No hype needed for Alabama vs. Florida State, the marquee opener of college football history

Kirk Herbstreit-ESPN-Alabama football-College GameDay-Crimson Tide
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit hasn’t had a chance to look up the numbers yet, but it’s understandable since he’ll be broadcasting three games next week.

The first is Ohio State at Indiana on Thursday night, while the last will be five days later — Tennessee against Georgia Tech on Labor Day (both at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN).

Sandwiched between is the big kahuna of Week 1, the one that will make history regardless of the outcome: Alabama vs. Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. ET (ABC).

“It almost feels like a national championship game in Week 1,” Herbstreit said.

Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, while Florida State is No. 3. The only way it could be bigger is if the Seminoles were one notch higher, and they almost were, having received one more first-place vote than the No. 2 Buckeyes.

Still, it’s an extremely unique pairing.

Since the advent of the Associated Press Poll in 1934, there’s never been a pure No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup on opening weekend. The closest was the second week of the 1989 season, when No. 1 Notre Dame visited No. 2 Michigan on Sept. 16 and won 24-16. However, the Fighting Irish had already played a game, a 36-13 victory against Virginia.

Alabama has participated in eight of the last 11 No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups dating to 2008, but before the College Football Playoff, they weren’t that common.

There have been only five played in September, the majority of which were later in the month — Purdue-Notre Dame in 1968, Southern California-Oklahoma in 1981, and Oklahoma-Miami in 1986.

The exception was No. 1 Ohio State defeating No. 2 Texas 24-7 on Sept. 9, 2006, but that was Week 2 of the season. The Buckeyes had already defeated Northern Illinois and the Longhorns beat up on North Texas.

From 1983-2002, the Kickoff Classic was held every year at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., but the best matchup was the inaugural game with No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 4 Penn State. The Cornhuskers won in a rout, 44-6. Only three times did the preseason No. 1 team play at the Meadowlands, with Auburn losing to No. 10 Miami in 1984, and Florida State crushing Kansas 42-0 in 1993.

Since the first preseason poll was tabulated in 1950, there have only been 11 times in which the No. 1 team faced a ranked opponent when it’s the season opener for both. The top-ranked team is 9-2.

Preseason No. 1 vs. ranked opponents in openers

 YEAR  NO. 1 TEAM  OPPONENT RESULT
1950 Notre Dame No. 20 North Carolina  W 14-7
1953 Notre Dame No. 6 Oklahoma W 28-21
1957 Oklahoma No. 8 Pittsburgh W 26-0
1958 Ohio State No. 20 SMU W 23-20
1982 Pittsburgh No. 5 North Carolina W 7-6
1983 Nebraska No. 4 Penn State W 44-6
1984 Auburn No. 10 Miami L 20-18
1988 Florida State No. 8 Miami L 31-0
1991 Florida State N0. 18 BYU W 44-28
1998 Ohio State No. 11 West Virginia W 34-17
2016 Alabama No. 20 USC W 52-6

There’s never been a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup before in Week 1, which means one can certainly make the argument that this is the biggest college football opener yet.

There’s certainly never been a brighter stage.

First, it’s being played in Atlanta, not far from either campus, in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both programs consider Atlanta part of their recruiting territory. But the city has also been dubbed the Crimson Tide’s home away from home, especially during the Nick Saban era.

In addition to playing in four the the last five SEC Championship Games in Atlanta, Alabama will open the season there for the fifth time in 10 years. It also will be the eighth neutral-site opener under Saban. The Crimson Tide is undefeated:

YEAR OPPONENT LOCATION RESULT
2008 No. 9 Clemson Atlanta W 34-10
2009 No. 7 Virginia Tech Atlanta W 34-24
2012 No. 8 Michigan Arlington, Texas W 41-14
2013 Virginia Tech Atlanta W 35-10
2014 West Vieginia Atlanta W 33-23
2015 No. 20 Wisconsin Arlington, Texas W 35-17
2016 No. 20 USC Arlington, Texas W 52-6

“I’ve always liked playing a good opponent because of the effect it has on the offseason,” Saban said. “I think the players have really good focus in fall camp getting ready for that game and I think from a coaching standpoint, it certainly tells you where your team is when you play a good opponent.”

Alabama went 11-2 in the Georgia Dome, which opened in 1992 and hosted its first SEC Championship Game two years later. The Crimson Tide’s last loss in Atlanta was the 2008 SEC title game against Florida, with quarterback Tim Tebow and Gators coach Urban Meyer going on to win the national championship.

A year later the tables were turned.

The Dome was also where Alabama won arguably the best SEC Championship Game to date, the 2012 clash with Georgia that went to down to the end, 32-28. After winning its third consecutive league title there last year, the Crimson Tide said goodbye to the stadium with a 24-7 victory in the Peach Bowl semifinal against Washington.

Alabama-Florida State will be the first college football game played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, also site of the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2. It stands just 83 feet away from the soon-to-be-leveled Georgia Dome, but they’re miles apart in terms of amenities.

For example, the old stadium had 4,800 square feet of razor-sharp LED lights, while the new one has 83,000 square feet. The halo board that rings the top is so long that if you stood it straight up it would top the tallest building in Atlanta.

“It’s really cool,” said Rich McKay, CEO and president of the Atlanta Falcons.

“The building speaks for itself. I hope the first time you’re in it, yeah, you’re wowed by the architecture but more wowed by the fan experience and what we’re trying to provide.”

Falcons stadium-Mercedes Benz Stadium-Atlanta football
The statue of a falcon outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the largest free-standing bird statue in the world. (Shehan Jeyarajah/SEC Country)

Other storylines make the game compelling, such as SEC vs. ACC prominence being on the line after Alabama and Clemson split the last two national championships.

Saban is 10-0 when facing one of his former assistant coaches, and now he faces the only one who has held up a crystal football — Jimbo Fisher. The game matches two of the four active coaches who have won a national championship, with the possibility of a Jan. 8 rematch in the same stadium to decide the next one.

“If you put those two guys in a cornhole game together for halftime entertainment, that might be as good as the actual game itself,” Herbstreit said. “They want to win and compete. It has a lot to do with why they’ve enjoyed so much success.”

He’s right, but Herbstreit doesn’t have to hype this game. It more than sells itself.

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