Eight years is a lifetime for a college football program. In 2008, Mack Brown’s Texas program had not yet collapsed. Mark Mangino and Kansas were coming off a 12-win season. Penn State was still cruising along with Joe Paterno. Urban Meyer was at Florida, Pete Carroll was at USC, Mike Leach was at Texas Tech and Jim Tressel was at Ohio State. USF was still viable under Jim Leavitt. Current Arizona State head coach Todd Graham’s Tulsa team and former Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s Ball State spent time in the top 25. So did Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels. Feels like two decades ago, right?
As 2008 began, Alabama was a bit of a national afterthought. The Tide had gone just 13–13 in 2006-07, and while much was expected of well-paid Nick Saban when he was hired in ’07, his team had lost to ULM and made only the Independence Bowl in his debut season. They were given a courtesy No. 24 ranking in the preseason in 2008.
Computers don’t care as much about a specific win or loss as humans do. They don’t tend to give a conference title bonus. They simply care about whether you’re consistently awesome. My S&P+ ratings have been recorded at FootballOutsiders.com since 2008; they were among the first play-by-play ratings created for college football, and they measure team efficiency and explosiveness (plus other pieces of the Five Factors — field position, finishing drives, turnover factors) through play-by-play and drive data.
A great computer rating doesn’t guarantee the utmost level of success. Sometimes what the computers see as the best team suffers some bad breaks and loses. Sometimes a good-but-not-incredible team wins a ton of games because of some combination of scheduling and good luck. (Hello, 2015 Iowa.) But Alabama has consistently won over both the eyeballs and the computers for nearly a decade straight.
This article by SB Nation's Bill Connelly and more on Alabama can be found in the 2016 Athlon Sports SEC Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in the online store powered by Amazon.
In college football terms, the 1970s don’t resemble the 2010s in many ways. From a dynasties perspective, the 1970s were the peak for the bluebloods of the sport. Nine royal programs — Oklahoma (nine), Michigan (nine), Nebraska (nine), Alabama (eight), Ohio State (seven), Penn State (seven), USC (six), Notre Dame (five) and Texas (five) — combined to occupy 65 of the 100 year-end spots in the AP top 10 between 1970 and 1979.
From a football perspective, things were different as well. Just as the spread has of late, the wishbone dominated the college football landscape. Among others, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas (which invented the formation in the late-1960s) all thrived with their own variations of the crippling, explosive formation.
Sure, there is still very much a ruling class in today’s game. And there are plenty of wishbone parallels in the way the spread has both proliferated and forced a lot of defenses to get smaller and faster to adapt. Still, the 2010s are not the 1970s for the most part.
But one crimson machine is just as powerful now as it was then.
You’re only as good as your last hire, and for many top-tier programs, a good hire is all it takes to establish at least temporary residence near the top of college football. But Saban wasn’t a good hire for Alabama; he was a spectacular one. He has done so well in Tuscaloosa that we are able, with a straight face, to compare him to Bear Bryant.
Bryant was summoned from Texas A&M to Alabama on the heels of Jennings “Ears” Whitworth’s horrific three-year tenure in Tuscaloosa. From 1955-57, the Crimson Tide went just 4–24–2. In a decade in which only Oklahoma was able to remain a power from start to finish, Alabama had managed to disappear from football relevance.
Bryant brought the Tide back almost instantly. After a 5–4–1 campaign in 1958, Alabama was back in the top 10 in 1959, finishing 7–2–2 with a Liberty Bowl loss. Between 1960-66, the Crimson Tide would lose more than one game in a season just one time. They went 68–6–3 in those seven years, winning three AP national titles and very nearly winning a fourth (they lost the controversial 1966 title to Notre Dame).
What sets Bryant apart from most coaches, however, is that he had two different peaks. After a down period in the late-1960s, defined by both a lack of offensive identity and a struggle to integrate his roster as the South’s most prominent program, Bryant and Bama began another run. From 1971-81, the Tide never finished lower than 11th; they won double-digit games nine times (a tougher thing to accomplish in the days of 11-game seasons); and they secured two more AP titles. It was pretty easy to be a blueblood in the 1970s, but Alabama was perhaps the bluest of the bunch.
The numbers back that up. Using an estimated version of S&P+ derived from points scored and points allowed (the only reliable numbers in college football from any time before the 1990s), from 1971-80 the Tide ranked second six times, third twice and fifth twice. And that came on the heels of the earlier run (1961-66), in which they ranked first once, second three times, fourth once and eighth once.
All told, Bryant won 232 games as Alabama’s head coach and engineered 19 top-10 finishes. Saban has 105 and eight, respectively, and at 64 years old, he would have to coach until he was about 80 to match Bryant’s numbers. He’s probably not going to do that. But if he sticks around another few years, he could match Bryant’s elite finishes. Bryant ranked first or second in estimated S&P+ 10 times. Saban’s already within four of that in less than a decade.
