ATLANTA – After two years of anticipation, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff between Florida State and Alabama is finally here. The Peach Bowl committee has billed the game as the “Greatest Opener of All Time,” and, at least in terms of national rankings, it is. The No. 3 Seminoles and No. 1 Crimson Tide are the highest-ranked teams to meet in a season opener since the Associated Press first established its preseason poll in 1950. Here are the names, numbers and notes you need to know before Saturday night’s kickoff.
1) Game on
No. 3 Florida State (10-3, 5-3 ACC in 2016) vs. Alabama (14-1, 8-0 SEC) When/Where: Saturday, 8 p.m./Mercedes-Benz Stadium (71,000) in Atlanta TV/Radio: ABC/Seminole IMG Radio Network
First and 10: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 1 Alabama Photo: USA TODAY Sports Images Florida State injury report: Out for Game DB Nate Andrews (Leg)
DB Carlos Becker (Ankle)
DB Decalon Brooks (Knee)
DB Cyrus Fagan (Knee)
TE Alexander Marshall (Hand)
LB Delvin Purifoy (Ankle)
OL David Robbins (Concussion)
OL Brady Scott (Foot)
Out for Season OL Baveon Johnson (Knee)
OL Jauan Williams (Shoulder)
2. Know Your Foe
Alabama Crimson Tide
Coach: Nick Saban (114-19 in 10 seasons at Alabama, 205-65-1 overall)
Last game: Alabama was just moments away from a second straight national championship. But Clemson’s Deshaun Watson stunned the Crimson Tide by finding Hunter Renfrow for a go-ahead touchdown with one second left. The Tigers won the College Football Playoff championship game, 35-31, and sent the Tide into the offseason with a bitter taste in its mouth.
Last game vs. Florida State: Xavier Lee threw a pair of touchdown passes to De’Cody Fagg – including a 70-yarder in the fourth quarter – as the Seminoles topped Alabama, 21-14, in Jacksonville on Sept. 29, 2007. It was first and only meeting between Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden and the program he grew up idolizing. Jimbo Fisher (as offensive coordinator) and Nick Saban (as head coach) were both also in their first years at their new schools.
Alabama vs. Florida State all-time: The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series 2-1-1.
1965: No. 15 ALABAMA 21, Florida State 0
1967: Florida State 37, No. 2 Alabama 37*
1974: No. 3 ALABAMA 8, Florida State 7
2007: Florida State 21, No. 22 Alabama 14**
2017: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 1 Alabama, Saturday, 8 p.m.***
*—in Birmingham, **—in Jacksonville, ***—in Atlanta
It’s hard to imagine a regular-season game having more compelling storylines than this one: Two of college football’s most storied programs, two of the game’s most successful head coaches and two rosters with as much talent as anyone in the country. Throw in obvious CFP implications – the winner is the clear frontrunner in the playoff race, while the loser might still have a case by the end of the year – and two passionate fan bases, and this one has all the makings of one of the season’s most memorable contests. Saban and Fisher are the obvious draws – the teacher and the apprentice. Fisher of course served as Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-05 and, along with Bowden, cites Saban as one of his major influences in coaching. Saban has since solidified his place as the greatest coach of his era, while Fisher has established himself as one of the sport’s brightest new stars. Since Fisher took over at FSU in 2010, he’s second only to Saban in total wins. Each coach has downplayed their significance in this game, but with Fisher guiding FSU’s offense and Saban running Alabama’s defense, the coaching matchup ought to play a big part in determining the outcome. Something’s gotta give: Saban is 10-0 in openers at Alabama, while Fisher is 7-0 in them at Florida State. FSU has outscored its opening opponents by an average score of 49.1-14.7. Saban also has a 10-0 record when facing his former assistants. That list includes Tennessee’s Derek Dooley (3-0), Florida’s Jim McElwain (3-0), Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (2-0) and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp (2-0 while Muschamp was at UF). Fisher will be putting his sterling record against the Southeastern Conference on the line. He’s 9-1 against SEC opponents since 2010: 6-1 against Florida, and 1-0 against Auburn, Mississippi and South Carolina. The game also represents yet another opportunity for a marquee ACC team to show that the balance of power in college football is shifting away from the SEC. The ACC went 8-3 in bowl games a year ago. Both teams enter the season looking to replace key players from last year’s teams. The Seminoles are without all-star running back Dalvin Cook, who left as the program’s all-time leading rusher. Cook was one of four Seminoles drafted. Left tackle Roderick Johnson, defensive end DeMarcus Walker and cornerback Marquez White were the others. Each left big shoes to fill. Alabama, meanwhile, lost 10 players to the draft, including five members of its front seven on defense. 4. Ones To Watch
One offensive and defensive player from each team who could swing the game
Alabama: Quarterback Jalen Hurts is one of the country’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, and the Seminoles would do themselves a big favor to keep Hurts in the pocket and force him to beat them through the air. The sophomore ran for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago (in addition to 2,780 passing yards and 23 passing TDs) on his way to SEC offensive player of the year honors.
