If you ask some Florida State or Alabama fans, this matchup should have happened four years ago.
The buildup to Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 FSU and No. 1 Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been a long time coming for both fan bases that wished to see them compete for the 2013 national title.
Florida State went on to win the championship, Jimbo Fisher’s first as a head coach, beating Auburn, which entered the title game thanks to a historic kick-six return for a touchdown that ended Alabama’s title hopes that season.
Now Fisher looks to score a victory over Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, his former boss and close friend since they worked together at LSU from 2000-2004. Fisher helped Saban win his first national title in 2003.
Fisher said there’s no such thing as the perfect start to a high-profile game, but there are a few things he hopes to see against a Crimson Tide team that is strong up front and boasts an array of threats.
“You’ve got to take care of the football, which is always most important thing,” he said. “Eliminating self-inflicted wounds as far as penalties, not jumping offsides, not lining up offsides, the holding calls … and [not] shooting yourselves in the foot early and [doing] things, putting yourselves in bad situations.
“And then you’ve got to create big plays and stop big plays. You’ve got to play very physical and you’ve got to play hard. And you’ve got to relax.”
Fisher and Saban will meet in their first battle as head coaches, but history is not on Fisher’s side.
Former Saban assistants Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain, Mark Dantonio, and Derek Dooley have all tried, and failed. Saban is 10-0 against his former protégés, with his team outscoring the others 403-104.
“You talk about success, who does he not have a winning record against?” Fisher said with a laugh about Saban on Thursday.
“He’s got one on all of them. … He’s a heck of a coach, and has done a heck of a job.”
Fisher has won 78 games since taking over the Florida State program in 2010, second to only Saban’s 86 wins at Alabama during the same span.
The matchup is also the first to pit two top-three teams against each other in a season opener since the Associated Press poll was created in 1950.
Both teams enter the contest soured by adversity that prevented them from winning a title in 2016 and eager claim a résumé-building victory that could help clinch a College Football Playoff semifinal berth this season.
Alabama was six seconds away from earning back-to-back national titles last season, but Clemson scored a game-winning touchdown right before time expired.
The Seminoles, on the other hand, were out of contention early last season following sobering defeats to Louisville, North Carolina and eventual national champion Clemson. Florida State finished 10-3 with a victory in the Orange Bowl that showed the team’s potential.
FSU fourth-year tight end Ryan Izzo said his team sometimes took its opponents for granted last season, especially the loss to North Carolina in Doak Campbell Stadium that ended a nation-long home winning streak at 22 games last October.
“We went into some games thinking that we were just the better team and we’d win,” Izzo said. “But we have to take every team as if we’re playing Alabama every week.”
Florida State hopes its preparation pays off. But the stakes, even for just a regular-season opening game, may be at an all-time high.
Alabama has not lost back-to-back games since, coincidently, that kick-six game against Auburn in the regular season finale and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl in 2013. That was the only time Saban lost consecutive games since 2008.
Also, a key note to consider: The last team that won a national championship after losing its season opener was Miami in 1983, adding urgency for both teams aspiring to win a championship.
“We can’t ignore that it’s definitely a big game,” Florida State defensive end Josh Sweat said with both sides trying to downplay the hype before the matchup. “The coaches don’t want to emphasize it because this isn’t the only game. But it definitely is a very big game, and everybody knows it is. We’re not ignoring it.”
The hype may be historic, but Fisher is also keeping the matchup in perspective.
“Does everything in the world get overhyped? Tell me what doesn’t get overhyped,” Fisher joked earlier this preseason. “It’s great for the game. It’s great for us. It’s great Alabama. It’s great for college football.”