Better To Open Tough Or Soft?

The start of an Alabama football season is always exciting, and that's particularly true when the Crimson Tide opens with a big name opponent. The Tide is no stranger to difficult openers. Bama has bitten off a lot for the 2008 season as one of the top teams in the nation will provide the opposition.

Alabama will meet Clemson in a neutral site season-opener on August 30. Bama and the Tigers will kickoff at 8 p.m. EDT in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with national television coverage by ABC. The Crimson Tide is coming off a 7-6 season and is generally picked in the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

Clemson is the favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and is a consensus top 10 team in preseason polls.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban had a somewhat softer opener in 2007, Saban's first year at the helm of the Crimson Tide. Alabama opened with a 52-6 win over Western Carolina last season.

A case can be made that Clemson is a good choice for the 2008 Crimson Tide to open the season. It's difficult to imagine any Alabama football player under Saban not being focused on the task at hand, but it's possible that Bama players will be a little more motivated that usual preparing for a Clemson instead of a Western Carolina.

Win or lose, Alabama should have a gauge of where it is following that opening game.

If Alabama should lose, it would not be abnormally demoralizing, as was the loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season.

If Alabama was able to upset Clemson, it could be a big boost for the Tide, and particularly for senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, working under his third quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in three years as the starter.

More than that, it would be a confidence builder for every player in the program.

It is the norm in college football for heavyweights to open with creampuffs. There are a lot more season-openers like this year's Southeastern Conference list of Arkansas-Western Illinois, Auburn-Louisiana-Monroe, and Georgia-Georgia Southern than there are Tennessee vs. UCLA. (And that Tennessee game was a late change. The Vols originally were scheduled to open against UAB this year.)

There's not a single correct formula. When Steve Spurrier was dominating the SEC as head coach at Florida, the Gators typically opened the season with the lightest of the light weights.

Alabama has had good teams open the season with easy opponents and with difficult opponents, and with mixed results. Bama's first Rose Bowl championship team, the 1925 squad, opened the season with a 53-0 win over Union College. The likes of Howard College (now Samford University) and Birmingham Southern were staples of early Alabama football teams.

Coach Frank Thomas raised the bar in 1938 when Alabama went to Los Angeles and opened the season with a 19-7 win over Southern Cal. USC has been a rare, but meaningful, season-opening opponent for the Tide.

When Paul Bryant became Alabama's head coach in 1958, the schedule he inherited included opening the season in Mobile against LSU, the team that would be national champion that season. The Crimson Tide didn't win the game, but the fine showing in a 13-3 loss served notice that Bryant Bama teams would be special.

The next seven years of the Bryant era, Alabama opened the season against Georgia, Bama winning five. In that time, Alabama reasserted itself as the dominant team in the South, winning three national championships, including back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965.

Alabama would finish third in the nation in 1966 despite having the nation's only undefeated, untied team. Notre Dame played Michigan State to a tie and the Irish won the title. One reason given for Alabama not being voted a third consecutive national championship was the Tide having a weak schedule, and that perception was based primarily on the season-opener. Bama opened the 1966 season with a 34-0 win over Louisiana Tech.

When the NCAA decided to allow an 11th regular season game beginning with the 1970 season, Alabama was one of the few teams that used the opportunity to add a quality opponent. Bama and USC agreed to a home-and-home series for the two years. The Trojans crushed the Tide in Birmingham to open the 1970 season, a year that would see Alabama have its second consecutive six-win, five-loss season.

But in 1971, Alabama took a team to Los Angeles to face a Southern Cal team that was expected to win the national championship. Alabama unveiled the wishbone offense, upset USC 17-10, and went on to another decade of three national championships.

With the exception of 1966, Bryant's season-opening opponents were all teams that are now in the Bowl Championship level. There were games against Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, California, Maryland, Duke, and SEC opponents Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU.

Bryant had a record of 232-46-9 as head coach at Alabama. His record in season-opening games was 18-6-1. In national championship seasons the first game opponents were Georgia (three times), California, Nebraska and Georgia Tech.

Ray Perkins also had tough opening games—a win over Georgia Tech, a loss to Boston College, a win over Georgia in Athens, and a win over Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands to start his final season. Bill Curry had it considerably easier with opening games against Southern Miss, Temple and Memphis.

Gene Stallings lost his first opener to Southern Miss, but won the next six, all against weak competition. Mike DuBose had one tough opener, his last one, when Alabama played UCLA in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena and lost 35-24. Dennis Franchione lost his first season-opener to UCLA, then beat Middle Tennessee in his second. Mike Shula had three cupcakes and Hawaii in Tuscaloosa as season-openers and won all four.

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