It’s hard to overstate how good of a matchup Saturday’s season-opener between Alabama and Florida State is. It’s one of two 2017 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games, and the event’s website has labeled it the Greatest Opener of All Time, which it abbreviated simply to “GOAT.” This feels wrong because “GOAT” stands for “Greatest of All Time” and this should be abbreviated to “GOOAT,” if the powers that be would’ve put any logical thought into this. But I’m going to let it slide, because they’re right about the quality of the game.
We’d know this was a great game just from the brand names of the schools involved. These are two of the five teams to win a national championship this decade, led by two of the four active Division I head coaches who have ever won a championship. We’d know it from looking at the rosters: These are two of the top four teams in the blue-chip recruiting ratio that often directly correlates with who becomes the national champ. And of course, we’d know it from paying attention to college football: Alabama was one play away from winning its second consecutive national title last season, while Florida State won the Orange Bowl. And both did it with talented freshman quarterbacks who should be older and better this fall.
The no. 1 team and no. 3 team in the AP poll have never squared off in Week 1 before. There is a history of very good teams playing against each other in the first week of the season, but the two teams in a matchup have never been this good. If anything, no. 1 vs. no. 3 is underselling it: FSU is actually ranked second in S&P+. It might be more accurate to say these are the two best teams in college football.
Which, of course, means that it might be unwise for these two to face off in Week 1. After Saturday, one of these exceptional teams will be 0-1. It will have 11 regular-season games, including eight conference games, and a potential conference championship game yet to go. And to make the College Football Playoff, it will probably have to run the table in one of the most difficult divisions in the sport. Alabama’s division, the SEC West, has no weak teams: the worst is probably Ole Miss, which went 5-7 last year and is replacing a head coach after Hugh Freeze turned out to be not-as-Christian as advertised, and the best other than Bama are LSU and Auburn, both of which could finish in the top 10 nationally. FSU plays in the ACC Atlantic, meaning it has to get through last season’s champion, Clemson, as well as a Louisville squad that returns Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and throttled the Seminoles 63-20 last September.
The playoff has never taken a two-loss team before. It’s only three years old, so there isn’t a huge sample size, and the selection committee factors the quality of a team’s losses into its decision-making process. But fans have historically been against seeing two teams that already played in the regular season face off again in the postseason. It seems distinctly possible that the loser of Alabama-FSU would have to sweep its remaining 12 games to have a shot at the national championship.
Yet the playoff also encourages teams to take these risks. In the BCS era, a team’s wisest path to contending for a national championship was often to play (and crush) a bunch of overmatched opponents. But now the sport’s promised land includes four teams instead of two, and programs have to impress actual humans rather than complex computer algorithms. There is now value in playing big-name teams early—well, there’s always been monetary value, but now there is another type of value, too. ESPN is happy to assist, and it’s helped turn the opening week of the season into a five-day bonanza filled with marquee matchups at neutral sites. (Saturday night’s game will be held in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the robotic butthole replacing the not-that-old-but-soon-to-be-demolished building where Ludacris did it on the 50-yard line.)
Sometimes, I am dumb enough to get upset over the fact this game is happening. These are two teams we should watch play each other in December or January, when everything is on the line. Instead, we’ll watch them play in September, at a point in the college football calendar when teams primarily comprised of players below the drinking age are not yet finished products. (Just ask USC, which lost to Bama 52-6 last year after starting Max Browne over Sam Darnold.)
And then I snap out of it: This game is everything we love about college football, the sport where every week is a dance with disaster. It’s Nick Saban against former protégé Jimbo Fisher; Jalen Hurts against a defense that features Derwin James; Deondre Francois against a defense with a fresh batch of soul-ruiners. One of these teams will immediately become the national title favorite. The other will lose any margin for error.
We’re about to watch 130 teams create something ludicrous over the course of four months, and that process begins in earnest on Saturday. Every game in this sport matters, and that’s only a problem if you’re foolish enough to lose. Good luck, and may the gods have mercy on everybody but those bastards who root for the team from the other side of your state.