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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In terms of defining dynasties in college football, three is the magic number.
Several schools have won three national titles in a short period of time – most of the historic power programs have had at least one such run. But four titles clustered in a span of seven years or less? That’s truly rare territory.
Alabama is one game from stepping foot into that realm.
Since the Associated Press poll came into being in 1936 and became the first nationally recognized arbiter, only Notre Dame has won four championships in seven seasons. That was from 1943-49 – a very different time than today.
For one thing, the final polls were conducted before bowl games were played. For another, the war years turned everything upside down – among the AP top 10 teams in ’43 were Iowa Navy Pre-Flight, Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Del Monte Pre-Flight and the East Hartford Wheelmen Club. And in the days before television and with limited travel, how many teams did sports writers even see play? The early polls were heavy on regional bias and flat-out guesswork by voters.
Thus it’s possible to say, with some confidence, that Alabama is close to completing the greatest seven-year run in college football history. If the Crimson Tide defeats unbeaten No. 1 Clemson, it could stack that trophy on top of hardware won in 2009, ’11 and ’12. And with a victory here Monday, you could make a great argument that Nick Saban is the greatest coach in the history of the game.
Some Southerners with long memories will maintain that Saban isn’t even the best coach in the history of Alabama. But Bear Bryant never won four in seven seasons. Neither did Woody Hayes, Bud Wilkinson, John McKay, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden nor Joe Paterno. Only Frank Leahy did at Notre Dame, and as discussed above, those were squirrelly times in the sport.
All told, this could be Saban’s fifth title in 13 seasons, going back to the championship he won at LSU in 2003. Since the advent of the AP poll, only Bryant has won that many titles – and his five were spread from 1961 through ’79.
So this really is an unparalleled run – if the game Monday ends with Alabama on top.
You can argue that it’s easier to win a national title now that four teams have access to it via the College Football Playoff. Ohio State couldn’t have won the 2014 championship without the playoff format, and Urban Meyer would still be sitting on two titles instead of three.
But the playoff hasn’t given Alabama anything it wouldn’t have had in the Bowl Championship Series days. The Crimson Tide was No. 1 going into last year’s playoff and No. 2 this year. They would have been in the championship game both years if this were still a BCS format.
The one thing Alabama does not have in this golden era is a bunch of undefeated seasons. There has only been one, in 2009, when the Tide went 14-0 and beat Texas in the national title game. The ’11 team lost to LSU in the regular season before getting revenge on the Tigers in the BCS championship, and the ’12 team was upset by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel (in happier times for Johnny Football). This year’s team, of course, had to rebound from a September loss to Mississippi.
Bryant had three undefeated seasons at Alabama – yet only two of them ended with national titles. The 1961 team was 11-0 and the ’78 team went 12-0, while the ’66 Crimson Tide went 11-0 (with six shutouts) but was controversially snubbed by the pollsters in favor of 9-0-1 Notre Dame. In fact, the Tide finished No. 3 in the polls, behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which played to a famous 10-10 tie in November. (That 1966 season would have been a great time to have a playoff.)
Today it would be inconceivable for a Southeastern Conference team to start the year No. 1, as ’Bama did in ’66, go unbeaten and finish No. 3. The league’s prestige has grown exponentially since then – and it’s also gotten exponentially tougher.
That’s another reason why this Alabama run is so remarkable. It is doing it against the toughest competition in the nation, year-in and year-out. The Sagarin Ratings say the SEC has been the toughest conference in five of the last seven seasons, and it was No. 2 in the other two (2010 and ’11).
That’s why Alabama has been bloodied in the regular season six straight years, losing at least one game to an SEC West opponent each season from 2010-15. But only in 2010, when the Tide was an intolerable 10-3, did it drop more than one league contest. The program has simply refused to take a back seat, even in America’s most difficult division.
Now Alabama is 60 minutes from crossing over from “ordinary” dynasty to something truly special. The Tide is on the verge of upgrading from elite to unprecedented, of moving from college football’s gated community to establishing its own island. And Nick Saban would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Bear himself.