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Alabama’s Case As The Best College Football Team Ever

Less than six months after the COVID-19 pandemic nearly closed its campus, the Alabama Crimson Tide will return to Tuscaloosa1 having laid claim to the greatest college football team of all time. Of course they did. The team with the most national championships to its credit in the poll era2 won yet another, while Nick Saban has reduced dominance to an expectation, eclipsing Bear Bryant for most national titles among head coaches.

And yet, who saw this coming? It’s not as though the Tide came out of nowhere, but they did enter the season with their worst ranking — third, gasp! — since 2015. That’s largely because last season’s offense now plays on Sundays. Four of the first 15 picks of last year’s NFL draft were members of the Alabama offense, including arguably the best quarterback in school history.

And then the unit improved. It bounced back with the best quarterback, best running back, best receiver, best center, best interior lineman and best offensive line in the sport. In receiver and return-man wizard DeVonta Smith, it also featured the best and most versatile player.

Saban put the finishing touches on his seventh national championship-winning season Monday night with a 52-24 shellacking of Ohio State, rounding out the Tide’s 10th undefeated season and first since 2009. It was close for about 15 minutes, which is a lot more that can be said of most Alabama games in 2020.

“To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” Saban said after the game, referring more to the pandemic than to any on-field accomplishments.

But did we witness the swan song of the greatest college football team of the modern era? It’s a question we can’t help but ask every year: Where does the team that just won it all fit in the history of the sport?

Let’s start with the overall resume. Alabama played a gauntlet schedule that included a 10-game regular-season SEC slate and precisely zero nonconference opponents. It beat it like a drum. Then the Tide downed Florida in the SEC championship game and blasted its two playoff opponents by at least three scores apiece. All amidst a pandemic.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” quarterback Mac Jones said Monday. “There’s no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again.”

The games were not close. Alabama never trailed entering the fourth quarter. On average, the Tide spent more than 19 minutes each game sitting on the ball with a double-digit lead.

By Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Tide was 30.18 points better than the average team this season, making this the best single-season performance in school history, with Saban finally usurping the 1970s dominance of Bryant. You have to go all the way back to the powerhouse teams of that decade to find any squad with a higher SRS than this year’s Alabama.

As Spencer Hall put it on ESPN Daily, “You’ve pretty much seen the best college football team you’ll ever see.”

Alabama is among the best in history

College football teams since 1945 by Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System metric

Rank School Season SRS
1 Army Cadets 1945 33.35
2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 1946 32.88
3 Oklahoma Sooners 1973 32.87
4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 1949 32.35
5 Nebraska Cornhuskers 1971 31.49
6 Army Cadets 1946 30.48
7 Michigan Wolverines 1947 30.39
8 Southern California Trojans 1972 30.33
9 Alabama Crimson Tide 2020 30.18
10 Ohio State Buckeyes 1973 29.66

Source: Sports-Reference.com

How did Alabama do it? With its offense.

The Tide fielded a unit that averaged 48.5 points per game and outscored opponents by nearly 30. Both exceeded the marks set by last year’s LSU, which itself had a claim to college football’s greatest team of all time.

The Tide scored on a higher percentage of team drives (62 percent) and produced more points per drive (3.97)3 than any team in any season for which data is available.4 On a per-play basis, only 2018 Oklahoma (0.39) put up more expected points than the Tide (0.38).

Under the director of Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator — and soon-to-be Texas head coach — Steve Sarkisian, Saban had an offense unlike anything he’d ever led in Tuscaloosa. Context is key: Saban’s last three teams were nationally ranked second, second and 11th respectively in expected points added per play.

Both Jones and Smith entered the national title game as the highest-graded college players at their respective positions in PFF history.5 “I think we would be negligent if we didn’t consider them either among the best of all time or the best of all time,” said longtime college sports analyst Paul Finebaum.

The season that was hardly guaranteed its conclusion was vanquished by perhaps the most decorated program of all time. Alabama has now won three national championships since the playoff was introduced seven years ago, with its latest by way of a breathtaking offense that rewrote record books and wrought havoc on every field it stepped foot on. One season after arguably the greatest quarterbacking season of all time gave us the most dangerous offense to that point, we may have a new club leader for the sport’s best team.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Although perhaps it should reconsider.

  2. No offense to the Yale Bulldogs, but nobody is counting those 18 titles, many of which were won in the 19th century when players wore mock turtlenecks.

  3. Excluding teams that played fewer than six games this season. Kent State leads the nation (3.98) but played only four games.

  4. Since 2004.

  5. It’s worth noting that most of the team accolades don’t account for the absence of receiver Jaylen Waddle, a projected top-20 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, who missed most of the season with an ankle injury.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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