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End of an Era Part I: How the Inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Jumpstarted the Saban Dynasty

As things come full circle with Alabama closing out the neutral-site era where it started, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, take a look back at the impact these games have had on the program.

The date is Aug. 30, 2008. Nick Saban is starting his second season as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

His team needed an Independence Bowl win over Colorado to finish above .500 in year one. Expectations have risen around the program simply because of who Saban is, but also because of the top recruiting class he brought in. The expectations are still reasonable though. It won't be that way for long. 

Preseason No. 24 Alabama is opening the season in a new exciting event called the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. It will be held annually at the Georgia Dome and feature an SEC and ACC team. The opponent: the top-10 Clemson Tigers. 

Clemson is coming off a second place finish in the ACC Atlantic division and is the preseason favorite by many in the ACC. The Tigers bring back their starting quarterback Cullen Harper and a talented running back duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller that Tiger fans dub "Thunder and Lightning."

Well, no thunder or lightning struck the Alabama defense in Atlanta that day as Davis and Spiller combined for 20 rushing yards and the first remnants of the dominant Saban-coached defenses at Alabama were born. 

In total, Clemson finished with zero net rushing yards. The only touchdown the Tigers scored came on a kickoff return from Spiller, and the defense did not allow a touchdown.

On defense, it was the introduction to guys from that 2008 recruiting class like Dont'a Hightower, Mark Barron and community college transfer Terrence Cody. It was the emergence of players like Kareem Jackson, Eryk Anders, Rolando McClain, Rashad Johnson and Javier Arenas.

Alabama was led on offense by battle-tested senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, and he played well with 180 yards and two touchdowns, but a major storyline of that day was the welcome party for highly-touted freshman wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram. 

John Parker Wilson attempts a pass against Clemson in 2008

Jones caught four passes for 28 yards including the first touchdown of his Alabama career late in the third quarter. It turned out to be somewhat fitting that his first career touchdown came in Atlanta considering how many touchdowns he would go on to score in the city. 

As a true freshman, Ingram was the leading rusher of the day with 17 carries for 96 yards ahead of experienced running backs Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant. Ingram would famously win Alabama's first Heisman trophy the next season. 

To show how well things were really going for the Crimson Tide that day, Leigh Tiffin opened the Alabama scoring with a 54-yard field goal in the first quarter. Tiffin was 4-5 on the day. 

Alabama held a 13-0 lead after the first quarter and led 23-3 at halftime, never looking back.

From start to finish, the Crimson Tide dominated the game with a 34-10 upset over Clemson, sending a signal to the college football world that Alabama and Nick Saban were once again about to be a major force on the national scene. 

The Sports Illustrated cover the next week declared "SEC Beware Alabama Sends an Early Warning." The SI writer Austin Murphy titled his story "The Tide is Turning," and he might have just had a crystal ball looking into the future of the SEC and the Alabama football program. 

Sports Illustrated September 8, 2008: SEC Beware; Glen Coffee

The SEC was in fact put on notice. Three months later that Alabama was back in the very same building with a 12-0 record and one win away from a national championship appearance. On that December day, the Crimson Tide was thwarted by Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators. 

However, 13 years later, Saban and Alabama have won seven SEC championships and six national championships. And the catalyst back onto the national scene was that 2008 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. 

Gone were the days of frustration and embarrassment from the Mikes (DuBose, Price and Shula.) Alabama fans no longer needed to worry about making holiday arrangements in Shreveport. The absolute domination of Clemson with the promise of the talent of new players and the development of the returning ones showed that Alabama was back as a championship contender and not going anywhere anytime soon. 

Alabama and Clemson have since become pretty familiar opponents. The two programs have combined to win five of the last six national championships dating back to 2015. One could argue that the 2008 game had just as major of an impact on Clemson as it did on Alabama.

The blowout loss to Alabama started the downfall of then head coach Tommy Bowden, which led to the ascension of a little ole wide receivers coach by the name of Dabo Swinney. He took over for Bowden in the middle of the season after Clemson started 3-3. And as they say, the rest is history.

And while the Georgia Dome no longer exists, (it was replaced by the newer, shinier Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2017), things have now come a bit full circle for Alabama. Saban is entering his 15th season in Tuscaloosa and Alabama will play in the Chick-fil-A game for the seventh time on Saturday when the Crimson Tide takes the field against Miami at 2:30.

This is the last scheduled neutral site opener for Alabama for the foreseeable future as scheduling has shifted to more home-and-home matchups. However, with the news over the last few weeks of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC and an alliance forming between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12, don't be surprised by anything that happens scheduling wise over the next decade. 

Whatever does happen in the future, looking back in the past at these big time neutral site matchups shows the immense benefit for the Alabama program. Specifically that initial Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and how its impact would change the landscape of college football over the next decade plus.

This is the first part in a two-part series examining the end of the neutral site era for Alabama football.