The 2016 season began with a momentous weekend dubbed the greatest opening week in college football history. The 2017 season will begin with something a bit easier to prove: the biggest opening game ever.
No. 1 Alabama will meet No. 3 Florida State at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday night. It is the site of the national championship game, too, raising the possibility that the Crimson Tide and Seminoles could start and finish the season playing each other in the same stadium … if a loss in this game doesn't cost the losing team a playoff spot.
Since the AP began releasing a preseason poll in 1950, there have been only six opening matchups -- defined as the opening game for both teams -- between preseason top-five teams. Alabama-Florida State will be the seventh, and it will also be the first matching the No. 1 team against another squad that's ranked in the top three. No. 1 has met No. 4 in the opener twice, both blowouts: No. 1 Nebraska beat defending national champion Penn State 44-6 to open the 1983 season, and No. 1 Oklahoma crushed UCLA 38-3 in 1986.
While last year's whole weekend was big, it did not include a matchup of preseason top-10 teams. (No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss on Labor Day was the closest.) So, 2017 has 2016 beat in terms of the single biggest game.
How does Alabama-Florida State stack up with all-time great openers, in terms of rankings, and what did those games ultimately mean? With the help of Sports-Reference, newspapers.com and the "ESPN College Football Encyclopedia," let's run through every opening battle between top-10 teams, then explore this year's showdown. All rankings are from the AP poll.
1953: No. 1 Notre Dame 28, No. 6 Oklahoma 21
Including this depends on your definition of opener. There was a mostly full week of games beforehand, but neither the Fighting Irish nor Sooners played in Week 1. So, this top-six showdown was a season-opener for both teams, and thus we'll count it. Notre Dame didn't lose all year, but a tie with Iowa allowed Maryland to jump to No. 1 and claim the national title. Oklahoma wouldn't lose another game for more than four years, when Notre Dame ended the sport's longest winning streak in 1957.
1955: No. 10 Georgia Tech 14, No. 9 Miami 6
When Georgia Tech hosted Miami to open the season, NBC broadcast the game in color, making it the first national color television broadcast in the history of the sport. It also marked another milestone. The Yellow Jackets won and ended up seventh in the final poll, while Miami finished 14th.
1957: No. 1 Oklahoma 26, No. 8 Pittsburgh 0
It's no surprise that the Sooners were the preseason No. 1: They carried a 40-game winning streak into the season, having gone undefeated three years in a row. The 1957 season started as planned, but the Sooners' record-setting 47-game winning streak was snapped by Notre Dame on Nov. 16. Pitt finished 4-6.
1962: No. 7 Purdue 7, No. 10 Washington 7
A 7-7 tie derailed the high hopes of both teams. Purdue ended up stumbling to 4-4-1, while Washington lost only one game all season but tied twice.
1967: No. 8 UCLA 20, No. 9 Tennessee 16
Gary Beban's Heisman campaign got off to a strong start: The Bruins' quarterback ran 27 yards on fourth down for a touchdown with 4:10 left to put UCLA ahead. Both teams finished with two losses, and UCLA's national title hopes were ended with its famous 21-20 loss to USC. The Vols ended up finishing higher than the Bruins in the AP poll, ranked No. 2 in the final vote taken before a 26-24 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
1968: No. 3 Notre Dame 45, No. 5 Oklahoma 21
The first opening showdown between top-five teams wasn't much of a contest, as Notre Dame rushed for 357 yards and has 35 first downs to the Sooners' 12. The Fighting Irish lost their next game to No. 1 Purdue and finished fifth.
1970: No. 10 Stanford 34, No. 4 Arkansas 28
Another opening victory by a top-10 team that launched a Heisman campaign. After finishing eighth in the vote in 1969, Jim Plunkett led Stanford to a tight win over the Razorbacks in Little Rock in which the it nearly blew a 27-0 lead, ultimately stopping Arkansas on a fourth down in the red zone late in the game.
1972: No. 8 USC 31, No. 4 Arkansas 10
Yet another opening loss by No. 4 Arkansas in a big game in Little Rock. This time, the Razorbacks were overrated, as they would slip to just 6-5. USC was anything but overrated: It vaulted from No. 8 to No. 1 after the win and stayed atop the AP poll the rest of the season to capture the national championship.
1973: No. 4 Nebraska 40, No. 10 UCLA 13
Nebraska got its revenge, in the first game under head coach Tom Osborne. A year earlier, the unranked Bruins stunned the defending national champion Cornhuskers with a 20-7 upset, their first loss since Oct. 11, 1969. This time, UCLA was ranked 10th and had to travel to Lincoln, where it was no match for Nebraska. The Huskers ended up eighth in the AP poll, while the Bruins finished 12th.
