25 August 2008
| APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T. S. Eliot
I'll bet T. S. Eliot never lived in Tuscaloosa. If he had, he'd know better than some nonsense like that.
April might get a little warm, but August
hits you with a heat haymaker right when June and July already have you worn out. If you're looking for cruel round these parts, you don't look past August.
HOWEVER - I have to admit, August does have one thing going for it. If you can endure it, then at the end you get - FOOTBALL!!!!!
And here we are, still breathing, and with only one cruel week left to this cruel month. Not only do we have football coming up, we've got what just might be a doozy. So what better time to take a look at a few memorable opening games of the last 50 years to see what this one might be stacked up against?
September 27, 1958 - LSU 13, Alabama 3
Alabama had won only four games in the previous three years, and after a rugged summer camp came into this game with only 35 players on its roster. But they did have one thing going for them - the new coach, a big rugged hoss of a man, only 43 years old but already with notable successes under his belt at two other major college programs.
Paul William "Bear" Bryant had heard momma calling, and the college football world was about to change.
Not right away, though. The Bear's Bama career got off to an ignominious start, as the kickoff man semi-whiffed the opening kickoff, and the ball only rolled eleven yards, to where LSU recovered. The fans, excited with the new coach, cheered mightily anyway, heartened by his audacity in starting off with what they thought had been an onside kick attempt.
Later in the first quarter, a corner of the end zone bleachers in Mobile's Ladd Field collapsed, injuring 70 fans. Fortunately, none of the fans were critically or fatally injured, and the game resumed after a five-minute stoppage. (If something like that happened now, we would probably suspend the season. . . .)
Bama's fired-up squad took a 3-0 lead into halftime, but numbers and talent eventually prevailed over sheer grit, and LSU took a 13-3 win back to Baton Rouge. Little did they know then, but that was a win they needed to milk every last drop of enjoyment out of, because this new coach was going to be around way too long for their purposes.
Don't forget about this date - the 50-year anniversary is coming up.
September 17, 1960 - Alabama 21, Georgia 6
It was the new coach's third year. The team had certainly improved from its abysmal state when he came in, racking up a 12-6-3 record over the first two years, but was it ready for the big time?
The answer, as we now know, was a resounding "yes." In the first college football game ever televised by ABC, Alabama let the world know that the new Bear Bryant regime was no joke with a 21-6 thumping of Georgia. The Bulldogs, who had ended the previous season as the #5 team in the land, were led by senior quarterback Fran Tarkenton, but could not get untracked against Bama's swarming defense and only got on on the board in the game's closing seconds.
The Bear had put Bama on the national scene to stay.
September 18, 1965 - Georgia 18, Alabama 17
Despite the loss of seniors Joe Namath and Lee Roy Jordan from the previous season's national championship squad, Bama was among the pre-season title favorites in '65 as it sought to win its third national crown in five years. The young Tiders were nervous out of the box, though, and quickly fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter after a 55-yard TD return of an errant Steve Sloan pass by Georgia defensive end George Patton.
Bama scrambled back to cut it to 10-3 on a David Ray field goal just before intermission, then dominated the second half. With 2:08 left, trailing 17-10 and on their own 27, Georgia's backup quarterback, Kirby Moore, hit split end Pat Hodgkens, who lateraled it back to Bob Taylor, who in turn sprinted 73 yards to the end zone. Moore hit Hodgkens again for the two-pointer, a rushed 42-yard field goal attempt by David Ray at the buzzer went wide, and Georgia went home a huge upset winner.
Replays, as well as a memorable series of photographs in that week's Sports Illustrated, clearly showed that Hodgkens' knees were down long before he released the lateral that Taylor took to the house. All Coach Bryant had to say about that was "You don't win games on film on Monday."
(Bama wound up claiming a national championship that year anyway, as its primary opponents all lost bowls while the Tide thumped Nebraska in a 39-28 Orange Bowl that was not as close as it sounds, but that's another story. . . .)
September 23, 1967 - Alabama 37, Florida State 37
In 1966, going for its third straight national championship, Alabama finished as the nation's only undefeated and untied team. Despite putting an outright beatdown on once-beaten Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama was to finish #3 behind Notre Dame and Michigan St., who played to a tie at the end of the regular season in what may have been the first of the dozens of "Games of the Century"
hyped by the networks.
It was a stone-cold ripoff - just ask any old-timer Bama fan. We're all still steamed about it.
That 1966 team allowed 37 points - all year. It was a pretty good sign that Bama football was about to take a dip from its lofty status when the Tide came out and gave up 37 points to a fairly average FSU team in the very first game of 1967.
We were lucky to get a tie out of it. FSU blew us back to the tune of a 14-0 first quarter advantage, outgained Bama 407-287 on the day, and if it hadn't been for the fact that both teams kind of assumed throughout the day that Alabama would eventually assert itself, FSU might just have won in a walk.
From 1961-1966, Alabama was 60-5-1, and their opponents averaged - gulp - 5.9 points a game over that 66-game span. The Florida State game represented a turnaround in the wrong direction. From 1967-1970, Bama was 28-16-1 and gave up 18.1 points a game.
