Opening Games

The football season can't begin without a season-opening game. Hardly the stuff of philosophers, but for the next six weeks many of the stories of Alabama football will mention the opening game on September 3 against Middle Tennessee State.

Alabama is one of those teams than can define the parameters of its opening football game. The Southeastern Conference makes the league schedule for all SEC teams and almost always gives each team an open date or two or three to start the year.

Thus, Bama can open at home or on the road, against stiff competition or against a stiff.

More often than not, Alabama elects to play a relatively weak opponent at home. The Crimson Tide pays the sacrificial lamb a few hunderd thousand, helping a mid-major make its budget and helping Bama get off to a good start.

That is the scenario UofA officials had in mind when MTSU was selected for the kickoff game this year. That September 3 contest in Bryant-Denny Stadium will begin at 6 p.m., a time that cost Alabama television coverage but which by dodging the midday sun will make things a little less harsh for players and fans.

This is not MTSU's first opening game against the Crimson Tide. In 2002 Coach Dennis Franchione's second and last Bama squad held on for a 39-34 win over the Blue Raiders at Legion Field in Birmingham.

Alabama has a reasonable history of nationally-prominent season-opening opponents, the most recent in 2000 and 2001 against UCLA.

A reasonable argument can be made that the most important football game in the last 50 or so years for Alabama was the 1971 season-opening game against Southern Cal in Los Angeles. The Trojans had defeated Alabama, 42-21, in Birmingham the year before, and many believed that Alabama Coach Paul Bryant was in the final throes of his life in football. Bama defeated Southern Cal, 17-10, and went on to be the nation's most dominant team for a decade–just as Alabama had been in the 1960s.

Ask Alabama fans if they would rather play against a name opponent or a patsy and about 99 per cent will say "name opponent." Ask that same group of fans if they would rather have a Bama win than a Bama loss and the result will be 100 per cent: Win. That's why Alabama (and most top teams) open the season with a warm-up game.

Many believe that strategy contributed to one of the great unjustices in college football history. In 1966 Alabama was going for a third consecutive national championship. The focus on an historical look at that season is the cowardice of Notre Dame playing for a 10-10 tie against Michigan State to win the national championship. (And Michigan State, playing to win the game, was "rewarded" with a second place finish.) Meanwhile, Alabama went undefeated, 11-0, scoring 301 points and allowing only 34, including a 34-7 thrashing of Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl.

But many believe that 1966 team could not recover from the stigma of opening the season against little-known Louisiana Tech, and the Crimson Tide's 34-0 win did little for Bama's reputation with the voters.

Although the SEC does not usually schedule conference teams to open the season, there have been instances of Bama playing league opponents in opening games. Alabama's first game with Bryant as head coach in 1958 was against LSU in Mobile's Ladd Stadium. LSU–which would win the national championship that year–escaped with a 13-3 win against Bama in a game that was closer than the final score. Notice was served that Alabama was on the way back. The most recent Alabama SEC season-opener was in 1999 at Vanderbilt.

Four of Alabama's "modern" national championship teams opened the season with games against SEC opponents. Three of those were against Georgia. Ironically, one of those was a loss, Bama falling at Athens, 18-17, in 1965, but fighting back to win the national title with a victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The most recent was the 1992 Tide opening the season with a 25-8 win over Vanderbilt.

In recent years, Alabama has been aware of bizarre decisions made by the SEC regarding the Crimson Tide. In the 1970s, Bama was running roughshod over the rest of the league, winning the conference championship nearly every year. In 1977 Alabama convinced Ole Miss to be Alabama's season-opening opponent in Birmingham. In those days league teams played six conference games. The league decided that it would be an advantage for Alabama to have an extra conference game. (It was an advantage for Mississippi, too, but no one expected the Rebels to defeat the Crimson Tide.) And so the SEC decided that a season-opening game between Alabama and Mississippi–charter members of the SEC–was not a conference game.

It didn't have an effect on the league race. Alabama defeated Ole Miss, 34-13, and also defeated the other six SEC opponents to win the championship.


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