There will never be a definitive ranking of the most dominant college football teams of all time — and in a sport in which the subjective act of voting was the primary mode of determining a champion until only very recently, that’s probably fitting. Even the computer power ranking systems can’t always agree (as the Bowl Championship Series found out time and again). But according to one particular metric we like to use here at FiveThirtyEight — the Elo rating — the 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide are closing in on the greatest college football season in at least 80 years.
Here are the rankings as they stand now, using the Elo rating system I developed with FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver during the 2014 season:
|SEASON||SCHOOL||DATE OF PEAK||RECORD AT PEAK||PEAK ELO|
Some additional background on the rating system: It’s designed to mimic ESPN’s Football Power Index, in the sense that it’s optimized to predict future results, and it’s on the same scale as points per game (so you can take the difference between any two teams’ ratings and get a basic point spread if they played at a neutral field).1 Just like in our NFL Elo system, the ratings update after each game depending on who won, by how much and where the game was played, and before each season, the ratings from the year before are carried over after being reverted slightly toward the mean.2
The upshot is a rolling power rating for each team that tries to pinpoint how good they are at any given moment. And at this particular moment, Alabama is really, really good. After their 51-3 destruction of Mississippi State last Saturday, the Crimson Tide’s Elo rating moved to +33.4 — meaning they grade as about 34 points per game better than the average FBS team.3 (Think of Air Force, South Carolina or Kentucky.4) That’s the second-highest peak rating recorded by any Division I-A/FBS team going back to the start of the AP poll era in 1936, trailing only Nebraska’s +33.9 rating after the Cornhuskers crushed Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
Alabama won’t get a chance to break Nebraska’s record this weekend. The Tide do have a game, but it’s against Chattanooga, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, and the game is so lopsided that Elo will give ’Bama barely any credit for a win, no matter the margin. (Within reason, of course: Alabama could technically pass Nebraska if it beats Chattanooga by 28,228 points — or about a touchdown and a two-point conversion every second of the game. Eat your heart out, 1916 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.) But assuming that its rating stays constant against the Mocs, Alabama could surpass Nebraska’s rating if it beats Auburn by at least 32 points a week from this Saturday, in the regular-season finale. That’s not likely (Elo considers Alabama only 20-point favorites), but because Elo guarantees a ratings boost for wins against good competition, the Tide would almost certainly break the record if they beat Auburn by any margin and maintain their winning streak through the SEC Championship Game and the College Football Playoff.
Will that make them the greatest team of all time? Like most things in college football, that’s up for debate. But it is one piece of evidence from which they can build a case. And it’s bad news for any opponent standing between them and coach Nick Saban’s sixth career national championship.