This was not national championship material, and we had already lost interest in anything lesser. We needed something to turn us around. It arrived on
September 10, 1971 - Alabama 17, USC 10
The next "game of the century"
after Michigan St.-Notre Dame came in 1969, when Texas, featuring Coach Darren Royal's "wishbone" offense, won a 15-14 come-from-behind thriller over the Hogs in Fayetteville.
Texas won the national championship that year, and took a #1 rating into the 1970 Cotton Bowl, where they were upset by Notre Dame, clearing the way for Bob Devaney's Nebraska team to clinch the first of two straight national championships later that night by stopping LSU 17-12 in the Orange Bowl.
Back in Tuscaloosa, a certain gentleman known for wearing a houndstooth tyrolean hat on autumn Saturdays was watching. With Bama coming off the worst two seasons Bryant would ever endure in Tuscaloosa, and the '71 season set to start with a huge Left Coast road game, the Bear closed practices the last two weeks before the game.
On game night, Bama shocked all observers by coming out in a wishbone. The Tide jumped to a 10-0 first quarter lead, rushed for 302 yards, and rode two Johnny Musso TDs to a 17-10 win. The upset set the stage for an 11-0 regular season, culminating in a sweet 31-7 thumping of Auburn in what was a matchup of two 10-0 teams, ranked #3 and #4 in the nation, who were playing for the right to meet the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game for the national crown.
That Nebraska-Oklahoma game was another game of the century
- except this one really may have been. Many call that Nebraska team the greatest college football team ever, but not me - I say it's 1971 Oklahoma, and that game sure has my "greatest game ever" vote (except when I have the '85 Iron Bowl on my mind).
Alabama came out flat against the Huskers in the Orange Bowl, and it wasn't pretty (38-6), and nuff said about that.
September 15, 1973 - Alabama 66, Cal 0
OK, this is maybe not one of the great classics. But I get a lot of mileage out of it, since I live out in the Bay Area now (and got my law degree at Cal).
If somebody mentions Cal football, I'll say "Oh I went to a Cal game once" with a blank face and just wait for 'em to ask me about it. They usually do. Eh eh.
That game is just a good memory for me. I was a sophomore (well, not quite, but I was a second year student. . . .), sitting in the student section at Legion Field, and the students just went nuts when Bear Bryant came walking out behind the team when they made their traditional pre-game circle of the field in civilian clothes. Bear's pre-game mannerisms were legend by then, and the students went nuts again when he leaned up against the goal post, when he pulled out the rolled-up program, when he walked off.
Just the purest hero worship. And then the game lived up to it. that was fun, fun, fun.
September 8, 1975 - Missouri 20, Alabama 7
Talk about flat. Playing at Legion Field, Bama could muster a mere 118 yards total offense, and were streamrolled by a mediocre Missouri team,
led by tailback Tony Galbreath, that finished 6-5 that season.
The Tide outscored its remaining 11 opponents, including Penn St. in the Sugar Bowl, by a combined score of 367-52, but the damage was done on September 8, and Alabama finished #3 without getting a shot at the national crown.
September 2, 1978 - Alabama 20, Nebraska 3
Bama's 31-24 loss to Nebraska at Lincoln the year before had been the Tide's only loss of the year, and it was enough to cost the Tide another national championship. Despite Bama's 35-6 dismantling of Ohio St. in the Sugar Bowl that year, another Notre Dame-favoring rip-off pollsters' vote
left the Tide at #2 in the final polls.
The Tide had its shot at revenge to open the '78 season, and methodically took it. Rushing for 264 yards, holding Nebraska to only 174 total yards, and winning the turnover battle 4-2, Alabama waxed the Huskers 20-3. It was just enough to help Alabama win a close vote and the AP national championship after the famous Sugar Bowl win featuring Barry Krauss, Marty Lyons, Don McNeal, and the Goal Line Stand. It was to be the first of back-to-back wins for the Tide.
September 8, 1984 - Boston College 38, Alabama 31
Ray Perkins was something of a hot coaching commodity when he became the first Alabama head coach of the post-Bryant era, having led the sad sack New York Giants to an unaccustomed playoff spot. Perkins showed promise in his first season, a 9-3 showing marked by three close loses and a blowout of once-beaten SMU (pre-death penalty, and not by much) in the Sun Bowl.
It's not unusual to see teams improve in their second season under a new coach, so hopes and expectations were high when Bama hosted Boston College at Legion Field to open Perkins' second campaign. It was a revenge game, as Boston College's junior quarterback Doug Flutie had led the Eagles to a 20-13 win in Foxboro in '83.
Later in '84 Flutie would hurl the famous Hail Mary pass, a last-second skyscraper to Gerard Phelan to nip Miami, and would take home the Heisman for his efforts. But Alabama, showcasing an explosive attack featuring tailback Kerry Goode, looked to derail BCU early. Goode rushed for 68 yards and had another 32 yards on pass receptions in the first half, and when he took the opening kickoff of the second half back 99 yards, Bama led 31-14.
