After dispatching Wisconsin last week, it is possible that Alabama is hoping for a tune-up this week against Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are coming off a 6-6 season and let’s face it; Conference USA is not the SEC. However, I imagine Alabama fans approach this game with a bit of trepidation since the first meeting between the Crimson Tide and the Blue Raiders produced quite a scare.
Both teams were unranked when they first met on the opening week of the 2002 season. MTSU was coming off a season in which it went 8-3, but did not make a bowl game. The Blue Raiders missed out on the postseason because they lost to North Texas, who won the inaugural Sun Belt Conference title with a 5-6 record (both MTSU and North Texas left the Sun Belt in 2013).
Anticipating that its first conference champion might have a losing record, the Sun Belt had received a waiver from the NCAA to send a losing team to a bowl game. Thus, an 8-3 MTSU team sat at home, while a 5-6 North Texas team accepted a New Orleans Bowl bid.
Meanwhile, Alabama was in its “dark years,” which Crimson Tide fans consider to be the period between the passing of Bear Bryant to the arrival of Nick Saban even though the team won a national championship and three SEC titles during that span. Nevertheless, the team was coming off of a 7-5 season – a travesty these days – but things were looking promising entering Dennis Franchione’s second season as head coach.
Needless to say, both teams had something to prove when they met at Birmingham’s Legion Field on Aug. 31, 2002. Alabama did not waste any time either and jumped out to a 22-0 lead in the first quarter.
Then MTSU slowly began to work its way back. Midway through the second quarter, Dwone Hicks ran three yards into the end zone and a successful two-point conversion made the score 22-8. MTSU kicked a field goal as the first half ended and the score was 22-11 at halftime.
In the third quarter, MTSU kicked another field goal, but Alabama’s Ahmaad Galloway ran for a 32-yard touchdown, putting Alabama ahead 29-14. Early in the fourth quarter, Don Calloway capped a 75-yard MTSU drive with a four-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion failed and the score was 29-20.
On the next drive, Alabama was forced to punt, giving MTSU the ball back on its own 20-yard line. The Blue Raiders took less than three minutes to move down the field and into the end zone, making the score 29-27.
With his team on the ropes, Alabama quarterback Tyler Watts engineered a 72-yard drive that chewed up nearly six minutes of game time. However, MTSU’s defense eventually stiffened and the Crimson Tide offense had to settle for a field goal, which put the score at 32-27 with 3:18 to go.
A 37-yard kickoff return by ReShard Lee gave MTSU great field position. Then on the next play, linebacker Freddie Roach intercepted Blue Raiders quarterback Andrico Hines’ pass and ran into the end zone giving the Crimson Tide a 39-27 lead with 2:56 on the clock.
MTSU was not finished. Lee returned the kickoff to Alabama’s 42-yard line. Then the Blue Raiders scored two plays later to move within five points. But Alabama recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock, securing a hard-fought 39-34 victory.
Despite the impressive showing, MTSU went on to lose its first five games of the season. The team never recovered from the rough start and finished 4-8. Alabama surprised many observers by going 10-3 (the team was ineligible to play in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions), but the jubilee was short-lived when Franchione left in early December to take the head coaching position at Texas A&M.
Both programs will be in a much better place when they play on Saturday. However, it is doubtful that fans on either side have forgotten about that first meeting in 2002.
(Tyler Watts photo courtesy of Getty Images)
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.