It’s time for football fans in this state to pause for a moment to appreciate that we are currently in the golden age of Alabama football.
By Alabama I don’t just mean the dynasty Nick Saban is masterminding in Tuscaloosa. No, I mean the entire state.
First, let’s recognize that South Alabama, Troy and UAB have all beaten SEC teams recently. Last season, Jacksonville State lost to only Georgia Tech and in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
But, of course, my proclamation of this being the best of times for football in this state revolves around the success enjoyed by Auburn and Alabama.
Here is the money stat to back up that claim: Last season Auburn and Alabama combined for 23 wins. The 2013 season also produced 23 wins. The 2010 season was the best ever for combined success, with Auburn winning the national championship with a 14-0 record and Alabama winning 10 games, including a bowl win over Michigan State that was as impressive as any victory of the Saban era.
This will be only the seventh time Alabama and Auburn both enter the season coming off of 10-win seasons. Three of those have been since 2010.
In all, Auburn has 14 seasons of at least 10 wins. Alabama has 37. Before the recent success, the best combined season ever was probably 1974, when Alabama’s only loss was to Notre Dame in a bowl game to decide the national championship, while Auburn lost only to Alabama and Florida in going 10-2.
But entering 2018 is even better.
Alabama is the reigning national champion, with its only loss coming in convincing fashion at Auburn. The Tide bounced back from that loss to end the regular season to dominate Clemson, then beat Georgia on the most spectacular and memorable play in program history. That’s the vibe the Tide takes into 2018.
Auburn’s 10-4 record is deceiving because the Tigers went into the SEC Championship Game just three wins away from winning the national championship. That thought wasn’t outlandish, especially considering how complete the Tigers’ wins over Georgia and Alabama were. No team in history has ever had a month like the Tigers when they beat two rivals ranked No. 1.
But those late-season victories took their toll and the beat-up Tigers were a shadow of their former selves when they faced Georgia a second time. As a result, a close game got away in the second half.
The devastation of that loss led to a less-than-spirited effort against Central Florida in a bowl game loss.
That brings us to 2018.
Alabama is ranked No. 1 in almost every poll that matters entering the season. The Tide are the clear favorites where it matters most — that’s with the experts in the desert who put their money where their mouths are. Vegas has Alabama as a 5/11 favorite to at least make the playoffs. That means you would have to wager $2.20 in order to win $1 if you wanted to pick Alabama to make the playoff. Those numbers are ridiculous. But they show the confidence Saban has engendered in experts around the country.
It doesn’t matter how many players leave for the NFL or whether there is a clear-cut starter at quarterback, nobody doubts Alabama is at the very least going to be a national championship contender again this year.
But what about Auburn? Can the Tigers do their part to make sure Alabama and Auburn both have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in history?
Studying the Tigers’ game-by-game schedule, the answer would seem to be yes.
The first challenge will be to overcome an odd and discouraging streak.
When the Tigers open the season in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium it will be their third straight game in the new venue. It’s hard to imagine any college football team has ever played three straight games in the same stadium that wasn’t their own.
The Tigers lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game in their first-ever appearance in the new venue. They lost the Chick-fil-A Bowl to Central Florida in their next game.
Now they are set to face a Washington team that is as highly regarded as those two teams.
While Auburn has 4/1 odds to reach the College Football Playoff, Washington is slightly more highly thought of at 3/1. That makes both teams among the top seven teams to make the playoffs.
Auburn should be about a 3-point favorite at kickoff in the best game of the opening weekend. A loss wouldn’t end the championship hopes for either team, but Auburn’s schedule the rest of the way would make it extremely hard to bounce back and reach the playoffs.
It’s hard to imagine any team winning road games at Georgia and at Alabama, then winning the SEC Championship Game a week later, which is what Auburn would have to do if it slips up early in the season.
Regardless of how the details play out, this much is true: Entering the 2018 season there has never been more combined reasons for optimism for football fans in this state.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.