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Nick Saban’s Alabama Has Reached A New Stratosphere

For most of Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game, a fifth Alabama title in nine years seemed unlikely. Georgia went into the game as the Crimson Tide’s mirror image and spent the first half outplaying Bama at its own game. Alabama trailed by 13 points after two quarters for its second-largest halftime deficit of the entire Nick Saban era.1 Its 10-point deficit through three quarters was its fourth-biggest. (The Tide hadn’t overcome either margin in the past.) Alabama was suddenly relying on a freshman QB (Tua Tagovailoa) who’d barely thrown 50 career passes. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Georgia had an 88.6 percent chance of winning with under four minutes to play.

And yet, as (almost) always seems to be the case, Saban’s Alabama squad found a way to win on the game’s greatest stage. With Tagovailoa under center rather than the run-first Jalen Hurts, the Tide threw their way back into the ballgame. It was risky and unconventional, but Saban’s quarterback switch changed the outcome of the game. Even after gifting Georgia new life with Andy Pappanastos’s missed field goal as regulation expired, Alabama bounced back in overtime to send roughly 50,000 Georgia fans home from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a state of agony and disbelief with this walk-off bomb from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith:

It was just another night in the national championship game for Saban and the Tide. Since he took over Alabama’s program in 2007, Saban’s team has played for the national title six times, winning five. That’s an 83 percent success rate in a set of games where, according to our Elo ratings, we’d have expected Alabama to win only 57 percent of the time. It’s not outside the realm of something that could happen with good fortune in addition to unmatched talent2 — but it’s getting there.

Alabama usually wins on the championship stage

Pregame Elo ratings and win probabilities for Alabama in national championship game appearances under Nick Saban (2007-2017)

Opponent
Season Alabama Elo Team Conf. Elo Rating Alabama Win% Result
2009 +34.9 Texas Big 12 +28.8 63.8% W
2011 29.4 LSU SEC 38.9 28.9 W
2012 32.5 Notre Dame Indep. 28.5 59.4 W
2015 39.7 Clemson ACC 32.5 66.5 W
2016 42.2 Clemson ACC 30.7 75.0 L
2017 34.6 Georgia SEC 34.4 50.5 W

Includes both College Football Playoff and Bowl Championship Series title games.

Such incredible big-game success has been the cornerstone of the greatest dynasty college football has seen in its modern era. Over the decade from 2008 to 2017, Saban’s Alabama teams have posted an average end-of-season rating of +33.0 per year. (Meaning they ended each season 33 points per game better than the typical FBS team, on average.) Go back to the 1988 season — the first year we can calculate Elo — and no other team is especially close to that mark over a 10-year period. What Saban has done towers even over the accomplishments of other great historical coaches such as Bobby Bowden and Tom Osborne:

College football’s best 10-year dynasties, according to Elo

Best Elo ratings for a program in a 10-season span, 1988-2017

Year Range
School From To Avg. Elo Rating Championships
Alabama 2008 2017 +33.0 5
Florida State 1991 2000 27.4 2
USC 2002 2011 25.7 2
Nebraska 1992 2001 25.4 3
Florida 1992 2001 24.8 1
LSU 2003 2012 23.9 2
Oklahoma 2008 2017 23.5 0
Ohio State 2008 2017 23.4 1
Tennessee 1992 2001 22.9 1
Texas 2000 2009 22.6 1

In the case of overlapping stretches for the same school, only the best 10-year period was used. Championships include split and vacated titles.

Source: CFB at Sports-Reference.com

Saban, of course, also tied Bear Bryant for the most championships won by a college football coach. It seems like history gets made every time we watch this Crimson Tide team play for the title, whether they win or lose.

Although it’s of little consolation right now, Georgia gave Alabama one of the best championship-game fights it’s gotten during the Saban era. It took only two seasons for ex-Tide assistant Kirby Smart to build his Bulldogs up in Alabama’s image — and nearly upset his former team in the process. UGA will doubtless be a rival for Alabama in the seasons to come.

But this season belonged to the Tide in the end, like so many recent seasons have. Ironically, this was not always assured — in addition to spending much of the title game itself in doubt, Alabama had to worry about making the playoff in the first place after failing to qualify for the SEC title game. Yet the final result was one of the surest of sure things in sports today — Alabama being the last team standing when the college football season ends.

Footnotes

  1. It trailed by 14 against Oklahoma en route to losing the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

  2. A simple t-test gives a p-value of 0.19.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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