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College Football Insider

Saban, Alabama blazed title trail in kickoff game five years ago

ATLANTA -- Inside zone play. Mike Johnson and Antoine Caldwell clearing the way. Glen Coffee blasting through the Chick-Fil-A logo on the Georgia Dome turf.

Clemson bodies everywhere.

Then-Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain remembers the Tigers were slow to get up after that run. He doesn't remember the yardage on the play. It didn't matter anymore.

Alabama players were just getting started in a 34-10 win five years ago that birthed a monster.

"I was shocked at how physical we were," said McElwain, now Colorado State's head coach. "We liked our chances, but we didn't see that coming. It set the tone, no doubt."

No. 1 Alabama prepares for its kickoff game with Virginia Tech on Saturday in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, where five years ago Nick Saban's momentous Crimson run began.

The game became a springboard for the now-trendy kickoff game model -- pairing two high-profile schools in a neutral-site game for a substantial payout -- that Chick-Fil-A Bowl CEO Gary Stokan ushered into the late-BCS era.

Coming off Saban's 7-6 debut season, the Tide held a modest No. 24 national ranking entering the game. Alabama aimed to change that. Holding Clemson to zero rushing yards did that and more.

It gave Alabama fans a reason to use the phrase they had been waiting to utter: We're back.

"They were on the cover of SI the next week," Stokan said.

Stokan concocted a kickoff formula that celebrated the launch of a college football season while helping schools schedule tough and avoid the cumbersome nature of scheduling home-and-homes.

He broached his concept with ESPN exec Dave Brown, and he also turned to Saban, who knew Stokan from his LSU days.

Saban didn't need to be sold.

"Saban said, 'If I can win recruiting in Alabama and finish second in Georgia recruiting, we'll win a national championship,'" Stokan said.

Alabama on Saturday will play in its fourth kickoff game since 2008, its third in Atlanta, which hosts Alabama-West Virginia in 2014. Alabama is 3-0 so far.

The significance of the Clemson game will be hard to duplicate. It spawned a 12-0 regular season and a stellar clash with Florida in the SEC title game. Alabama dropped that game to Florida but returned the favor the next year to catapult a run of three titles in four years.

"I don't think there's anything that could have launched Alabama football better than that game and the way it went down," Stokan said.

If the buzz around the program was palpable after that game, McElwain didn't feel it. Saban is a master of selling a team on "winning the play and not worrying about anything else," McElwain said. The staff drowned out the proverbial noise.

But McElwain was learning this team was capable of anything. Plus he had freshman Julio Jones, who connected with John Parker Wilson on a 4-yard touchdown.

"That game kind of told us, 'Yes we can,'" McElwain said.

Saban seems ready to play anyone in a kickoff game. And it's hard to argue with the plan of attack -- or the results.

"When you play a good opponent in the first game, it really helps enhance your offseason program -- your spring practice, your summer conditioning, because players are looking forward to playing an outstanding opponent early," Saban said. "You really see where you are, which is helpful."


Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with CBSSports.com. Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.
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