Florida State-Alabama showdown pays off for college football

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A look at some of the highlights from the first full Saturday of the 2017 college football season.
USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — For about 40 minutes, it lived up to the hype. From the opulent new Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its 360-degree halo scoreboard to the elite speed suited up on both sides of the field and celebrities roaming the sidelines, it felt like a big event more than a September football game. 

Maybe it didn’t turn into the Greatest Opener of All-Time, as Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game organizers were touting, but it wasn’t too shabby for Labor Day weekend, matching two teams who could very well be back here Jan. 8, 2018, playing a national title. 

If nothing else, it was fun. The level of physicality was high. And until some inexcusable special teams miscues that robbed us of a classic fourth quarter, it was the kind of tense, possession-for-possession game that usually occurs deep into the season. 

But you know the best part about No. 1 Alabama 24, No. 3 Florida State 7? The fact that college football has now unlocked a way to put two great programs from different conferences on the field without championship hopes hanging in the balance.

SHOWDOWN: Takeaways from Alabama’s win vs. Florida State

KEY INJURY: Florida State QB Deondre Francois leaves with knee injury

WEEK 1: Clemson tops list of winners; Florida among the losers

For both teams, that will come much later. No matter who won or lost Saturday, the most important thing for Alabama and Florida State is winning their respective conferences. Neither could win or lose a College Football Playoff berth in Week 1. 

And isn’t that refreshing? 

Though the game ended on a troubling note, with Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois’ left leg in a brace and coach Jimbo Fisher saying he didn’t know much about his status following a devastating fourth-quarter hit — Francois’ body language coming out of the X-ray room after the game was concerning, to say the least — that’s part of the risk for every player, every team, every Saturday. 

In the big picture, it’s good to get used to mega openers that lift college football into an even bigger spotlight. And it wouldn’t be possible without the playoff nudging programs toward taking chances in the non-conference schedule. 

For decades, the barrier to a season-opening event like this was college football itself, a sport that stubbornly held onto an archaic romanticism of perfection rather than excellence. 

Those two concepts, of course, are not mutually exclusive. But for so long, the formula to compete for championships was simple: Avoid losses, fool voters, move up the polls. It rewarded teams that loaded up weak opponents and gave little incentive to venture outside the comfort zone of bought-and-paid for victories. 

Sure, there were a few programs bold enough to schedule up. Oklahoma comes to mind. Tennessee, in its heyday, would go play Notre Dame or UCLA even though it didn’t have to. 

But by and large, the month of September was a complete snooze. And it allowed people to focus on the wrong things. For too long, voters and pundits gave too much weight to 12-0 without having to weigh what those victories were worth. 

But now in Year 4 of the CFP era, with the clarity of knowing how little perfection means, we can see Saturday night for what it was: An entertaining spectacle that might not matter at all when it comes time to play for the trophy but gives both teams the proper context for what it will take to have a chance.  

“We certainly know where we’re at right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said

Alabama is, of course, a tremendous football team that deserves to be ranked No. 1 pretty much every preseason. We already figured that, but we know it without a shadow of a doubt after seeing them grind the Seminoles to dust in the fourth quarter. And Florida State, aside from two special teams miscues that pretty much handed the Crimson Tide a field goal and a touchdown when it was just 10-7 late in the third quarter, was practically its equal until that moment. 

“We just need to rebound, get back, fix the things that we had wrong and go,” Fisher said. “I still think we’ve got a great football team. I think we’re very physical, I think we’re very good.”  

NOTRE DAME: Three reasons why the Irish rolled over Temple

TROJANS SURVIVE: USC pulls away late to hold off Western Michigan

MICHIGAN ROLLS: The Wolverines ride their relentless defense to win vs. Florida

In the old days, though, the Seminoles would have pretty much been written off, which is why the game probably wouldn’t have been played. Florida State, after all, plays Florida at the end of every regular season — a rivalry game that would give them an easy excuse to opt out of any other tough non-conference opponents. Why bury yourself in Week 1 when you could have feasted on the Florida A&Ms of the world and kept moving up the polls until ACC play starts? 

And maybe, if Francois is indeed lost for the season, some fans will look back and wish that the Seminoles hadn’t tangled with the Tide right off the bat. 

But the truth is, programs with the pedigree of Florida State almost have no choice these days. The CFP selection committee said from the beginning strength of schedule would matter, and it has kept its word. Last season, the game that got Ohio State into the playoff wasn’t even in the Big Ten; rather, it was a September win at Oklahoma that made the biggest difference when it was all said and done. 

The sport has evolved, and coaches have come along with it. We now know if Alabama and Florida State keep winning, they will both be justly rewarded for playing each other to start the year.

“It’s one game,” Saban said. “We have a long season.”

For too many years as fans clamored for a playoff, the conference commissioners and bowl powerbrokers pretended to protect the sanctity of the regular season by propping up the BCS. Saturday proved that was bunk. 

College football won by putting two of the five best programs of the modern era on a neutral field to start the season. It may not have been the best game, particularly after a blocked punt and a kickoff return fumble gave Alabama the necessary separation to strangle Florida State’s offense, but that was hardly the point. It felt big. It felt important. And the more of that we can get, the better. 

With more competition for dollars and eyeballs, college football can only prevent ennui from setting in on the sport if it continues to produce big matchups with meaningful programs in great venues. Conference realignment has stripped away some traditional rivalries and created unbalanced schedules, giving fans fewer and fewer opportunities to see the matchups they want. 

But more Alabama-Florida State type games are the antidote, and we should be grateful to Saban and Fisher for choosing to play it rather than opening with lesser, safer opponents. 

Though Florida State walks away the loser this time, and perhaps for longer than that if the worst possible news becomes reality, there should be no regrets. If the Seminoles somehow make it back to Atlanta in January, they’ll know exactly how far they came. 

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