published Friday, August 29th, 2014

Alabama has been rolling in neutral-site openers

On Aug. 30, 2008, it was Clemson that was the top-10 team in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic against Alabama.

Less than seven weeks later -- the wounds from the Crimson Tide's 34-10 thrashing inside the Georgia Dome still fresh -- Tommy Bowden announced his resignation as the Clemson coach.

"That game catapulted Nick Saban's career and ended mine," Bowden said recently as a guest of "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1 The Zone.

Choosing to play Alabama in a neutral-site opener guarantees national exposure, but it also can result in national embarrassment. The Crimson Tide have played in three Chick-fil-A Classics and one Cowboys Classic near Dallas under Saban and have won all four of those games by double digits.

Alabama will play in its fourth Chick-fil-A Classic on Saturday afternoon as a heavy favorite against West Virginia.

"We really sort of relish the opportunity to play in these types of games," Saban said Wednesday on the SEC coaches' teleconference. "We've done it quite often, and I think when you play a quality opponent at the beginning of the season in one of these games, it's something that the players get excited about. I think it helps your offseason, spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp.

"I also think there is a great benefit in that when you do play on the road later in the season, your players have had some exposure in not being at home."

If only Bowden could have known that years ago.

The Tigers were coming off a nine-win 2007 season that included an opening victory over Florida State and a closing triumph over South Carolina before its overtime loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson was ranked No. 9 in the '08 preseason poll, while Alabama was pegged No. 24, a ranking based largely on a star-studded recruiting class.

The Crimson Tide had closed their 2007 season with losses to LSU, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn before eking out a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl.

"Nobody knew at that time how good they were or how good they were going to be," Bowden said. "They had some unknown junior college transfer named Terrence Cody, who just ate up our blockers in the middle. They had won just seven games the year before, but they were a really good team. We had some injuries, but I'm not about to make excuses for what happened that night.

"They played better than we did, and I felt bad about that game until a few weeks later, when they had Georgia down 31-0 at the half."

Alabama racked up 419 yards and allowed just 188 in the bludgeoning. The Crimson Tide took a 23-3 lead into the second half, when Clemson made its lone big play of the night -- a 96-yard kickoff return by C.J. Spiller.

It was a closer call in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Classic, when No. 5 Alabama defeated No. 7 Virginia Tech 34-24. The Crimson Tide amassed 498 yards to just 155 for the Hokies, who kept the score respectable with a 98-yard kickoff return by Dyrell Roberts midway through the first quarter.

Michigan was coming off an 11-2 season that ended with a Sugar Bowl triumph when the No. 8 Wolverines met No. 2 Alabama in the 2012 Cowboys Classic, but it was a classic whipping as the Crimson Tide built a 31-0 lead late in the first half. Current junior tailback T.J. Yeldon had 111 yards on 11 carries in his collegiate debut in the 41-14 waltz.

Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is just 15-11 since the start of that game and could use a big year in Ann Arbor.

The Crimson Tide used defense and special teams to cruise past Virginia Tech 35-10 in last season's Chick-fil-A Classic and now face a West Virginia program seeking to rebound from a 4-8 disappointment under Dana Holgorson. The Mountaineers have been plenty productive in bowl games within the past decade, topping Georgia in the Sugar, Oklahoma in the Fiesta and Clemson in the Orange, but now they have to be at their best at the onset of a season.

"We've won some games against some big opponents, and we've got to take that approach," Holgorson said last week on ESPN. "Our fans are going to be excited about going to Atlanta, and our players are going to be excited, too. We're not going to have to motivate them, and we will hang our hat on some of the big games West Virginia has won in the past. We've got to believe that we can win, because if we don't we will have no chance."

And as Bowden learned in 2008, having no chance against Alabama is no fun.

"It definitely sent my career in a different direction," Bowden said, "but fortunately Clemson has rebounded pretty well."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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