By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
In winning last night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game 45-40 over the Clemson Tigers, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide have won four national titles in a seven year span. The Tide have not put themselves into that rarefied air in sports history. The word that will be bandied about on the airwaves and in print for the next few months when talking about Alabama is one bestowed upon only the elite: dynasty.
When it comes to defining dynasties and the best of them in sports, it’s largely a subjective matter. The problem lies in comparing different great teams from differing eras. College football in particular is a prickly minefield to navigate. The reason why is that we’ve defined champions differently throughout the history of the sport.
From the first recorded “season” of intercollegiate football in 1869 through today, we’ve seen, by my count, seven different systems for determining a national champion. From 1869-1882, it was the National Championship Foundation that selected the champion of the sport. Then, in 1883, the Helms Athletic Foundation, founded by Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms, selected the champion following any bowl games that were played. In 1926, the Dickinson System, developed by Illinois economics professor Frank Dickinson, was born. A mathematical point system, the Dickinson was the sport’s first foray into using math to determine which teams were the best in the land. Trumpeted by legendary Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, it became a competitor to the Helms and named its own champion each year.
Helms and Dickinson system were used in conjunction up until 1936 when the Associated Press took over the voting. The AP continued unchallenged until 1958 when United Press International introduced its poll that used college coaches voting on the best teams to rank the top teams in the country. We now recognize this poll as the “Coaches Poll.”
Generally, the two systems were in accord, but there were instances in which they disagreed over who the national champion was. That led to the naming of co-champions 11 times (1954, 1957, 1965, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1991, 1997, and 2003).
Now, the point in going through this history is that the national champion was often never settled on an actual playing field at the end of a season until the introduction of the BCS system in 1998. Sure, the #1 and #2 teams in the polls would often play each other during the season, and sometimes they would meet in a bowl game if they happened to be going to the same one. But, there was no formal system for having the two best teams settle the debate on the field. That’s what led to the birth of the BCS, and now in its current iteration, the College Football Playoff.
In all of that time, from 1869 through Alabama’s win last night, there have been 5 teams that have won at least four “national championships” in seven years. Princeton did it twice in the very early days of the sport with four titles from 1869-1873 and four once again from 1878-1885. Yale then became a powerhouse for the next 20 years winning 13 of the 20 “national titles” from 1874-1894. At the turn of the century, Michigan was named national champion or co-champion four straight years from 1901-1904.
Once you get into the more modern era (end of Helms era into the AP) Minnesota was named national champion five times in an eight year stretch from 1934-1941. Finally, Notre Dame took home four titles from 1943-1949. Since then, Miami (1983, 1987, 1989) and Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997 co-champ) have come close but only won three titles in a seven year stretch.
As with any sport, trying to compare eras is extremely difficult. As with all of our four major sports, the games have changed dramatically from their inception to today. The same holds true here. If you want to go back and compare Alabama to the Princeton teams of the 1870’s or the Notre Dame teams of the 40’s, be my guest. Here’s the best way I can compare them. Where did they finish in their respective final polls? That narrows it down to the AP era that started in 1936. Sorry Minnesota, Princeton and Yale, but there’s just no equivalent to be found for you.
Could you get more in depth and try to go season by season comparing schedules? Sure, but good luck trying to develop that mathematical formula. For our purposes, Alabama in this recent stretch has finished in the Top 10 of the AP poll in eight straight seasons, and in the Top 5 five times. Have a look at where the other teams finished in their run of titles:
Miami (1983-1993): eight straight Top 10 finishes from 1985-1992, three titles, seven straight years in the Top 3.
Nebraska (1993-1997): five straight Top 10, including two outright titles and one co-championship
Notre Dame (1943-1949): nine straight Top 10, four titles, two other Top 3 finishes
Perhaps the best example of sustained dominance in the sport is the same Alabama program under the legendary Bear Bryant. In Bryant’s first 10 years with the program, the Tide were in the Top 10 of the final AP poll for nine straight seasons beginning in his second year. That run included three national titles (1961, 1964 co-champ, 1965). However, that 1964 title is one of controversy considering Alabama lost its last game of the year to Texas in the Orange Bowl.
Once you look at those numbers, the Notre Dame run is probably the closest. They’re the only other team I could find that combined the number of titles with the run of Top 10 finishes in a similar time frame. The Irish run included nine straight years in the Top 10. Saban’s crew has eight straight, and he’s only been at the school for nine years. So Bama is one year away from tying that and two years away from moving past it.
Here’s the thing. As Dennis Dodd wrote today for CBSSports.com, there’s really no end in sight for this dynasty. Even if they don’t win another national title, and they just finish in the Top 10 for the next five years, this Alabama run would be the greatest ever. And that’s forgetting the fact that for each of their four national titles, they had to meet the other top team in the country on the playing field after the regular season to be named champion.
Was there controversy in the BCS? Sure, but even the most cynical college football fan would probably agree that Alabama deserved every shot at the title it got under that system. This Alabama Crimson Tide program is the epitome of sustained excellence in the college game. Appreciate it, embrace it, hate it if you want to, but realize that you are watching history unlike any we’ve ever seen before being written before our eyes.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.