Here’s another number he could match pretty soon: Bryant won five national titles in 25 years at Alabama. In a more parity-friendly era, Saban has four, and the Tide appear positioned to make a run at a fifth this coming season (and the year after that, and the year after that). In just over one-third of the time, he’s won almost as many rings as the king. (Granted, Bryant could have benefited from having a four-team playoff. That could have offered him more opportunities not granted during a rather restrictive bowl era.)
Being great at Alabama isn’t the hardest thing in the world to pull off. (See above.) Alabama quickly learned that it really enjoyed this sport in the 1920s and has invested in it and attained a high level of success in perhaps more eras than any other program.
But Bryant and Saban truly stand apart. And it felt nearly preordained from the start. Bryant had already engineered an 11–1 season at Kentucky in 1950 and finished in the top five with Texas A&M in 1956; his Aggies reached No. 1 in the country in 1957 before a late fade (which happened to coincide with Bear-to-Bama rumors).
Saban, meanwhile, had already engineered a top-10 finish at a Michigan State program that had had finished in the top 10 only once in 30 years. And he had won a national title in 2003 at LSU.
The dynastic aspect of the 1970s indeed makes this a tough comparison, one in which Saban still fares rather well. Adjusting for era, however, the best comparison for Saban might not be Bryant at all — it might be Bobby Bowden.
Bowden, the former Florida State head coach, pulled off perhaps the most underrated achievement of all-time in the 1980s and 1990s, and it continued after the early-’90s scholarship limits came into effect.
Bowden didn’t initially need long to turn Florida State into a program worth noticing. The Seminoles were just 4–29 in the three seasons before he arrived, but after a 5–6 debut campaign in 1976, he and his team served notice that the state of Florida might soon have a national power.
From 1977-80, FSU went 39–8 with two top-10 finishes. The Noles reached 11–0 and fourth in the polls in 1979 before an Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma; in 1980, they were second at 10–1, having beaten two top-five teams, when they fell again to Oklahoma in the Orange.
The air briefly came out of the balloon, however. FSU took on one of the hardest schedules ever in 1981 — in consecutive weeks, they played on the road against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt (at a time when Pitt was a national power) and LSU — and went just 6–5. And between 1981-86, the Noles averaged a decent, but unspectacular, 7.5 wins per season.
In 1987, however, the pieces came together. Behind All-Americans Deion Sanders, Paul McGowan and Pat Carter, FSU finished 11–1, missing out on a national title because of a failed, last-minute two-point conversion against Miami. In 1988, the Seminoles went 11–1 again. In 1989, 10–2. Et cetera.
From 1987-2000, despite the sustained emergence of in-state rival Miami, Florida State finished in the AP top five every season. They spent portions of seven seasons at No. 1. The Noles never lost more than two games in a season in this span and lost one or fewer eight times. Thanks usually to losses to Miami, FSU claimed just two national titles, but never in college football’s poll era has there been a sustained stretch of 14 dominant years like this.
It’s the same from a computer perspective. The estimated S&P+ ratings also had FSU in the top four for each year of this stretch — the Noles ranked first five times (1987, ’92, ’93, ’97, ’99), second four times, third three times and fourth twice. And the dominance was balanced — they ranked in the top 10 in offensive S&P+ and defensive S&P+ 10 times each.
Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson engineered 11 straight AP top-10 finishes (only one outside of the top five) between 1948-58; under Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer, the Sooners made a 10-year run from 1971-80. Bryant made it 10 straight years in the top 10 during his first run, and Bo Schembechler made it 10 years with Michigan. Under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, Miami made it eight straight years. Under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, Nebraska made it seven straight. Under Jim Tressel, Ohio State made it six straight.
Not even Saban will make it 14 straight years in the top five like Bowden — Alabama finished 10th in 2010 and seventh in 2013. But he’s at eight straight years in the top 10, and to say the least, four national titles earn you some bonus points.
Alabama doesn’t have a Miami, of course. During FSU’s 14-year run, the Hurricanes finished in the estimated S&P+ top 10 eight straight years from 1987-94 and in the top two four times; then, after dealing with sanctions and controversy, Butch Davis’ Canes helped end Bowden’s streak with a series of recruiting wins and dominant teams.
Still, each new season produces a unique set of elite teams to compete with Alabama: Saban’s 2008-09 teams split a pair of huge battles with Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow and Florida, then split a pair of heavyweight battles with LSU in 2011. Gus Malzahn and Auburn kept the Tide from the BCS title game in 2013, and Meyer’s Ohio State squad knocked Bama out of the College Football Playoff in 2014. Though there are constant threats, and other great teams besides Bama at any given time, the Tide are always on the list.
When Saban first came to Tuscaloosa, he was given a $4 million per year contract that was at the high end of college football’s money spectrum. As coach salaries have gotten more obnoxious, so has Saban’s — he is currently making almost $7 million before bonuses. But no coach in the sport has proven himself worth such an obscene sum. Alabama is getting exactly what it has been paying for: the best coach in college football, and one of the best of all-time.
– By Bill Connelly, SB Nation