MSU-Oregon a rare on-campus game

The best thing to happen to opening weekend over the past several years has been the neutral-site games featuring ranked teams. The season begins with a handful of bowl-quality games in bowl-like atmospheres without the messy trouble of playing an entire season.

I mean, who doesn't like to eat dessert first?

We waited nearly eight months for last Saturday, and look what we got for our patience: No. 1 Florida State hanging on to beat Oklahoma State; No. 2 Alabama hanging on to beat West Virginia; and a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback that propelled No. 13 LSU past No. 14 Wisconsin 28-24.

For the schools lucky enough to be asked to play in one of these games, there is no downside, save the possibility of a loss. The teams that play in the game get national exposure. They boost their schedule strength, an important asset in the playoff era.

It's all good, right? No, it's not all good. The rise of the neutral-site game has meant fewer and fewer home-and-home series, and, to carry the food metaphor just a little longer, home-and-homes are the meat and potatoes of college football.

The first two college football games ever played were a home-and-home. Rutgers and Princeton immediately established home-field advantage in 1869. Rutgers won 6-4 at home, and a week later, Princeton won 8-0 at home.

And until recently, it has ever been thus. You come to my place. I come to yours. Notre Dame goes to USC on Nov. 29, just as it has every other year (with a handful of exceptions) since 1926. Michigan State plays at Oregon on Saturday. The Ducks go to East Lansing next year.

But Michigan State and Oregon stand out this week for being old school. Of the six teams listed above that played in neutral-site games last week, all six are playing at home, and five against FCS opponents. Step up, Alabama, which dared to schedule ... Florida Atlantic.

Florida State plays The Citadel.

Oklahoma State plays Missouri State.

West Virginia plays Towson.

LSU plays Sam Houston State.

Wisconsin plays Western Illinois.

Left to their own devices, that's who these schools bring onto campus for their home fans to see.

"It's so hard to schedule these games," Alabama coach Nick Saban told me in the spring, "that, I think everybody's goal should be, let's play 10 really good games."

That's out of 12, of course. It's hard to schedule those games when you refuse to return the visit.

Alabama has played one home-and-home outside the Southeastern Conference in Saban's eight seasons. Penn State came to Tuscaloosa in 2010, and Alabama returned the visit to State College a year later. The series was scheduled before Saban arrived. Those also are the only two seasons in which the Crimson Tide has not played an interconference opponent on a neutral site.

Alabama's six neutral-site opponents have been Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Virginia Tech again and West Virginia. Next up are Wisconsin (2015) and USC (2016).

The Crimson Tide is a big enough draw that it remains appealing to the promoters who stage the neutral-site games. Alabama's fans travel, and the football team produces TV ratings. The neutral-site games appeal to athletic directors because of money.

Rather than play a big-time opponent on the road every other year and make no money, Alabama picks up a home-game-sized check every year. The Tide earned $3.2 million for playing West Virginia. The university nets about $4 million per home game.

So who loses? The fans in Tuscaloosa lose. When Penn State came to Tuscaloosa four years ago, and Alabama went to State College the following year, each side reveled in the other's traditions. There was no enmity, none of the "good ol'-fashioned hate" that curdles a conference rivalry.

Let's not forget the empty seats in the Alabama student section. In 2012, the student paper The Crimson White wrote, "For a school whose victories have come at an average margin of 31 points per game, it's easy to see why students could become lethargic toward sitting through a blowout game."

If Alabama is to return to home-and-homes, Saban wants a ninth conference game. In stressing the importance of playing Tennessee, a traditional rival despite being in the SEC East, Saban said, "These longtime rivalries ... are important to the fans, and the fans are important to the game. Because when the fans quit coming to the games, we all got problems. The coaches have problems. The players have problems. Everybody has financial problems."

The league refused to add another conference game, adopting a policy earlier this year that each team play at least one game against an opponent from one of the other five biggest revenue-producing conferences. For the Alabamas and LSUs, that may mean a neutral-site game. For Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina, that means continuing their home-and-homes with their in-state ACC rivals.

The suggestion by the College Football Playoff brass that strength of schedule will be an important component of a team's résumé has prompted some significant home-and-homes. Washington-Michigan, North Carolina-California, Texas A&M-UCLA, and here's a blast from the past: Oklahoma-Nebraska.

If the playoff doesn't provide enough incentive to revive the home-and-home, maybe the answer is a compromise. LSU and Wisconsin played last week at NRG Stadium in Houston. They play in 2016 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

That's a home-and-home disguised as neutral-site games. That's meat-and-potatoes disguised as new cuisine.