What if college football had a playoff when Bear Bryant was coaching?
Alternative time lines and different realities are popular themes and devices these days, with books and movies often speculating about what might have occurred with a simple change in history.
They can also be used to create some wild speculation in college football.
Nearly six months ago, Chris Dufresne, the Los Angeles Times' national college football/basketball columnist from 1995 to 2015 who is currently writing for the Maven site TMG, put one such thought into the back of my head at the National Championship Game in San Jose.
“How many national titles would Bear Bryant have won had the College Football Playoff existed when he was coaching?” he asked.
It’s a great question, the kind that demonstrates why Dufresne will almost certainly be in the Football Writers Association of America hall of fame someday.
Bryant was the head coach at Maryland in 1945, left for Kentucky and was turning the Wildcats into a football power when it became clear to him that the school had other priorities. Texas A&M brought the Junction Boys, but in 1958 “Mama called,” and the coach returned to his alma mater to save the Crimson Tide.
From 1959 until the end of his career at the end of the 1982 season, Alabama was in the picture for the national championship nearly every season, eventually claiming six titles. However, three came after the Crimson Tide lost its bowl game (final voting used to be held before the postseason, when games were primarily thought of as a rewards), and three were split titles.
Overall, things could have been very different with a four-team playoff in place.
For example, might Notre Dame have joined a conference?
Could we have seen sponsors like Benson and Hedges for the title game?
Might teams have integrated faster?
Obviously we’ll never know, but here’s one way it could have played out during the Bryant years. It assumes the Fighting Irish didn’t avoid playing postseason games, the conferences stayed the same and the bowls had similar affiliations. Rankings are based on the Associated Press Poll and there’s obviously no conference championship games.
Remember, in this scenario there are no split national titles:
1959: Bryant’s second season with the Crimson Tide would have resulted in his first team being in the playoff mix, but at 7-1-2 at the end of the regular season there were just too many good teams with better records including Ole Miss LSU and Georgia all at 9-1.
1960: Alabama is again a contender, but at 8-1-1 not a playoff team.
1961: After the Crimson Tide runs the table it’s the top-seeded team in the playoff with the semifinal pairings LSU vs. Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Ohio State vs. Texas in the Cotton Bowl. This one might be the toughest to evaluate because in reality Alabama didn’t play a ranked opponent during the regular season and then met up against No. 9 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Still, Bryant’s first national championship remains intact as Alabama edges Ohio State for the title.
1962: Alabama’s 7-6 loss to Georgia Tech knocks it out of the playoff as the selection committee opts for Southern California vs. Texas, Ole Miss vs. Wisconsin. Alabama finished No. 5 in the AP poll. USC beats Ole Miss in the title game, the first to have a national sponsor, the Mr. Clean National Championship Game in Miami.
1963: At 8-2, the Crimson Tide finished the regular season third in the SEC.
1964: With an undefeated record, Alabama is again the top-seeded team in the playoff. The semifinals are Alabama vs. Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Arkansas vs. Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. After running the table, Alabama is the top-seeded team. Notre Dame upsets Arkansas in the other semifinal, but takes a loss to Joe Namath and the Crimson Tide in the Marlboro Man National Championship Game in Dallas.
1965: It’s one of those years in which the two best teams collide before the championship game, as Alabama has to squeeze into the playoff with a 7-1-1 record. The showdown with top-seeded Michigan State lives up to the hype, but the Spartans pull off a narrow win at the Cotton Bowl. The other semifinal features Nebraska vs. Arkansas in the Orange Bowl, with the Cornhuskers winning only to get thumped in the Quaker Oats National Championship Game in Philadelphia.
1966: Alabama is on a roll, entering the playoff as a rare undefeated No. 3-seed, but having to go through both Michigan State and Notre Dame proves to be a little too much. Alabama gets revenge on Michigan State from the previous playoff in the Rose Bowl, while the Fighting Irish easily dispatch Georgia in the Orange Bowl. However, the Crimson Tide runs out of steam in the Charmin National Championship Game in New Orleans.
1971: After four years of not being in the playoff picture, Alabama returns. The semifinals feature Michigan vs. Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Similar to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup that resulted in a 38-6 victory for the Cornhuskers, Nebraska makes it back-to-back championships by winning the Forster Grant Nation Championship Game in Los Angeles.
1972: At 10-1, Alabama returns to the playoff over the outcry from the northeast about Penn State, which lost its season opener to Tennessee. The semifinals pair USC vs. Alabama in the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma vs. Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. The Trojans take care of business in the semifinals, but then get ahead of themselves in the title game and are upset by the Sooners in the American Tourister National Championship Game in Atlanta.
1973: After running the table during the regular season, Alabama is the top-seeded team and faces Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, with Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl: History will remember this one very differently as the Sooners knock off the Fighting Irish while the Crimson Tide squeezes by the Sooners en route to winning the Joe Namath-inspired Blackglama-Great Lakes MinkNational Championship Game in Los Angeles.
1974: With Oklahoma on NCAA probation, undefeated Alabama assumes the top seeding and draws USC in the Rose Bowl, with Michigan vs. Ohio State in a ultra-hyped rematch in Miami. The two Big Ten teams essentially cancel each other out with the Crimson Tide prevailing over the Wolverines in the Volvo National Championship Game in Houston. It sparks massive debates about which team was the real national champion and whether the playoff should be expanded.
1975: In the playoff for a fifth straight year, Alabama draws Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, with Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. After losing its opener to Missouri, the Crimson Tide comes all the way back and wins the national title, defeating the Sooners in the Xerox National Championship Game in New York. Alabama becomes the first program to pull off a three-peat.
1976: Alabama misses the playoff for the first time since 1970.
1977: Not playing in a conference appears to be the difference in Notre Dame not making the playoff, as the semifinals feature Texas vs. Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. After its early-season loss to Nebraska, Alabama is on a mission, thumping the Sooners and topping Michigan in the Polaroid National Championship Game in Miami.
1978: The famous goal-line stand never happens. In a controversial move, the playoff committee avoids the Alabama-USC rematch in the semifinal and switches the bottom two seeds. Joe Paterno is livid at having to face the Trojans, and with good reason as the Nittany Lions lose in the Orange Bowl. The Crimson Tide defeats Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but takes another loss to USC in the Wendy’s National Championship Game in Washington D.C.
1979: Undefeated Alabama is seeded second and gets revenge against USC in the Cotton Bowl. However, the Crimson Tide gets a surprise opponent with Bobby Bowden and Florida State, after the Seminoles top Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Alabama wins going away in the Isuzu National Championship Game in Seattle.
1980: At 9-2, Alabama misses out on the playoff.
1981: Since they didn’t play during the regular season the selection committee has no problem pairing Alabama vs. Georgia in a semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. The emotions are riding high following career win No. 315, but the Crimson Tide just doesn’t have an answer for Herschel Walker. After Clemson defeats Nebraska in the Orange Bowl the Pepsi Free National Championship Game in Orlando is a regular-season rematch, and this time the Bulldogs don’t give away the game with turnovers.
So many titles would that have been for Bryant?
This is the second story in the "What if" series: