It was supposed to be Central Michigan.
That was the "money game" originally on the 2018 schedule for The Citadel — a trip to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, for a modest paycheck against a team of modest reputation from the Mid-American Conference.
But Jim Senter had another idea.
"Let's try to get Alabama," said Senter, then the athletic director at The Citadel. Brent Thompson, coming off a 10-2 season and Southern Conference title in his first year as the Bulldogs' head coach in 2016, didn't want to play two money games in one season. So Senter, now the AD at UPTEP, went to work.
"He comes up to me two weeks later and says, 'Brent, I've got great news,'" Thompson recalled. "I'm thinking, 'This will be good, we'll play Central Michigan.' Jim says, 'I found Central Michigan another game, so now we've got Alabama."
And that's how The Citadel, a tiny FCS school of some 2,200 students, found itself facing off for the first time Saturday against storied Alabama (10-0), the No. 1-ranked defending national champion that some observers call the greatest college football team of all time.
It's actually the third time in five years that The Citadel has played the defending FBS national champion. The Bulldogs lost to 2013 champ Florida State by 37-12 in 2014, and fell last year by 61-3 to 2016 champion Clemson.
"I'm about over playing defending national champs," Thompson chuckled this week.
Whatever the final score on Saturday, the 4-5 Bulldogs will come home with a $500,000 guarantee check and memories of facing legendary coach Nick Saban and some of the best players in the country.
"It's going to be a great experience to play against arguably the best college team ever assembled ," said Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey. "It's a great opportunity for us to go out there and see what we've got."
And for The Citadel, this won't be the final chapter of their season. The Bulldogs get to play one more home game against Charleston Southern on Nov. 29.
"That's the good thing about it," said Thompson. "This game won't finish off the year like it has the past couple of seasons. We'll be able to go to Alabama and come back and play another game."
Here are four key factors in the game:
The debate over whether Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, the banged-up Heisman Trophy candidate, should play against The Citadel has raged all week, with Saban on one side and the national media on the other.
Saban insists there's no reason to sit Tagovailoa, who has thrown 28 touchdown passes against just two interceptions, even with the Iron Bowl against Auburn, the SEC championship game and the College Football playoff still ahead.
"Well, if we didn’t play Tua in this game, we’d be sending the message to every good player that we have that they shouldn’t play in the game," Saban said. "So eventually, why should we even play? We should just forfeit so nobody gets hurt. Take a loss and just be done be done with it."
The Citadel might just take a forfeit, as long as the check comes with it.
Rainey has given the Bulldogs' offense a spark over the last two games, running for 188 yards against Western Carolina and then for 217 against Samford. Can he have any success against Alabama's front seven?
The last time Alabama faced an FCS triple-option team, Georgia Southern piled up 341 yards of offense in a 45-21 Crimson Tide victory in 2011.
"People forget about Georgia Southern," Saban said, memorably, in 2015. "They went through us like (stuff) through a tinhorn."
With Tagovailoa likely limited and backup QB Jalen Hurts coming off ankle surgery, The Citadel is likely to see a lot of third-team QB Mac Jones, a 6-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman from Jacksonville, Fla. Despite limited playing time, Jones already holds an Alabama record: His 94-yard TD pass against Louisiana was the longest in school history.
This year marks the 10th straight that Alabama has played an FCS team late in the season before taking on Auburn, with The Citadel the eighth Southern Conference team the Tide has faced over that stretch. Average score: 49-6.
Alabama 49, The Citadel 6