|No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Florida State meet in massive opener|
ATLANTA - The College Football Playoff will be decided this season at Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the first college game at the $1.5 billion replacement for the Georgia Dome will likely help determine who is playing on Jan. 8.
No. 1 Alabama plays No. 3 Florida in the Chick-fil-A Classic on Saturday night in what has been called the biggest opening game ever in college football.
According to the Associated Press preseason poll, that is not an idle boast.
Never before as a team ranked No. 1 played against a team ranked as high as No. 3 in the first weekend of the season.
The biggest previous matchups according to the AP poll were No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 4 Penn State in 1983 and No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 UCLA in 1986.
Alabama, bidding for a perfect 15-0 season, lost 35-31 to Clemson on a last-second touchdown in the College Football Playoff title game last January after a 24-7 victory over Washington in a semifinal pairing at the Georgia Dome. While Alabama head coach Nick Saban prodded Alabama not to "waste a failure" by forgetting about the January loss, he wants the Crimson Tide to focus on creating the identity of this 2017 group.
"The identity of this team is going to be created by what this team does, not what happened last year, not what happened on the last play of the game. None of that is going to matter to how this team develops their identity and their ability to conquer adversity," Saban said. "With a lot of new faces, especially on defense, it will be interesting to see who those players respond to their new roles."
Alabama is sure to be properly motivated against FSU, which is picked to unseat Clemson as the ACC champion this year.
Seven players were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft off the Alabama defense. FSU also has the pedigree of success producing pros and a wealth of talent returning to make a run at a national title.
They are the two winningest college programs since 2010 and have combined for five of the past eight national crowns, four by the Crimson Tide.
In the three seasons of the College Football Playoff, Alabama made the field every year and FSU the first.
"It's a challenge to get your team ready to play anybody, but obviously when you play a really good team, they present a lot of challenges," Saban said. "The positive side of that is that the players are more into it. They're more focused because they understand who they're playing and have respect for the quality of they're playing."
The Georgia Dome had been a home away from home for the Crimson Tide, so FSU is probably glad that Mercedes-Benz Stadium, built next door, will be the site of this showdown.
Alabama was 11-3 at the Georgia Dome, the former home of the SEC Championship Game as well as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic and the Peach Bowl.
The Crimson Tide has a returning starter at quarterback for the first time since 2013 in Jalen Hurts, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman.
Florida State, though, can match Hurts with Deondre Francois, also a freshman standout a season ago.
Francois isn't Jameis Winston, who led Florida State to the national title in 2013. He's the Seminoles' best quarterback since, though, and should keep getting better.
"He can do the things he did last year and grow in other areas," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, a former assistant under Saban at LSU.
"I have to focus on my strengths and don't forget about them just to get my weaknesses up," said Francois, who will have to carry a heavier load with running back Dalvin Cook off to the NFL.
Defenses started to figure out Hurts a little late last season and the sting remains from the loss in the title game.
"It's in the rearview, but the thing about a rearview mirror is you can see it," Hurts said. "We're not looking back to see what's behind us, but it motivates us."
Alabama had seven defensive players taken in the NFL draft, including three in the first round, but still should be stout on that side of the ball.
"We're Bama. We just reload," linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.
Florida State, which won seven of its final eight games a year ago to finish 10-3, returns nine regulars on defense and will have star safety Derwin James back at full strength after he played just two games in 2016 because of a knee injury.
"We have one of the best secondaries in country I feel," James said.
James is a special assignments player in that he could literally line up at any level of the defense - even defensive tackle - to accentuate his playmaking skills and athleticism.
Hurts will present a challenge, though, and he won't be intimidated by the primetime matchup.
"I played in the national championship, so I guess," Hurts said when asked if he was ready for the hype surrounding the opener with FSU.
To Fisher, all the hoopla is just part of playing for the Seminoles or Crimson Tide.
"You're going to be in hyped games," he said.
Alabama has won its past 15 opening games, including four in Atlanta, while FSU has won seven straight openers.
Two of the Crimson Tide's wins in Atlanta were against ACC teams ranked in the Top 10: No. 9 Clemson in 2008 and No. 7 Virginia Tech in 2009.