9:57 PM ET
Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
ATLANTA — Nick Saban genuinely wanted us to believe he was concerned. That he was worried. That perhaps at some point over the past month of preparation for Alabama’s first game of the 2021 college football season he had sat at the dinner table with his wife, Miss Terry, wringing his hands and furrowing his brow over what might transpire in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend.
Forget that he was 10-0 in previous neutral-site season openers. Or that six of those 10 wins had come against ranked opponents. Or that those six wins had been earned by an average of nearly 27 points per game.
Instead, the greatest college football coach of all time, coming off the greatest season that his GOAT era has ever produced, stuck to his overselling of his uneasiness on Saturday morning. Only a few hours before his defending national champion Alabama squad faced off against an oft-labeled “resurgent” Miami Hurricanes team seeking to crash the top 10 by stemming the Tide, Saban spoke in almost muted tones. No smiles. Just foreboding.
“There’s always that little bit of, did I do a good job? How’s this gonna work for us?” Saban said to ESPN’s Marty & McGee at the College Football Hall of Fame when asked if he still gets first-game jitters after more than a quarter century as a college head coach. “There’s a little anxiety there.”
He talked about the weight of expectations, the challenge of replacing a historically unstoppable 2020 offense that was powered by a now-gone Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver and a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback. He reminded that not only had he needed to hire two new coordinators, but had only one returning assistant on his entire offensive staff.
As Saban listed it all, it indeed sounded convincingly insurmountable.
And then his team beat 14th-ranked Miami 44-13. The Tide posted 501 yards of offense as replacement quarterback Bryce Young set Alabama first-start passing records with 344 yards and four touchdowns. As for the receivers charged with stepping into the cleats of last year’s all-stars, they did so en masse, with a whopping 10 players hauling in at least one catch.
The man who spent his morning trying to convince us of his lack of confidence spent his postgame downright giddy over the newfound confidence he had just seen around his young locker room.
“I think that’s really important, especially when you have a lot of new players that don’t have a lot of experience,” the 69-year-old coach said moments after posing with those youngsters while donning an antique leather helmet awarded by the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. “When they get out into the game and they have some success, the payoff for all that work they’ve put in, that really helps the confidence. Hopefully it will help them continue to develop and improve.”
To witness what happened inside the sci-fi-looking Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday afternoon was indeed like being trapped within some sort of Marvel Comics time warp. A solid four hours of houndstooth-adorned deja vu.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Actually, don’t stop me. Keep reading. Because after tonight, this history will not repeat itself for quite some time.
2008. Week 1. Atlanta. No. 24 Alabama upsets No. 9 Clemson 34-10. The win ignites Alabama’s return to the big time as it wins 12 regular-season games. Clemson completely falls apart and fires coach Tommy Bowden.
2009. Week 1. Atlanta. Fifth-ranked Alabama beats seventh-ranked Virginia Tech 34-24. Alabama goes on to win his first national championship under Saban, while the Hokies fade to a three-loss season.
2013. Week 1. Atlanta. No. 1 Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10.
2014. Week 1. Atlanta. No. 2 Alabama 33, West Virginia 23.
2019. Week 1. Atlanta. No. 2 Alabama 49, Duke 3.
And those are just the games played in Atlanta. The biggest neutral-site victories happened in Orlando and Texas. There was the 52-6 thrashing of No. 20 USC in 2016, the 2012 and ’15 beatdowns of Michigan and Wisconsin, both in Arlington, Texas. And then the most gruesome mauling of them all, a 17-point win over No. 3 Florida State in Orlando that started the beginning of the end for Jimbo Fisher’s time with the Seminoles.
Every opening-act Battle of Atlanta, or Orlando, or Arlington, won has served the ultimate purpose of putting someone in their place. Perhaps it was an old-school powerhouse that needed to be told that Alabama was for real. Perhaps it was an upstart that thought it might be able to crash the Alabama playoff blockade. Perhaps it was just a showcase performed in front of a nation of recruits, especially those living in the neighborhoods of the teams the Tide just crushed.
And in at least a couple of cases, it has felt like Saban letting an entire conference know that its best team is not yet ready for SEC prime time.
Saturday’s win over Miami felt like it was covering all of the above.
That’s why the thousands of Alabama fans who walked up Peachtree Street on Saturday night were celebrating the win but were also mourning the loss of days like this one. Now, after a decade of neutral-site openers, Alabama has booked home-and-home series with Power 5 opponents all the way through 2035.
Will it be worth losing the $5 million that Bama has received from the Atlanta bowl folks every September? They say yes, via bringing more value to Tuscaloosa season-ticket holders.
Fair enough. But will it be worth losing the mojo established and messages sent during this 11-0 season-opening streak?
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Coach Saban in the future,” Miami head coach Manny Diaz said with a chuckle. “Things seem to be working out for him so far.”