For a brief golden moment Goode was the front-runner in the 1984 Heisman race and Ray Perkins looked as if he were just going to pick up where the Bear left off. Bama held and got the ball back leading 31-14. Kerry Goode ran the ball and suffered a season-ending and career-changing knee injury.
The air went out of Alabama's balloon in an enormous way, and it took over a month to get any significant amount back in.
Flutie led BCU back to beat the suddenly-hapless Tide, 38-31. Bama followed that crushing defeat up with losses to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and Georgia sandwiched around a win over Southwestern Louisiana for a 1-4 start to the season. Even though the Tide got it together to play much better down the stretch, their eventual 5-6 record saw them miss a bowl invitation for the first time since 1958, breaking Bama's then-NCAA-record 25-year bowl streak.
September 2, 1985 - Alabama 20, Georgia 16
After that dismal 1984 season, Bama opened 1985 with its post-Bryant place in the SEC and college football still undefined. Did 1984 mean that Alabama was just another run-of-the-mill program?
A quick test would be supplied via an opening game played between the hedges in Athens. As expected, the game was a slugfest, but Bama generally got the better of it, outgaining Georgia 307 yards to 210 for the day, and when Van Tiffin nailed his second of two 40+ yard field goals midway through the 4th period, Bama led 13-3.
Georgia marched down the field and scored to cut the lead to 13-9, but used a lot of time. Alabama went three and out on its subsequent possession, but there was less than a minute on the clock when linebacker Terrie Johnson broke through Bama's blocking wall to block Chris Mohr's punt. Calvin Ruff fell on it in the end zone, Georgia added the extra point, and Georgia led 16-13.
Bama got it on its own 29 following the kickoff, and when Mike Shula stood under center, there were only 50 seconds left and the Tide had no timeouts. In a preview of the magical Iron Bowl that was to come later that year, Shula smartly marched the Tide down the field, taking five plays before pegging an open Al Bell, who gathered the ball in and crossed the goal line almost simultaneously. Tiffin added the point, and Alabama had won a wild one, 20-16.
August 27, 1986 - Alabama 16, Ohio State 10
Heh heh. We're undefeated against Ohio State. (Thought I would throw that in.)
The 1986 Bama-Ohio St. game was Alabama's first shot at a "Kickoff Classic" appearance, and as befits a game played in August, the teams were sloppy and rather listless, combining for seven turnovers and 95 yards in penalties. Alabama's senior All-American linebacker, Cornelius Bennett, missed the game with injury, but Ohio State quarterback Jim Karsatsos found himself under relentless pressure from an unexpected source, little used sophomore linebacker Derrick Thomas, who gave early notice that Bama would indeed be able to replace Bennett after he graduated. Karsatsos was only able to find All-American wideout Chris Carter three times for 50 yards.
His inherent greatness was not all that Thomas showcased in that game. He also proved indubitably that he was indeed an inexperienced player by committing back-to-back pass interference penalties each on what would have been the last play of the game. Despite the dual extensions that marched the Bucks a good 50 yards down the field, Karsatsos still couldn't convert and Bama hung on for the 16-10 win.
September 2, 2000 - UCLA 35, Alabama 24
The number of memorable opening games took a sharp downturn after that Ohio St. win, as Alabama began what has been a fairly regular - and sensible, I might add - tradition of tuning up with a patsy.
But 2000 was to be an exception. Fresh off a hot finish to 1999, including a solid SEC Championship Game win over Florida, Bama started 2000 #3 in both polls, despite the loss of stars Shaun Alexander and Chris Samuels in the first round of the NFL draft. Freddie Milons was a leading Heisman candidate (that feels odd to type).
And it looked like it was going to be all good, all good when Bama forced an opening three-and-out and Milons rocked the 25,000 or so wearing crimson at the Rose Bowl with a 71-yard punt return TD with only 1:15 off the clock in the first quarter.
Sadly, other than a 4th-quarter 91-yard interception return by Reggie Myles that gave Bama a brief lead, the rest of the rocking came from the blue-and-gold set. UCLA outgained Bama 396-265, won the turnover battle 4-1, the first downs battle 26-16, and converted three of three fourth-down attempts to win a 35-24 game that really wasn't as close as it sounds.
The 2000 season proceeded to go rapidly and monstrously down the drain. Mike Dubose was an acting head coach only for the rest of the campaign once the Tide had sucked up a humiliating 21-0 beatdown in game three against Southern Miss, en route to an embarrassing 3-8 record that is the Tide's worst of the last half-century. Milons' Heisman hopes went a-glimmering in a big hurry as his early punt return TD was one of only two touchdowns total he would score all year during a year when his receiving yardage totaled only 287.
Note: Things were not going to get better any time soon, as adorning the Tide's sideline for that game was an overweight freshman defensive tackle named Albert Means. Bama opened the next year under a cloud with another loss to UCLA, this time in Tuscaloosa, but there was nothing particularly noteable about that one. Just one of many losses that were to come over the next few years. . . .
August 30, 2008 - The Georgia Dome
Where an unknown future Daniel Moore has yet to be painted. . . .