History has its quirks and coincidences, and an odd way of repeating itself from time to time. Maybe it’s trying to say something. Maybe we look too hard for patterns. Maybe we don’t look hard enough.
Fifty years ago, the University of Alabama football team opened its season against Florida State, the same school the Crimson Tide will face in this season’s opener. Alabama had the greatest coach of that era, perhaps the greatest coach of any era. The Crimson Tide has dominated college football for several seasons. Alabama had won three national championships in the previous six years, and the fan base was irate that it had not been four in six years. That dominance had been built on defense, although great quarterbacks (Trammell, Namath, Sloan, Stabler) didn’t hurt — and Stabler was back for the 1967 season.
The similarities weren’t so strong on the Florida State side. In the days before Bobby Bowden built the Seminoles into a regional and national powerhouse, they were lightly regarded. If you scheduled FSU in an opener in those days, you expected a win.
Alabama didn’t get one.
Instead, the game was a tie, and not an old-fashioned slobber knocker 0-0 tie played in a driving downpour. Shockingly for a generation of Alabama watchers, the game ended in a 37-37 tie, with only Stabler’s prowess — and a late interception by Bobby Johns — keeping the Crimson Tide from an outright loss. The final result, even though it wasn’t a loss, was disappointing. The way it happened, with all those points, was harrowing. To put it in perspective: FSU scored 37 points in that game. In the preceding year, the undefeated 1966 Alabama team had allowed 37 points in the entire regular season. No one knew it then, except Bryant himself, perhaps, but the game was a sign of things to come, the beginning of four lean years. It wasn’t quite famine, but given the expectations in Tuscaloosa, it sure wasn’t a feast.
Fast forward 50 years. Some things are different. Alabama fans are confident but Florida State is a Top Five team, and it doesn’t shock anyone when the Seminoles win against any opponent. Second, the two teams can’t tie, although I can’t imagine the heart attack statistics in the new Mercedes Benz Dome if Saturday’s game stands at 37-37 at the end of regulation. The question, though, is what if Alabama doesn’t look dominant. What if a Nick Saban defense allows 37 points, win or lose?
Nothing in Alabama’s preseason practices suggests there is a change in the air. In 1967, Alabama was not recruiting the way it once had. External social factors had something to do with that. Interpret it as you will, but Alabama did not become great again until integration greatly expanded the pool of talented in-state players. Bryant adapted, and made college football history.
This game should be different, a heavyweight slugfest that won’t necessarily reveal much about the winner or the loser that we don’t already know. A dozen or so teams dominate college football these days in terms of coaching and talent. Alabama and FSU are among that group, and will remain there regardless of Saturday’s score.
Of course, the definition of “unexpected” is that an event does not conform to preconceived notions. No one expects the unexpected, as much as Bryant preached that very phrase to his players. So, if it happens, how will the teams handle it? How would Alabama handle it? We may never know — unless history plays another one of its tricks.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225