1977: No. 3 Notre Dame 19, No. 7 Pittsburgh 9
Pitt won the 1976 national title but lost coach Johnny Majors to Tennessee. In its first game under Jackie Sherrill, Pitt lost QB Matt Cavanaugh to an injury, committed a rash of turnovers and fell to the No. 3 Fighting Irish, who would go on to win the '77 national championship despite losing their second game at Ole Miss.
1978: No. 1 Alabama 20, No. 10 Nebraska 3
The top-ranked Crimson Tide would go on to lose to USC on Sept. 23, but a decisive win over the Cornhuskers began what turned into a national championship season, capped by a memorable Sugar Bowl win over No. 1 Penn State.
1980: No. 10 Texas 23, No. 6 Arkansas 6
The Longhorns and Razorbacks met in Austin in a Labor Day matchup that proved to be rather inconsequential, as both teams finished 7-5 and unranked.
1982: No. 1 Pittsburgh 7, No. 5 North Carolina 6
Pitt had ruined its national title chances with a blowout loss vs. Penn State at the end of the '81 regular season. With Dan Marino back for his senior season, the Panthers returned to the top of the AP poll in the preseason despite losing another coach, with Foge Fazio replacing Sherrill. Pitt held on to beat UNC by a point in a Thursday night game, but it finished 9-3, while the Tar Heelers were 8-4.
1983: No. 1 Nebraska 44, No. 4 Penn State 6
Yet another defending national champion demolished in the opener. In this case, the '82 title-winning Nittany Lions opened with the No. 1 Cornhuskers in the first-ever Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium, an event that would create a string of high-profile openers for two decades. Penn State had defeated Nebraska in a dramatic and controversial finish at Beaver Stadium the year before, launching its bid for a title. The Nittany Lions lost several key players, while Nebraska had Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar back. The Huskers won big, then went undefeated before losing the national title to Miami on a failed two-point conversion in the Orange Bowl in one of the greatest games ever.
1984: No. 10 Miami 20, No. 1 Auburn 18
Miami was the defending national champion, but Auburn opened the season ranked No. 1 thanks to the presence of Bo Jackson in the backfield. The Tigers' stay at the top didn't last long: In a Monday night Kickoff Classic, Miami edged the Tigers by two behind Bernie Kosar's 329 passing yards. Injuries plagued Jackson's season, and Auburn finished 9-4. Miami stumbled to 8-5 thanks in part to Doug Flutie's famous Hail Mary and Frank Reich's famous comeback.
1986: No. 5 Alabama 16, No. 9 Ohio State 10
Once again, the Kickoff Classic delivered a massive season-opener in August, this time on a Wednesday. Ray Perkins began his final season as Alabama's coach on a high note, as the Crimson Tide scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to pull off the win. Both teams went on to finish with three losses but stayed in the final top 10.
1986: No. 1 Oklahoma 38, No. 4 UCLA 3
In the first full week of the 1986 season, a week and a half after Bama-Ohio State Kickoff Classic, the preseason No. 1, defending national champion Sooners demolished the Bruins. Oklahoma lost a few weeks later in a 1-vs.-2 matchup with Miami and ultimately finished No. 3.
1988: No. 2 Nebraska 23, No. 10 Texas A&M 14
The Kickoff Classic was kind to the Cornhuskers again. In the lone game of the weekend, the Huskers topped an overrated Aggies squad that started its season on a three-game losing streak and finished 7-5. Nebraska lost a couple weeks later to UCLA and went 11-2.
1988: No. 6 Miami 31, No. 1 Florida State 0
A week after the Kickoff Classic, Miami and Florida State played one of the most consequential games of the season. The defending national champion Hurricanes crushed the preseason No. 1 Seminoles 31-0, vaulting to No. 1 in the process. With a comeback win at Michigan two weeks later, Miami ended up going to South Bend as the No. 1 ranked team for the infamous Catholics vs. Convicts game against Notre Dame. Miami lost and Notre Dame won the national title, with the Hurricanes and Seminoles finishing No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
1990: No. 5 Colorado 31, No. 8 Tennessee 31
The first Pigskin Classic in Anaheim proved to be a significant opener to a bizarre season. Colorado blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, and after scoring a TD, the Vols opted to kick a PAT for the tie with 2:25 to play. The Buffaloes fell to No. 6, then dropped all the way to 20th after losing to Illinois. And yet, despite a loss, a tie and the Fifth Down win over Missouri, they bounced all the way back to claim a share of the national title with Georgia Tech. Had Tennessee gone for two and made it, none of that may have happened.
1991: No. 7 Penn State 34, No. 8 Georgia Tech 22
After splitting the national title, Georgia Tech opened the next season eighth and faced Penn State in the Kickoff Classic. The Nittany Lions blew out the Yellow Jackets before a few late garbage-time touchdowns made the score appear closer. Georgia Tech finished 8-5, while Penn State finished 11-2, ranked No. 3 in the final poll.
