Let’s start at the very beginning…
No, this isn’t a summer stock rehearsal for “The Sound of Music,” despite the lyrics. It’s a recognition that July has arrived which, at least in Alabama, means that college football is transitioning from the “off-season” to the “pre-season.” If you believe that the actual date is July 4, sharing time with our nation’s birthday, or that the off-season ends at an equinox defined by the precise moment that Nick Saban steps into the lobby at SEC Media Days in about 10 days, that’s fine as well. But in general terms, July means it is time to start giving the season some serious thought.
That means starting at the beginning. So — is the Alabama-Florida State game the greatest season opener of all time? It’s the first question of the season and it is just like opening the front door and stepping into a pit of quicksand.
For one thing, there is the problem of what “great” means. For another, there is the difficulty of judging any game before it has been played and placed in an historical context. Both those issues must be considered. For instance, any opener before the 1958 Alabama-LSU game, which people mention primarily because it was Paul “Bear” Bryant’s return, must be discarded. (That game would get far more credit if Alabama had won, but the 13-3 loss to an LSU team that went on to win the national championship was at least an encouraging omen.) Before that, the games are starting to slip from living memory of all but a few. They also tended not to be memorable — Alabama had a long tradition of opening with cupcakes, although the 110-0 win over Marion Institute in 1922 was at least a historical footnote.
What defined greatness after that? If that means a surprising victory — either by outcome or level of domination against a good opponent — Alabama hasn’t had too many chances in the last 60 years. The Crimson Tide is often favored in games, opener or not, so it rarely “upsets” anyone.
Two openers do stand out.
The first, and a hard one to top, was the 1971 win at Southern California. That game that had surprise, both in the tactics (wishbone!) and the outcome. It ignited a decade of Crimson Tide greatness that few could have guessed at the time, unless they were Bear Bryant himself, and it also carried some of the cultural echoes of the 1970 USC game as well. The other was the 2008 opener against Clemson in which Nick Saban, at the start of Year Two at Alabama, served notice on college football that he was not here to joke around.
There have been other Alabama wins, either in exciting fashion or against big-name opponents: 1985 at Georgia was a classic, and there were victories over Nebraska in 1978, Ohio State in 1986, Michigan in 2012 and USC last year.
Beyond that, the “memorable” openers tend to be precisely the games that Alabama fans would least like to remember. The worst, probably, was the 2000 game at UCLA, in which Crimson Tide hopes were swallowed as though the San Andreas fault had opened up in Pasadena.
Then there was the 1984 loss to Boston College that helped Doug Flutie win a Heisman and might have cost Kerry Goode a chance to win one himself someday.
This year’s opener — an even match, a pair of teams who have been dominant in southern football over the past 30 years — promises to be great and, for the loser, could still be survivable. If nothing else, it is worth nine weeks of great anticipation.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.