Several factors can go into a season opening college football game, beginning on whether a team selects a game because it can or because it has to. Lower level programs historically have been fodder for the big boys of college football in order to fund the games of Northwest South Tech. In part because of that longtime scheduling philosophy of a strong program taking on a weak sister to start the season, most of the elite programs have very good winning percentages in season opening games.
Alabama is one of those. Since opening the season with its first varsity football team against a squad of high school all-stars from Birmingham with a 56-0 win on Nov. 11, 1892, in Birmingham, the Crimson Tide has a record of 97-21-3 in its 121 previous games to start a season. That’s a winning percentage of 81.4 per cent.
In home opening games (including Tuscaloosa and Birmingham), Alabama has a record of 73-11-2 for 86 per cent. In road openers, Bama is 17-10-1, only 62.5 per cent. In games at neutral sites – all but one played in the past eight years – Alabama is a perfect 7-0. (The one exception to a season-opener at a neutral site not played under Nick Saban is Ray Perkins’s 1986 team opening up with a 16-10 win over Ohio State at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.)
Alabama has another of those neutral site games to start the 2016 season when the Crimson Tide meets Southern Cal at 7 p.m. CDT Saturday at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (ABC will televise the game.)
Saban is undefeated in season opening games at Alabama, and he has played a representative schedule in going 9-0 in Bama first games. He inherited Western Carolina in 2007 as the Saban Era began with a 52-6 win in Bryant-Denny Stadium. His teams also hosted lightweights San Jose State (Alabama won 48-3) and Saban’s alma mater Kent State (48-7) in 2010 and 2011.
The others, though, have been what has become an Alabama trademark of opening the season against a quality opponent at a neutral site. Many rail against this practice, fans preferring a home-and-home arrangement, but the neutral game openers have proved to be a gold mine for Bama’s athletics department.
Saban has said in the past that he doesn’t have anything to do with making Alabama’s schedule, but it’s inconceivable that Athletics Director Bill Battle (or his predecessor, Mal Moore) would schdule games against the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech, Michigan, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and USC without mentioning it to the coach.
Alabama has not lost a season-opener since Mike DuBose “led” the Tide to back-to-back season-opening losses against UCLA, in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena in 2000 and in Tuscaloosa in 2001.
The last time Alabama opened the season against Southern Cal in 1971, the Crimson Tide surprised the Trojans with the wishbone offense and upset USC 17-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Bryant could not blame the athletics director for any schedule factors because he was both head football coach and AD. He had an 18-6-1 record in those games in his 25 years as head coach. In his first eight years, Alabama opened the season against top-tier Southeastern Conference opponents, including eventual national champion LSU in Bryant’s first season, 1958. The Tigers survived a 13-3 decision at Ladd Stadium in Mobile, which gave Tide fans hope after having suffered through four wins in the previous three-years. That hope would become reality beyond expectations.
As is the case with today’s Alabama football program.
Including Saban’s run of nine straight wins, the Tide has a 14-game winning streak in season opening games.
Here is the Saban record:
2007 Alabama 52, Western Carolina 6 in Tuscaloosa
2008 Alabama 24, Clemson 10 in Atlanta
2009 Alabama 34, Virginia Tech 24 in Atlanta
2010 Alabama 48, San Jose State 3 in Tuscaloosa
2011 Alabama 48, Kent State 7 in Tuscaloosa
2012 Alabama 41, Michigan 14 in Arlington
2013 Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10 in Atlanta
2014 Alabama 33, West Virginia 23 in Atlanta
2015 Alabama 35, Wisconsin 17 in Arlington