1999: No. 3 Penn State 41, No. 4 Arizona 7
Led by the top two picks in the 2000 NFL Draft, Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, Penn State had national title hopes, and it looked like a legitimate championship threat when it steamrolled Arizona in the Pigskin Classic. But Arizona flopped, going 6-6 after finishing 12-1 the year before, and Penn State turned a 9-0 start into a 10-3 finish by dropping its last three regular-season games.
2003: No. 8 USC 23, No. 6 Auburn 0
USC had a breakthrough 2002 season in which Carson Palmer won the Heisman. The next season, with Matt Leinart replacing Palmer, the Trojans proved that they were becoming a power under Pete Carroll. In a season in which they were left out of the BCS title game but won the AP national title, the Trojans shut out Auburn on the road in the opener, holding the Tigers to 164 total yards. Auburn proceeded to finish 8-5.
2004: No. 5 Miami 16, No. 4 Florida State 10
This is somewhat odd addition to this list. This game -- Miami's first in the ACC -- was originally scheduled for the first week, but Hurricane Frances pushed the game back from Monday, Sept. 6, to Friday, Sept. 10. Miami started the season sixth, but by the time the game was actually played, both teams had climbed one spot in the top five thanks to LSU's less than impressive 22-21 win over Oregon State. Both teams ended up finishing 9-3.
2009: No. 5 Alabama 34, No. 7 Virginia Tech 24
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has made a habit of playing in big nonconference openers at neutral sites. The Crimson Tide began their rise the year before, beating Clemson in Atlanta. Again in Atlanta, they began their national title campaign, as Mark Ingram launched his Heisman campaign with 150 rushing yards to lead Bama to a 10-point win.
2011: No. 4 LSU 40, No. 3 Oregon 27
The 2010 national runner-up Ducks met the LSU team that would end up being the 2011 national runner-up Arlington, Texas. Both teams started in the top four, and both teams finished there. Despite being out-gained, LSU set the tone for a dominant regular season by forcing four turnovers and cruised in the second half.
2012: No. 2 Alabama 41, No. 8 Michigan 14
The Brady Hoke era started strong in 2011 with an 11-2 record, but the Wolverines proved to be no match for Alabama, which had just won a national title and was about to win a second one. At the Cowboys' stadium, Alabama humiliated Michigan, jumping out to a 31-0 lead in the second quarter and never looking back.
2013: No. 8 Clemson 38, No. 5 Georgia 35
Clemson really started to establish itself as a budding national power here. After going 11-2 the previous season, the Tigers lived up to their preseason billing. They finished 11-2 again, and it all started with a fun, back-and-forth showdown with Georgia in Death Valley.
2017: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State
Alabama-Florida State is the biggest opener ever only because of educated preseason guesses. Based on returning rosters and recent success, it's a very strong bet that both Alabama and Florida State will be top-five teams, but this is a matchup of top-three teams only because poll voters said so. No games this season have actually been played to prove it. As we've seen throughout history, and through the games listed above, games that look monumental when they happen sometimes take on different meanings later in the season.
Here's how the previous 28 opening matchups ended up looking:
- Twelve were decided by single digits, including two ties. Ten had margins of victory of at least 21 points.
- Five of the winners went on to claim national championships. They were ranked No. 3, No. 1, No. 8, No. 5 and No. 2 at the time of the games. Colorado, which tied its opener, went on to win the 1990 title, too.
- Of the 26 losing teams (two of the games were ties), eight finished the season in the AP top 10, four of which (1953 Oklahoma, 1967 Tennessee, 1988 Florida State and 2011 Oregon) ended up in the top five despite starting 0-1.
- Of the 26 winning teams, 21 finished in the top 10, including 14 in the top five.
Because of the playoff, times have changed, and we've entered uncharted territory. The loser of this game merely needs to get into the top four at the end of the season to have a chance at the championship, so there is a greater margin for error in Week 1 for whichever team falls. Plus, whoever loses will have lost to perhaps the best team in the country, the most forgivable possible loss.
Alabama's history in these types of games is excellent, not surprisingly. In addition to dominating his former assistants -- although this will be his first game against Jimbo Fisher, his former offensive coordinator at LSU -- Saban's Alabama teams have humiliated opponents in Week 1 neutral site games. Saban is 7-0 in such games, five of which have been against top-25 teams. Alabama has won all seven by at least 10 points, including four by 24-plus. The most recent was last year's 52-6 blowout win over USC.
The hope is that Saturday will be different, that it will somehow live up to the enormous hype as a down-to-the-wire game between two of the most talented teams in the country.
The stakes won't fully be determined until the end of the season, when we can look back at how strong these two teams truly were and how much of an impact the game had on the season as a whole. But based on preseason expectations and recent history -- both have won a national title in the past four years, and Alabama is still in the midst of one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport -- the stakes appear to be higher than any opening game ever.
The hope is that the biggest opening game ever will still be the biggest afterward. It's up to the Crimson Tide and Seminoles to match the hype.