On defense, nose guard Da’Ron Payne will keep FSU’s offensive line busy for most of the night. Although the Tide lost five members from last year’s front seven, Payne is still the top run-stuffer for an Alabama defense that was the best in the country at stopping opposing running backs last year.
Florida State: Nyqwan Murray rose to the occasion his last time out, grabbing the two most important catches of FSU’s win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. An encore performance would be most welcome. Alabama is stout on every level of its defense, but, relative to the rest of the squad, was a little more vulnerable to passing attacks in 2016. And the Crimson Tide will be without star DB Marlon Humphries, who was picked in the first round of the NFL draft in April.
No need to overthink the defense: Derwin James is back after nearly a year away, and one can only assume the star safety will be nothing short of electrified when he takes the field for the first time. James can do a little bit of everything, and, against Alabama, he’ll likely have to. He’ll be relied upon to keep Hurts in check on the ground, support the linebackers and D-line in their efforts to slow down running back Bo Scarbrough, and drop back into coverage in some passing situations.
First and 10: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 1 Alabama 5. Numbers To Know
Total offense: FSU: 466.2 YPG (25th nationally in 2016); UA: 455.3 YPG (34th)
“It almost feels like a national championship game Week 1. I think what’s funny to me is if the game is competitive, and no matter who wins, the loser is going to drop one or two spots in the poll. They’re still right in position to do whatever they need to do. In fact, I have both of these teams in the playoff. Pre-season, ESPN asked me to pick who I kind of forecast to make it into the playoffs, and I think Alabama and Florida State both will end up making it despite playing in Week 1.” – ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit on the game
“Could shoot 3s and was very competitive. And he wanted to have success.” – Nick Saban on Jimbo Fisher’s basketball prowess
“We won every game. Nick was a good basketball player, too. He was a good all-around athlete. I mean, he was a good baseball player in college.” – Jimbo Fisher on Saban’s basketball abilities
“Listen, I’m great, I’m nice, just like he is. When it’s time to keep score, we’ll go keep score. Until then I’ll be nice.” – Fisher on his relationship with Saban
“When people say you’re the top dog, teams want to see if you’re the top dog. We’re going to see.” – Tarvarus McFadden on being tested as FSU’s No. 1 cornerback
“I think a safety, and we’ve had some really good ones here, I think he’s every bit as good as anybody we’ve ever played against.” – Saban on FSU’s Derwin James
“I’ve been preparing for this moment for a while now. I take it back to my freshman year ― I kind of learned the ropes from Dalvin. My sophomore season, I was just preparing, preparing, preparing for the moment. Now that the moment is here, it’s nothing really new. I just go out there and work and do what I have to do to help this team.” – Jacques Patrick on his new responsibilities as FSU’s starting running back
7. Nole Notes
A pair of Heisman Trophy winners will serve as honorary captains: Jameis Winston for Florida State and Derrick Henry for Alabama. Incidentally, Winston is an Alabama native who went to FSU, while Henry is a Florida native who went to Alabama. Saban (86) and Fisher (78) rank first and second, respectively, in total wins since 2010. Fisher is 17-10 against ranked opponents. He and Saban (72-39) are two of only 11 active coaches with winning records against ranked teams. Deondre Francois and Jalen Hurts were the only two freshman quarterbacks in the country to throw for more than 2,000 yards a year ago. FSU is 9-1 in neutral-site season-openers and has won eight straight such games. The lone loss? To Brett Favre and Southern Mississippi in Jacksonville in 1989. The Seminoles are also 14-2 when playing in NFL stadiums. FSU is 8-11-1 all-time in Atlanta, but 8-3 since 1983. The Seminoles are looking to snap a two-game skid in Georgia’s capital city. Saturday’s game marks FSU’s eighth game against the AP No. 1 team in the country and second under FIsher. The Seminoles are 1-6 in the previous seven. All but one of those games were against either Miami (0-2), Florida (1-1) or Oklahoma (0-2). FSU all-time vs. AP No. 1:
