With present stakes high, Charleston Southern's tilt with Tide a business trip for future
A late-season date with an FCS school is typically enough for the coach of any major college powerhouse to at least publicly worry about his team's mind being elsewhere.
The third-ranked Crimson Tide have played an FCS opponent the week before their annual showdown with bitter rival Auburn every year since 2009, and the results have shown it to be nothing more than what Nick Saban likely intended - a second bye week. Alabama has outscored its six second-tier opponents in November 299-42.
What's the downside to what is essentially a guaranteed 49-7 beatdown? Get some reps in against a live opponent, focus on having the right mindset for the Iron Bowl and let other top-10 teams fall on a weekend where the stakes are sky high elsewhere.
Saban may be the one setting up the schedule that way, but this week he delivered a missive to his team not to overlook the matchup - even if the message came out in a cleverly disguised rant toward the media.
"You all might be taking the week off this week," Saban said. "But I'm not."
The question was about Buccaneers quarterback Austin Brown's FBS experience at UAB prior to transferring. The answer involved Saban claiming he's often asked how important getting young players into these late-season tuneups will be.
And it only got better from there.
"How in the hell do you know they're going to get to play?" Saban said. "What makes you think you can just assume that they're going to get to play? Because you're assuming the other team is not very good? They do have a Division I quarterback. He plays like a Division I quarterback."
Who's to say if Saban actually believes his own advice, but the Crimson Tide won't be the only team at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday that could be legitimately accused of looking ahead. Yet while Alabama is on track to play in its second straight College Football Playoff after winning three national titles from 2009-12, Charleston Southern is a relative newcomer to high-stakes football in late November.
The Bucs clinched their first-ever trip to the FCS playoffs last Saturday, completing their 6-0 run through the Big South with a 31-24 win over Liberty. They'll find out Sunday morning who they'll face to open the playoffs, and whether that's the Saturday after Thanksgiving or - should Jamey Chadwell's ninth-ranked team be deemed good enough to earn one of eight byes - the first weekend in December.
On his weekly teleconference, the third-year coach didn't hide his concern about playing this particular game at this particular time.
"I'm a little worried about going to the playoffs right after playing a team like Alabama," Chadwell said. "You worry about some injuries."
But Chadwell also isn't naive. He knows what comes with a game like Saturday's, and it's not just the $500,000 check his program will get to help beef up its facilities.
"Charleston Southern is gonna be all over the TV. It's gonna be on the Bottom Line, it's gonna be on SportsCenter, no matter the outcome of the game," Chadwell said. "They're gonna say that we're 9-1 and the Big South champions."
Even a 49-7 loss - and considering Alabama is favored by 38 1/2 points, that's well within play - is going to be a long-term win for the program as far as Chadwell is concerned.
"When we go into schools in December and January and we're recruiting, people will know who we are," he said. "That helps us. That helps us continue to get players and hopefully it'll help us continue to win Big South titles.
"We're going to let them know that you can come to Charleston Southern and still have goals and dreams. You might not begood enough to play at Alabama, but at least once or twice a year, you'll be on TV and reap those benefits."
But that Charleston Southern team didn't know if it would earn an at-large playoff bid the day after its loss between the hedges in Athens. This one knows it has a spot at the table even if it's not sure where and when it's going to eat.
Might that relieve the pressure of staring a bunch of future NFL stars squarely in the chinstraps?
"It's good we've got a lot of guys coming back that played at Georgia and played at Vanderbilt last year," said Charleston Southern offensive coordinator Gabe Giardina, who played at Alabama from 2000-03. "We've got to get them focused on what's happening on the field. I don't think we're going to have that problem because we've got a mature team."
However long or short the Bucs' FCS playoff run is promises to be special if for no other reason than it being their first time there. But one big play that winds up on an ESPN top 10 list Saturday might be as important to the program's long-term health as a deep run with far fewer teenage eyeballs tuning in.
Whatever happens, Sunday will come and Charleston Southern will be on the worldwide leader once again. This time the TV will be locked on ESPNU as the Bucs learn their playoff destination as a family - unless the unthinkable takes place.
Then they might have to watch from their iPhones.
"We understand if they play their worst and we play our best, it still might not matter," Chadwell said. "But if we somehow pull off the upset, I don't know if any of us will go back to Charleston.
"We might stay down there in Tuscaloosa and celebrate."