Alabama LSU Football (copy)

The Citadel might not see much of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) when the Bulldogs play the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

During the summer run-up to the season, Athlon Sports ranked "the most shameful college football games of 2018."

No. 4 on the list: The Citadel at Alabama.

"Once again, the Crimson Tide are dining on a cupcake a week ahead of the Iron Bowl," the writer opined. "Alabama could play all second- and third-stringers and still win this one comfortably. The Citadel went just 5-6 a year ago after winning back-to-back Southern Conference titles."

Thing is, he's not wrong.

Alabama coach Nick Saban insisted this week that he would play Heisman Trophy candidate Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback against The Citadel, despite a balky knee. Truth is, the No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Crimson Tide might beat the Bulldogs with Saban himself at QB.

That's the difference between one of the richest FBS programs in the nation (Alabama athletics earned $174 million in 2017) and an FCS program such as The Citadel, with an athletics budget of 17.6 million in 2017, according to USA Today.

Alabama gives 85 football scholarships and has 63 four and five-star recruits on its 2018 roster, according to 24/7 Sports. The Citadel is limited to 63 scholarships and has zero four and five-star recruits.

The huge disparities between the programs begs the question: Why play the game?

The answer, as usual, has to do with money.

'A necessity'

For The Citadel, the tangible benefit is a guarantee check of $500,000 for playing at Alabama, a crucial chunk of change for a school of 2,200 students with a football budget of about $5 million. That $500,000 check for one game is more than half as much as The Citadel earns on ticket sales for an entire season (almost $900,000 this year).

"These games are a necessity for our program to fill holes in the budget," said Citadel athletic director Mike Capaccio. "It's something we build into our budget every year, as well as the guarantee basketball games we play. It's very important to our bottom line in our financial situation.

"We'd have to cut back and scale things back if we were not able to generate that type of revenue. It's a necessity for us to play."

The Citadel has at least six future money games against FBS squads already scheduled, including Georgia Tech next season; Clemson in 2020 and 2024; Coastal Carolina in 2021; Georgia Southern in 2023; and Ole Miss in 2025. Games against lower level FBS squads, such as Georgia Southern, bring in less money; the Georgia Southern game will be worth $320,000 to The Citadel.

There are also less tangible benefits for The Citadel, including exposure and recruiting.

"I do like these games," said Bulldogs coach Brent Thompson. "I don't necessarily like when it falls at the end of the schedule, but I love the stage and I love to be able to go there and experience something that we may never get to experience again."

Citadel players feel the same way.

Senior fullback Lorenzo Ward Jr.'s father played and coached at Alabama and is now the interim head coach at Louisville.

"They are a great team and it will be special for me because both my parents went there," Ward said. "It will be great just to be in the same stadium he played in. And it will be great for the younger guys to play in that atmosphere, just like we got to do last year at Clemson.

"We'll get to go against Nick Saban and some of the best players in college football, and that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Saban's theory

What about Alabama? Saban has long been on record saying that he favors a ninth SEC conference game and that schools in the Power 5 conferences (the SEC, ACC, Pac 12, Big 12 and Big Ten) should only schedule each other.

“I know nobody really asked this, but I’ve always been an advocate of playing all Power 5 schools,” Saban said last summer at SEC media days. “I think we need to have more really, really good games on TV for the players. We can’t have fans who pay a lot of money for tickets and boxes and loges who support our programs to pay for games that no one is interested in watching.”

This week, Saban acknowledged that nobody seems interested in his idea.

"I don't think anybody out there really understands the difficulty in scheduling that we have, trying to get people to play," Saban said. "It's really, really tough, and you've heard my theory on scheduling. Nobody really buys into it, so there's no sense in talking about it."

In the meantime, Saban has shown no reluctance to schedule FCS "cupcakes." The Citadel game marks the ninth straight season Alabama has played a late-season game against an FCS squad, seven of those foes from the Southern Conference.

It's a late-season breather before the Iron Bowl game against rival Auburn, and the run through the SEC championship game and the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide has won four national titles over that stretch, so obviously Alabama is not being penalized for its scheduling practices.

For Alabama, the annual "cupcake" game is a chance to cash in on a seventh home game without having to negotiate a "home-and-home" arrangement. With the face value of tickets to The Citadel game set at $40 and close to 100,000 fans expected to attend, that's about $4 million for the Alabama coffers before concessions, souvenirs, parking and other expenditures are factored in.

And then, there's always the chance of a shocking upset. ESPN has Alabama with a 99.9 percent chance of beating The Citadel. Turned around, that means the Bulldogs have a 0.1 chance of pulling the upset.

"Alabama, definitely a great team," said Citadel freshman defensive back Joshua Bowers. "We're gonna go up there, have a scheme and just play football. They play football just like us, so we're gonna play football."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC