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College Football's First Prime Time Game
College football games televised in prime time used to mean something, but it's just not that big of a deal anymore. Sure, playing in the featured game on Saturday night on ABC, NBC, Fox, or ESPN has some luster. It generates enough viewership to provide billions of television dollars to college football programs, but the exclusivity and focus are gone. Back in the day, when they broadcast only one or two games per week, everyone watching football tuned into the same game. It made for a shared national experience among sports fans.
Televised football is a different game today. Based on my hand count for this week, there were or will be three prime-time games available on Tuesday night, two each on Wednesday and Thursday, and three on Friday. Saturday has 30 games available during the day and 17 with some or all of the games in prime time, based on the Eastern time zone. That is a lot of football available to viewers, and it does not include college games at other levels watched through streaming and other services.
Televised and prime-time football is a given today, but there was a time when that was not the case. The first regular-season game broadcast in prime time on one of the three major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) came on October 4, 1969. Like many television innovations, it was Roone Arledge's idea to show a game in prime time, and they made arrangements to televise the game that spring.
Part of the reason for showing the game in the evening was that the 1969 season was the first in which major league baseball split into divisions, and the opening games of the first American and National League championship series were on television that afternoon. The evening broadcast also meant a juggling of ABC's regular Saturday lineup, which included The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Lawrence Welk Show, and now, NCAA Football between Ole Miss and Alabama, coming live from Birmingham.
As it turned out, Arledge could not have picked a better matchup. Mississippi entered the season favored to win the SEC in the second-to-last year under Johnny Vaught. Vaught had coached Ole Miss since 1947 and accumulated a 171-53-12 record and three national titles, while Bryant boasted an 189-56-15 record and three of the six national titles he earned in his career. Alabama entered the game looking for revenge after losing 10-8 in 1969, the Rebels' first win over the Tide since 1910. (The teams only played once between 1933 and 1964 before the two coaches got things restarted.) Both teams had terrific junior quarterbacks. Scott Hunter, who played eight years in the NFL after graduating, led Alabama, while Archie Manning did the same for Ole Miss.
Despite being a great matchup and the first prime-time regular-season college game, the game was underhyped. Perhaps it was due to Ole Miss losing to Kentucky the week before, but both teams were in the Top 20. More likely, the lack of hype reflected the inability to peer into the future to understand how dramatically television would transform college football. The sportswriters of the day made few comments about the game's spot in college football and television's history before the game because they did not foresee how things would change. However, immediately afterward, they realized they had seen a doozy.
The game was a back-and-forth affair, with Bama leading much of the way. Both teams scored on their first possessions, with Manning passing and Bama mixing up the run and pass. Mississippi drove downfield on their second possession but fumbled on the one before Bama went the field length to take a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Manning tied it on the first possession of the second half, but Bama responded with a long drive to make it 21-14. Ole Miss immediately responded with another drive as Manning finished it with a run, but the Rebels missed the extra point to make it 21-20 with 2:30 left in the third stanza.
Early in the fourth quarter, Manning tossed a 57-yarder to set up their fourth TD and a 26-20 lead, after which Ole Miss went for and missed the two-point conversion. Hunter and the Tide responded with another drive as Bama took a 27-26 lead with 7:43 left in the game. A long pass, a 21-yard run, and a sneak by Manning gave Ole Miss the lead 28 seconds later. A second missed two-point conversion left the score at 32-27 with 7:15 to go.
At that point, Scott Hunter engineered a 4-minute drive capped off by a 14-yard TD pass to give Bama a 33-32 lead. Mississippi had one more chance to go on top and began a drive that took them to the Alabama 46-yard line, but Manning was stopped with fourth and inches to go, after which Alabama ran out the clock.
The game had almost everything you could ask for in a college football game, making for dramatic and exciting television. Manning set an SEC record for total yards, picking up 104 on the ground and 436 in the air. He and Hunter's 55 combined completions in the game set an NCAA record playing a style of football that resembled an NFL game rather than the ground-and-pound typical of the colleges.
The game set a high bar in the premiere performance of Saturday night college football. Few have topped that effort in the intervening 54 years, but there will be 17 contests this Saturday night trying to knock the 1969 Alabama-Ole Miss game off its pedestal.
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