More precisely: a preseason No. 1 team has never opened a season against another team within the top three.
Since the preseason poll began in 1950, the closest we've come to that might've been Rocket Ismail leading No. 1 Notre Dame past No. 2 Michigan in Week 3 of 1989. Michigan hadn't played in Week 1 or Week 2, so that was the opener for the Wolverines.
There have been a few top-five openers -- No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 4 Penn State in 1983 stands out as the biggest of those and No. 1 Florida State at No. 6 Miami in 1988 is the only other that could compare. That one had the added benefit of rivalry (yeah, Michigan-Notre Dame is a rivalry, but FSU-Miami is a rivalry).
Bama-FSU isn’t a rivalry, but does have a few storylines in addition to the obvious title implications.
It'll be the major opener for the new Mercedes Benz Stadium, which looks like something from Independence Day landed in the middle of Atlanta. The country getting its first primetime look at that building is gonna be a social media spectacle on top of the huge matchup.
The game has long been a sellout, and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff people are leaning in on the G.O.A.T. tag (thanks in part to this very article, which originally published in January, might I presume).
Jimbo Fisher is one of the very few former Nick Saban assistants to succeed as a head coach on his own. Both will face even higher expectations after winning New Year's bowls despite starting rookie QBs. And the two programs regularly recruit against each other, even if they haven't played on the field since 2007.
Both fanbases are also comfortable filling up Atlanta, promising a New Year's-worthy atmosphere in September. The Tide went 11-3 all-time in the Georgia Dome, including 2-0 last season. FSU has played in Atlanta four times since 2008, in two Peach Bowls and twice against Georgia Tech.
And that stadium’s prestige next year will be boosted even further by later hosting the SEC Championship, Peach Bowl, and National Championship, meaning it could host four of the season’s eight or so biggest games. So at some point in Bama-FSU, you’ll hear, "These two teams could meet again in this same building in four months," giving this game its own self-perpetuating hype loop.
Every other time the preseason No. 1 has played a top-20 team in Week 1:
- 1983: Nebraska vs. No. 4 Penn State in New Jersey
- 1986: Oklahoma vs. No. 4 UCLA
- 1985: Pitt vs. No. 5 North Carolina
- 1953: Notre Dame at No. 6 Oklahoma
- 1957: Oklahoma at No. 8 Pitt
- 1978: Alabama vs. No. 10 Nebraska
- 1984: Auburn vs. No. 10 Miami in New Jersey
- 1998: Ohio State at No. 11 West Virginia
- 1990: Miami at No. 16 BYU
- 1991: Florida State vs. No. 19 BYU in Anaheim
- 2016: Alabama vs. No. 20 USC in JerryWorld
- 1950: Notre Dame vs. No. 20 North Carolina
- 1958: Ohio State vs. No. 20 SMU