game. However, the changes were overturned a year later after everyone decided that they had made the game worse.
In 2014, there was a was a rule proposal for college football to mimic what the NFL does and ban offenses from snapping the ball in the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. Saban was for it, claiming that it gave referees more control over pace of play, would allow coaches a better chance to instruct players and save wear-and-tear on the players.
He got blasted by critics and coaches that relied on a fast-paced offense.
So Saban adjusted his offense to be more tempo-oriented and started beating them at their own game. In the process, Alabama went from running 865 offensive plays in 2011, when it won the national championship (61.8 average), to 1,056 last season (70.4). The defense saw an even bigger jump from 720 (51.4) to 983 (65.5).
That’s a lot more than playing just one additional game. More like three or four.
One way Alabama has compensated was to use more players, and with Saban’s recruiting record, Alabama has arguably never had more overall talent. So far this season the Crimson Tide have used 74 players, including 17 true freshmen — which only makes it more difficult for the opposition to recruit. Anyone claiming “you won’t play if you go there” will only look desperate.
Consequently, in the long run, all the changes might have made Alabama only tougher to beat.
This probably would as well.
Show of hands, please. Who’s ready to face Alabama when coming off a bye? Remember in 2010, its six SEC opponents scheduled their bye the week before facing the Crimson Tide, causing the league to step in and make a scheduling rule that no team could face more than three opponents coming off a bye.
Too much of a good thing? Not if you’re an Alabama fan, but Saban’s still going to argue against anything that would lengthen the season.
“I think it’s going down that road,” he said.