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Why open weeks will impact Alabama more than any team

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As the rest of the college football world spun last Saturday, Alabama coach Nick Saban sat at a lake house in Georgia, flipping channels. Meanwhile, his players scattered about the country. Quarterback Greg McElroy went home to Dallas. Cornerback Javier Arenas went home to Tampa.

While it would seem more beneficial to obsessively watch game tape with a top 10 opponent coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium, Saban didn't want his players thinking about LSU. He wanted their minds refreshed, just as the minds of Tennessee's players were refreshed before they came to Tuscaloosa two weeks ago and nearly knocked the Crimson Tide out of the national title race.

No team this season will be affected more -- positively or negatively -- by open dates than Alabama. The Tide had the week off before facing their toughest opponent, but three conference rivals (Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn) have weeks off before facing Alabama. Saban, like most coaches, swears the week off makes a significant difference because teams can rest and polish fundamentals.

"It's a combination of all those things," Saban said. "The fundamental work helps. The rest helps tremendously. And I think you get time to practice things that may not help in the next game, but in the next game and the next game. You get time to practice things you struggled with."

Some might doubt whether an open date really makes a difference, but the numbers suggest it does. Since the NCAA added a 12th regular-season game prior to the 2006 season, the 65 BCS conference teams and Notre Dame are 154-127 coming off an open date. In the SEC, that discrepancy is more dramatic; teams coming off an open date are 32-20.

That isn't the case in the Big Ten, where teams typically squeeze all 12 games together to wrap up the regular season before Thanksgiving. In fact, only two Big Ten teams (Illinois and Wisconsin) have open dates this season. National title contender Iowa doesn't have one, but it also doesn't play any teams coming off an open date.

Given Alabama's schedule, there is a significant chance open dates will affect the Tide's bid for the national title the way they affected two national title contenders in 2006. As September gave way to October that year, Auburn stood at No. 2. The Tigers had hung on for a 24-17 win at South Carolina on Sept. 28, and they returned home to face Arkansas. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, hadn't played since a 24-23 win against Alabama on Sept. 23. During their off week, Arkansas coaches tinkered with the offense to design more formations to get tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones on the field at the same time. When the Hogs got to the Plains on Oct. 7, McFadden ran for 145 yards and Jones ran for 104 as Arkansas routed beaten-up Auburn, 27-10. "Their defense was tired," Jones told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We could tell that, so we just wanted to run it down their throat." The game, it turned out, decided the SEC West and knocked Auburn out of the BCS title race. It didn't matter that the following week, Auburn beat eventual national champ Florida. The damage was done.

Two months later, USC stood on the verge of playing in the BCS title game for the third consecutive season. Though a debate raged about the merits of the one-loss Trojans versus one-loss Florida and one-loss Michigan, the general consensus was that if USC beat UCLA to close the season, the Trojans would face Ohio State for the national title. A week earlier, USC had throttled No. 6 Notre Dame, 44-24. "Our schedule has served us perfectly," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said after beating the Fighting Irish. "It gives us a chance to get up for every week. We need those challenges and those matchups. To have a finish to a season like we have is just awesome."

There was only one problem. The season wasn't over. After a four-game losing streak, UCLA had beaten Oregon State and Arizona State in consecutive weeks before an open date heading into the USC game. When the teams met in the Rose Bowl, the Trojans came out flat. The Bruins didn't exactly dominate, but they held USC to 55 rushing yards in a 13-9 win that allowed Florida -- which played Arkansas instead of Auburn in the SEC title game -- to sneak into the BCS title game.

Saban does not want to see Alabama suffer the same fate, but the deck is stacked against the Tide. By season's end, Alabama will have played 12 conference foes coming off open dates since 2007. The toughest loss probably came against Mississippi State in 2007, and the biggest scare certainly came from Tennessee two weeks ago. Alabama squeaked out a 12-10 win, but the Volunteers almost certainly would have won had Tide nose tackle Terrence Cody not blocked two fourth-quarter field goal attempts.

"We were running on fumes in the Tennessee game," Saban said. "We were a little bit physically and emotionally and mentally exhausted. You can tell more by the players in the meetings than on the field. They have a hard time getting it because their ability to focus and concentrate is not quite what it needs to be."

Mississippi State also will get a week off before Alabama this year, but the most controversial scheduling quirk involves Auburn, which since 2007 has taken the week off between Georgia and the Iron Bowl. At the request of television rights-holder CBS, the SEC moved the Iron Bowl to Friday, replacing Arkansas-LSU, which had been the league's day-after-Thanksgiving game. Saban could have chosen to have an open date before Auburn, but that would have meant playing 11 consecutive games. So Alabama scheduled FCS school Tennessee-Chattanooga. While the Mocs won't present much of a challenge, the Tide still have a short week before the Iron Bowl, while Auburn will have 13 days between games.

"I was opposed to it. I said I don't want to move the game," Saban said. "It's a tremendous disadvantage for us. If you want to move the game in the future so we have a chance to schedule better, but they did it anyway. ... It's all TV."

Fortunately, the SEC office didn't completely hose the Tide when it made the schedule. Alabama got an open date before LSU, which has the misfortune of playing Florida and Alabama after open weeks this season. So don't be shocked if a refreshed Alabama looks like a completely different team than the one that ran on fumes against Tennessee.

"From a physical aspect, it gives you a time to get refreshed and get your legs back," Alabama cornerback Arenas said. "From a mental aspect, you feel like you haven't played ball in awhile and you want to get back to it. You want to get back to your routine. It's a positive."

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