The biggest obstacle to comparison in sports is time. Measuring one player against another is nearly impossible if the two competed in entirely different eras. Try comparing Doak Walker and Reggie Bush, two of the best running backs in college football history, and you wouldn’t know where to start—though it’s hard to believe Bush wouldn’t have the edge in the open field.
The same is true of teams. There’s little common ground to anchor a comparison of today’s teams with ones from the 1950s or ’60s, when pass plays were scarce and some teams still hadn’t integrated their rosters. So comparing this year’s Alabama team with, say, the national title-winning 1961 Crimson Tide is a futile exercise.
Comparing this year’s Alabama team with the last four Alabama teams to go all the way is a little easier, partly because they all occupied the same 10-year span and partly because there’s another anchor: Nick Saban, who has led the Tide to an unprecedented five national championships over his 11 years in Tuscaloosa, with the first one coming after the 2009 season. While Alabama’s SEC foes haven’t achieved the same level of consistency, the similarities between the dominant Tide teams under Saban in terms of style, personnel and strength of schedule lend themselves well to comparison. While we have no idea what a matchup between the 2017 and 1961 squad would look like, it’s not particularly hard to imagine a matchup between this year’s team and 2009’s. Thus, a ranking of the five Saban-led Alabama national title teams is, while patently subjective and speculative in nature, possible. Here it is.
Key Contributors: Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones, Rolando McClain, Mark Barron, Javier Arenas
The only of Saban’s five title-winning Tide teams to go undefeated was the first one. The season started with a tough 34–24 win over No. 7 Virginia Tech in Atlanta, but the Tide would play only two close games the rest of the season. Led by a two-headed backfield monster of Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and boosted by a wiry sophomore wide receiver named Julio Jones, this team got better as the year went on and really asserted its dominance toward the end of the season, when the games were supposed to get tighter. In the SEC title game against Tim Tebow and top-ranked Florida, the Tide coasted to a 32–13 victory. A month later, in the BCS title game against Texas, they knocked out Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy in the first quarter and cruised to a 37–21 victory. That’s two consecutive victories in matchups of that nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams by a combined 37 points. Not too shabby.
Loss: 9–6 vs. No. 1 LSU
Key contributors: AJ McCarron, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, Brad Smelley, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Dee Milliner
Anchored by future first-rounders Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Dre Kirkpatrick, the 2011 Alabama defense was one of the best in college football history. The unit gave up an average of just 8.2 points per game, a figure that was skewed by the 21 points allowed to Georgia Southern’s option offense. The Tide didn’t give up more than 14 points to an FBS team all season. Let that sink in. After losing 9–6 to No. 1 LSU, a Game of the Century that some loved and some couldn’t stay awake through, Saban got his revenge in the national title game by beating those same Tigers 21–0. In that game, LSU famously didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter. It was a fitting end to a season dominated by a defense that never budged.
Loss: 43–37 vs. Ole Miss
Key Contributors: Jacob Coker, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard, Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Minkah Fitzpatrick
Quarterback Jacob Coker now works for logistics company Cooper Marine & Timberlands in Creola, Ala. But four of his backfield mates either are playing on Sundays (Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake) or will be in the very near future (Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris). Coker’s favorite receiving target, then-freshman Calvin Ridley, will be a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and his tight end, O.J. Howard, went 19th overall last spring. The phenomenal skill-position talent was on display right from the season-opening 35–17 win over Wisconsin in Dallas, and this team had perhaps the best offense of any of the five. The loss to Ole Miss qualifies as the type of blemish Saban teams don’t take often, but a 38–0 pounding of Michigan State in the playoff semifinals and an epic 45–40 win over Deshaun Watson and Clemson more than made up for it.
Loss: 29–24 vs. No. 15 Texas A&M
Key Contributors: AJ McCarron, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Amari Cooper, C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Dee Milliner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
This team made a statement right away, opening with a 41–14 embarrassment of Michigan in Texas, then opening SEC play two weeks later with a 52–0 victory at Arkansas. McCarron threw for 30 touchdowns—11 of which were to Amari Cooper—and just three interceptions, while Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon combined for 29 rushing touchdowns. The lone loss that fall was to a Texas A&M team quarterbacked by an electric redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel, but that marked the conclusion of a three-game stretch against teams ranked inside the top 15. The SEC title game that season ended up being a much tougher contest than the national title game—Bama overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to beat Georgia 32–28 for the conference crown, while the national championship was a 42–14 cakewalk over Manti Te’o and Notre Dame.
Loss: 26–14 at No. 6 Auburn
Key Contributors:Jalen Hurts, TuaTagovailoa, Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris, Calvin Ridley, Ronnie Harrison, Raekwon Davis, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Hootie Jones
Being the lowest-ranked national championship team is like being the poorest member of the Forbes 400—just being on the list is what’s important, and no disrespect is intended. After Auburn soundly beat the Tide 26–14 to knock them out of the SEC title game, there was some serious doubt as to whether this team would get a chance to avenge the heartbreaking 2016 title loss to Clemson in the CFP semis. Yes, Alabama’s 24–6 suffocation of Clemson seemed to validate the committee’s decision to put them in the playoff over Ohio State, but there’s a solid argument that this team didn’t deserve a shot at the national title in the first place. If they had been competing in the BCS era, the 2017 season would have likely ended with a ho-hum (by Bama standards) Sugar Bowl berth. Still, a title is a title, and Tua Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to seal a 26–23 win over Georgia in overtime is emblazoned in Tide history just as prominently as the program’s other championship-sealing moments.