FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In a sport covered by the minute, analyzed by the second, and put in perspective by the hour, how did this one get by us?
Especially with Alabama, in this age a de facto 33rd NFL franchise. Alabama, with the greatest dynasty of all time. Wait, what?
The case can certainly be made if the Tide beat No. 1 Notre Dame five days from now.
Only two other programs have won three championships in four years in the wire service era (since 1936). That would be Notre Dame (1946, 1947, 1949) and Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997). Alabama would be the third such team in 76 years if it beats this version of the Irish.
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These days, Bama has changed the game more than the game changing around it. Nebraska scored an incredible 2,257 points in 51 games (44.2 per game) in that four-year stretch. In a different era, Notre Dame posted 12 shutouts in 38 games from 1946-49.
Since 2009, Bama has averaged 35 points and would have had more if Nick Saban showed less mercy. In that span, the defense has posted seven shutouts. The Tide under Saban have run and stopped the run. A simple old-school plan but a philosophy that has produced one Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) followed by another Heisman finalist (Trent Richardson). The 2012 defense lost six players to the draft -- three first-rounders -- and was just as good. Saban and the boys have caused us to consider a new definition for "dynasty." It's not what have you done for me lately, it's what have you done for me quickly. Seems like we've barely blinked since the Tide beat Virginia Tech on Sept. 5, 2009 to get this party started. Since that date, the program has spent 17 weeks as the AP No. 1. It has won as many SEC titles as national championships (two).
It took a convergence of fortune and skill. Saban was available in 2007 -- two years removed from a successful run at LSU. He arrived with the SEC kicking off a run of six straight titles. The SEC championship game was becoming more or less a national semifinal.
All of it is mentioned to hammer home the obvious: The Tide have made this run through (arguably) the most powerful SEC in history. Focus less on the 7-3 record against top 10 teams since 2009 and more on the 23 games played against ranked teams in that span. That's equivalent to almost two seasons of top 25 challenges.
A third BCS title in four years would match the career numbers of Barry Switzer, Darrell Royal and Woody Hayes (three titles each). Alabama seniors could boast more national championship rings in their four seasons than Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno (two each) had in their combined 100 years as head coaches.
The Tide are within a couple of bounces of playing for their fourth title in five years. No. 1 Alabama lost the 2008 SEC title game to Florida.
Yes, a case can be made.
Dynasty is always a loaded word, sparking debate and suggesting long-term excellence. A lot of you will immediately think of Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak in the 1950s. It took Bud Wilkinson 17 years to win his three titles. If he triumphs next week, Saban would have won four in 11 SEC seasons at two schools.
|College football dynasties|
|Alabama||1973, 1978, 1979|
|Miami (Fla.)||1983, 1987, 1989, 1991|
|Nebraska||1994, 1995, 1997|
|Note: Nebraska lost in the title game in 1993, while USC lost in 2005|
A fourth title would tie him with Notre Dame's Frank Leahy and put Saban two away from tying Bear Bryant. You see where this could be headed. Immortality.
Bama's feat almost needs a translator. Its achievements speak a different language. Its longest winning streak the past four years -- 19 games -- ended more than two years ago. How does that compare to Penn State's 31-game undefeated streak from 1967-70? It doesn't. Alabama has played those 23 games against ranked teams. In its streak, Penn State played four. That was during its days as an independent when Paterno could arrange a favorable Eastern-based schedule. It may have taken years for his program to overcome that perception with the pollsters.
Meanwhile, Alabama has been able to play for two national championships the last two seasons after enduring November home losses. It won in 2011 without winning its division.
Miami won four titles in nine years (1983-1991), but with three different coaches. This century both Miami and Southern California have put together 34-game winning streaks. They dominated the first half of the century's first decade also winning three championships in four years.
"Because of today with all the constraints and the level of competition has gone up, there are more good teams out there," Bernie Kish, a historian for the National Football Foundation, said of Alabama. "It's just an unbelievable feat."
Nebraska is the best, most recent comparison to Alabama's current run. But even Tom Osborne didn't operate under the current constraints. It is widely speculated that the Huskers' great coach was given a going-away present by his peers in the coaches' poll in 1997. Having announced his retirement in December of that year, Osborne was able to win title No. 3, splitting it with Michigan.
That was pre-BCS. Fifteen of the 45 all-time 1 vs. 2 games (AP poll) have been played in the BCS era. Of the other 30, Osborne coached in three of them, losing two, during his 25-year head coaching career. Monday will mark Saban's fifth such contest in the last 49 months.
"To go through a season undefeated and be able to play for BCS championship is completely different than it used to be," Kish said.
In another era, Alabama was close to three titles in a row. The 1964 national championship team lost only once -- in the bowl game -- back when the polls picked the champ before the postseason. The 1965 team lost the opener to Georgia by one point, tied Tennessee, then won the last six in a row to make it two straight.
The 1966 team started No. 1, went 11-0 and finished third. That "Missing Ring" team is largely thought to have paid the price in the polls for segregation in the mid-1960s.
The Tide won again in 1971 and 1973, losing only six games from 1971-75. Back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979 closed out the decade.
Gene Stallings resurrected things briefly from 1992-95 taking the Tide to three SEC title games and winning the national championship in 1992.
It was a long, tortuous road from there to here for Alabama to be reminded this is what it is supposed to do -- but has never done. Dynasties usually have a longer shelf life but the definition has changed. This one arrived so suddenly four years ago it is either about to exhaust its eligibility -- or has no end in sight.