How Alabama compares to the best college football teams ever

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (falcon health-and-wellness medical journals sold separately in Colorado Springs):

[More Dash: 8 games to decide CFP | CFB’s messy reality | 5 disappearing acts]

SECOND QUARTER

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PUTTING THE HISTORICAL YARDSTICK TO ALABAMA …

Before hurtling pell-mell into the speed trap of historical comparison, it is necessary to pump the brakes for a moment. We are nine games into the 2018 season, which means another one-third of the season remains for the two teams fortunate enough to play for the national title in January.

There is a long way to go. Stuff happens. Teams that look great can falter, rendering comparisons to the all-time greats foolish.

But The Dash has never been afraid to look foolish before (keep your comments to yourself), so why start now. After watching Alabama (11) hand LSU (12) the worst loss for an AP top-five team on its home field in the last five years, it’s time to see how the Crimson Tide stacks up with the best of the best.

The Dash looked at stats for more than a dozen undefeated and untied national champions since 1968, including every unbeaten national title winner this century. The answer, as it stands today: ‘Bama compares very well to those teams.

Alabama is averaging 268.9 yards per game more than its opponents. Among 21st century title winners, nobody had a greater margin than that. The closest is the 2013 Florida State (13) team, at 237.7. The only unbeaten team in the last 50 years The Dash could find that tops the Tide’s number is 1974 Oklahoma (14), at 276.2.

The Dash hasn’t found any undefeated title winner in that time span that tops Alabama’s average of 8.22 yards per play, or its margin over opponents in yards per play, which is 3.61. Simply put, on an every-down basis, the Crimson Tide has manhandled everyone it has played.

Nick Saban leads his Alabama team onto the field before a college football game. (Getty)
Nick Saban leads his Alabama team onto the field before a college football game. (Getty)

That changes slightly when you get into scoring margin. Alabama leads the nation in scoring at 51.3 points per game while giving up 14.1, which is seventh. That’s a margin of 37.2, which is topped by Florida State’s ’13 squad (39.5) and the 1995 Nebraska (15) juggernaut at 38.7.

But two of the greatest teams of the 21st century don’t quite have the numbers the Tide is presently putting up. The 2005 Texas (16) team, led by Vince Young, was a plus-33.8 scoring margin, plus-209.2 yards per game and plus-2.7 yards per play. The 2001 Miami (17) team, which had NFL players everywhere, was plus-31.9 points scoring, plus-180.8 yards per game and plus-2.8 yards per play.

And this Alabama team is statistically far more dominant than Saban’s only other unbeaten champion, the 2009 team. The current Crimson Tide edition outscores that team by 19.2 points per game, has a per-game yardage margin of plus-110, a yards-per-play margin of plus-1.61 and outscores its opponents by 16.8 points more per game.

(Looking at this century, by far the most miraculous undefeated champion was 2002 Ohio State. The Buckeyes — or Luckeyes, if you will — barely outgained their opponents, just 43.6 yards per game and 0.9 yards per play. They had the lowest scoring average of any champion 1997, checking in at 29.3. Yeah, that was a big pass interference flag in the end zone against Miami in Tempe.)

We’ll see how Alabama’s numbers hold up over the next three games. With the exception of 2016, the Tide has, in recent years, had a bit of an offensive hangover coming out of LSU and playing Mississippi State, which is the opponent again this Saturday. There will be a bloodletting against Citadel on Nov. 17, and then Auburn arrives for the Iron Bowl. Gus Malzahn is the only active SEC coach who has defeated Nick Saban, but the Tigers could be in for a payback pulverizing after beating ‘Bama in 2017.

For now, Alabama is on a historic course. We’ll see if it can stay the course and keep destroying all comers.

WAIT, WHAT ABOUT CLEMSON?

Dazzling as the Crimson Tide has been, here’s an update from the Upstate of South Carolina that should be kept in mind: Clemson (18), the other half of the sport’s twin towers during the College Football Playoff Era, is a statistical mirror image of Alabama.

While we’ve been gushing over the team from Tuscaloosa, the Tigers have been flourishing slightly under radar. After obliterating four straight teams, the Tigers look every bit as dominant on paper as the Tide. Check it out:

Points per game: Alabama 51.3, Clemson 47.8.

Points allowed per game: Alabama 14.1, Clemson 13.3.

Scoring margin: Alabama 37.2, Clemson 34.5.

Yards-per-game margin: Alabama 268.9, Clemson 268.8.

Yards-per-play margin: Alabama 3.61, Clemson 3.59.

In other words, if ‘Bama is having a potentially historically great season, so is Clemson. Maybe this is 2005 all over again, when runaway trains USC and Texas collided in an all-time great championship game.

Strength of schedule to date is a slight nod to Alabama — its slate is rated 44th-toughest nationally by Sagarin, while Clemson’s is 50th. That’s not a wide gap.

The teams have played two common opponents, Texas A&M (19) and Louisville (20). The Aggies were much closer to beating Clemson (a 28-26 loss) than Alabama (45-23), but played the former in College Station and the latter in Tuscaloosa. The Cardinals were smashed by both teams, but were more competitive against the Tide (a 51-14 loss to open the season) than the Tigers (a 77-16 humiliation). Then again, Louisville also has shown every sign over the last month that it has quit, cold, on Bobby Petrino.

Clemson might be the only team that could enter such a matchup with confidence it can match up in terms of talent, strength, speed and will. A fourth straight playoff matchup of the two seems like a perfectly fine way to end the season, if both teams can get there.

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