1986: No. 1 MIAMI 41, Florida State 23
1996: No. 2 FLORIDA STATE 24, No. 1 Florida 21
1999: No. 1 Tennessee 23, No. 2 Florida State 16
2001: No. 1 Oklahoma 13, No. 2 Florida State 2
2002: No. 1 MIAMI 28, No. 9 Florida State 27
2009: No. 1 FLORIDA 37, Florida State 10
2011: No. 1 Oklahoma 23, No. 5 FLORIDA STATE 13
More No. 1 notes: The preseason No. 1 team has lost its season opener six times, with Miami’s loss to No. 16 BYU in 1990 the most recent. No. 1 teams are 13-4 when playing Top 25 opponents in Week 1. No. 1 teams are 8-1 when playing a neutral-site opener. 8. Watch And Learn
Florida State’s biggest “win” against Alabama might not have been a win at all. In 1967, coach Bill Peterson took an unranked Florida State team to Birmingham, Ala., where it would face No. 2 Alabama in the second game of the season.
Behind an early touchdown pass from Ken Hammond to Ron Sellers, FSU took a two-touchdown lead before eventually tying the Tide, 37-37.
The Tallahassee Democrat’s Bill McGrotha summed it up like this: “Florida State wrote Bear Bryant a book on ‘Sucking Up Your Guts’ here Saturday night as the oh-so-prideful Seminoles, ahead 14-0 early, fought from behind four times to tie supposedly invincible Alabama by an incredible 37-37 score.
“It was, beyond any question at all, one of the greatest football games ever played anywhere.”
FSU jumped up to No. 18 in the next week’s poll and finished the season 7-2-2 after tying Penn State in the Gator Bowl.
Play Video 9. Further Reading
Ryan S. Clark of Warchant.com breaks down FSU’s plan to slow down Jalen Hurts (subscription site). Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union says FSU-Alabama is a college football godsend. Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat takes a look at the fateful 2007 meeting between FSU and Alabama, and just how far the two programs have come in the last decade. Yours truly talked with Mickey Andrews and Billy Sexton in an effort to dive into the many, many ties between FSU and Alabama. Turns out there are a lot more than you might think. Former FSU and Alabama quarterback shared his perspective on the two programs with Mark Heim of AL.com. FSU fans might not care for his score prediction. 10. The Bottom Line
Forecasting this game is no easy feat. Preseason polls are notoriously unreliable, with the past year’s performance blended in with returning rosters to come up with the most accurate projections possible. All we really know is that Florida State and Alabama are two of the best teams in the country on a regular basis and either – or both – is a fine early pick to make the College Football Playoff.
That said, there might not be any team over the last nine years that felt overly confident when playing Alabama. That Tide at times has been overwhelming in its dominance. Alabama rarely loses, and, when it does, it’s usually by a slim margin. No one has beaten the Crimson Tide by more than two touchdowns since 2006, the year prior to Saban’s arrival.
Take that consistency and mix it in with Saban’s sterling track record in season openers, and the task ahead of Florida State starts to feel pretty tall.
But, as Jimbo Fisher said a few weeks ago: “They have to play us, too.”
Alabama may be perfect in openers, but Florida State should be the most difficult opponent the Tide has faced to start a season under Saban. And FSU is one of the few teams in the country that recruits well enough to match Alabama’s athletes across the field.
So maybe this one really is a coin flip, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes under the spotlight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will win. If the Seminoles can keep Francois clean and protect the ball, they’ll probably feel good about their chances in the fourth quarter.