Photo courtesy of Garnet and Great/Florida State Football Archivist
Beating Alabama head coach Nick Saban on a neutral field during the regular season has been near impossible.
With Saturday’s 44-13 victory over Miami in Atlanta, the Crimson Tide have won 11 straight regular-season games on neutral fields. During those contests, the Crimson Tide are outscoring opponents by an average margin of nearly 26 points and have not played a game decided by fewer than 10 points.
Despite dominating on neutral fields over the last decade-plus, Saban isn’t undefeated on neutral fields in regular season games during his tenure at Alabama. His lone loss came in his first season in Tuscaloosa and to a coaching legend, who grew up idolizing the Crimson Tide.
During the final weekend in September in 2007, Saban’s Crimson Tide made their way to Jacksonville to take on Bobby Bowden and Florida State. A native of Birmingham, Bowden loved Alabama and legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant as a youth.
Despite being in his 32nd year at FSU and 38th in major college football, Bowden had never faced Alabama as a head coach. When all was said and done, his Seminoles outdid the Crimson Tide, 21-14.
A Match-Up for the Ages
Neither Bowden’s Seminoles nor Saban’s Crimson Tide were at the peak of their dynasties when the teams met on Sept. 29, 2007. FSU was coming off a 7-6 finish in 2006 and unimpressive in wins over UAB and Colorado during a 2-1 start in 2007.
The Saban era in Tuscaloosa started with three straight wins. Alabama however, had fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten the week prior with an overtime loss to Georgia. At 3-1, the Crimson Tide were ranked No. 22 as they took on unranked Florida State.
It was the first match-up between the schools since 1974. Alabama won the prior meeting by an 8-7 score.
For perspective’s sake, that was two years before Bowden had arrived in Tallahassee. Saban was a graduate assistant at his alma mater of Kent State the last time that FSU and Alabama had squared off.
Defenses Dominate Early
Through one half of football, neither team scored. The teams had combined for just 134 yards.
Alabama started the contest with three straight 3-and-outs. FSU had the only real scoring opportunity.
A dismal punt by Alabama had set the Seminoles up inside the Crimson Tide’s 40-yard-line. The threat ultimately ended when kicker Gary Cismesia missed a 46-yard field goal attempt.
FSU Finds a Spark
In the second half, the Florida State offense finally got going. The reason?
A change at quarterback.
Xavier Lee replaced an ineffective Drew Weatherford and proceeded to march the Seminoles down the field. On the opening drive of the second half, Lee led the Seminoles 67 yards in eight plays for the lead.
On the drive, Lee was 5-for-5 passing and capped the march with a 7-yard touchdown pass to De’Cody Fagg. Lee was intercepted on the next drive, but Alabama opened the second half with three straight punts. After that, it was a defensive play that gave the Seminoles some needed breathing room.
Early in the fourth quarter, defensive end Everette Brown stripped Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson inside the Crimson Tide 10-yard-line and the Seminoles recovered. It took just one play for FSU to take advantage as Antone Smith scored from five yards out.
With about five minutes left in the game, Alabama capped a 91-yard drive with a touchdown to cut the lead in half. Wilson found DJ Hall for the score to make it a 14-7 game. One play later however, the FSU lead was extended back to 14.
Lee and Fagg again connected on what appeared to be a quick out. The Alabama defender played the ball poorly and Fagg made his way down the sideline for a 71-yard touchdown.
Following a turnover on downs from Alabama and a punt from FSU, the Crimson Tide would find the end zone once more. Wilson’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Keith Brown cut the lead to 21-14, but the Seminoles recovered the ensuing onside kick to put the contest away.
The loss removed Alabama from the polls as the Crimson Tide fell to 3-2. They would return to the rankings after three straight victories over Houston, Ole Miss and No. 20 Tennessee. Alabama however closed the regular season with four straight losses, including an unfathomable defeat to Louisiana Monroe.
Alabama topped Colorado in the Independence Bowl to finish 7-6. That was also what the Seminoles would finish for the second straight year.
Oddly enough, 12 of the teams’ combined 14 wins were later vacated — five for Alabama and all seven for FSU. Over Bowden’s final two seasons, FSU didn’t fare much better than in 2007, finishing 9-4 in 2008 and 7-6 in 2009.
Saban’s program however wasted no time ascending to the ranks of the elite. Alabama ascended to No. 1 in 2008 before losing to eventual national champion Florida in the SEC Championship. One year later, the Crimson Tide won their first of six national championships during the Saban era.
Saban has won a lot of national championships and major bowl games on neutral fields, but in the regular season, he’s been almost untouchable. The one exception from his tenure in Tuscaloosa was in his first season and to an opposing coach, who at one point, believed he would become head coach of the Crimson Tide.
Bowden died last month and the age of 91. Saban noted that the connection between the two coaches was much deeper than anything that happened in Jacksonville in late-September 2007.
“My first year of being a graduate assistant was when my father passed away and I was at Kent State being a graduate assistant for Don James and one day the phone rings and it’s Coach Bowden,” Saban recalled following Bowden’s passing. “He said ‘I know your father passed away, I know your mom might be struggling, if you feel like you need to come closer to home’ because Morgantown was like 25 miles from where I grew up, ‘I have a job for you here if you need to do that.’ So, I was like wow, this guy is the head coach at West Virginia University and he has that much compassion for my family and our situation and our circumstance and my mother — not many people would do something like that.”