By Christopher Walsh
Eighth of 10 Parts
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When ESPN/SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears was a highly-touted recruit in 2001, he gave Miami a ton of consideration. The Hurricanes had a lot of appeal and were considered a premier destination in college football, especially for those hoping to someday play in the NFL.
“People like winners,” he said. “That’s really all it boils down to. If someone told you you could be on the executive team at Apple, or you could go be on the executive team at Whataburger, where are you gonna go?”
Spears now sees something similar to what Miami had at Alabama, not only in accolades and getting prospects to the next level, but status.
“It’s cool to go to Alabama,” Spears added. “Most high school kids, you tell them you got an offer from Alabama and it’s ‘You’re the man.’
“All that stuff matters, but it all manifests from winning games.”
Not just games, but big games, which the Crimson Tide have done better than anyone under Nick Saban, Spears’ former college coach.
Alabama often goes from playing in the marquee game on opening weekend, like its showdown with Florida State in Atlanta on Sept. 2, to a high-profile schedule and postseason. The three-time reigning SEC champions are the only team to make the College Football Playoff in each of its three years of existence.
Last season, Alabama faced 10 opponents ranked in the AP Top 25 when they played. That’s a record.
The nine ranked teams the Crimson Tide faced in 2015 are the most ever by a team that’s won the national championship.
Most games against ranked opponents by a national champion
|SEASON||COACH||SCHOOL||TOP 25||TOP 5|
|1993||Bobby Bowden||Florida State||7||3|
Between them, the 19 ranked opponents over two seasons were — you guessed it — another record.
It’s exactly what ESPN announcer Rece Davis means when he says the Crimson Tide have played a “boatload” of big games during the Saban era.
“They have established a standard to which they — more times than not — play as opposed to being caught up in the magnitude in the game,” Davis said. “They’re used to the stage.”
For a little perspective, consider:
- The Crimson Tide faced a combined total of 17 ranked opponents in the six seasons they claim a national championship with Paul “Bear” Bryant.
- Alabama’s 17 wins against ranked opponents in 2015-16 matched the number by Florida State under Jimbo Fisher since 2010.
During the last decade, Alabama was 50-16 against ranked opponents, a winning percentage of .758. When facing tougher foes, the Crimson Tide were 24-9 vs. top-10 teams (.727), 13-7 against top-5 teams (.650), and 5-1 when playing the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 (.833).
Those five wins against top-ranked teams are more than any coach in history.
Saban has six overall, including his signature win with Michigan State against No. 1 Ohio State in 1998. Joe Paterno, Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson and Jack Mollenkopf all had four. Urban Meyer has three, along with Bryant, Dennis Erickson, Bo Schembechler and Barry Switzer.
Yet that’s not the statistic that floors most historians and broadcasters. Since the 2008 season, Alabama has played in only three regular-season games that did not have national championship implications. They were all during the 2010 season, after the Crimson Tide took their second loss (LSU, 24-21).
“It’s pretty amazing,” Gary Danielson of CBS said about that consistency. “It’s just phenomenal what he’s done.
“They were literally playing for a national championship every year since 2008.”
Overall, winning big games has probably defined coaches more than any other factor. Correspondingly, losing big games has forged reputations that could take years to overcome, if at all.
Bob Stoops had an impressive 60-30 record against ranked opponents at Oklahoma, but is primarily known for his one national championship. On the plus side he got a ring, but on the minus it’s his only one despite winning 10 Big 12 titles.
A better example is Tom Osborne at Nebraska. From 1987-93, the Cornhuskers were defeated in seven consecutive bowl games after losing a combined eight regular-season games. Finally, though, he became the first coach in 40 years to have two consecutive undefeated seasons en route to winning national titles.
Overall, Saban’s career record against ranked teams is 73-39 in 112 games. He has a ways to catch Bobby Bowden with 145 (79-65-1) over 40 years and Joe Paterno with 172 (86-85-1) over 46 seasons. Against top-10 teams, Bowden was 38-44-1 and Paterno 35-47.
Other national championship coaches
|COACH||TOP 25||TOP 10||TOP 5||vs. NO. 1|
|Urban Meyer||35-14 (.714)||15-6 (.714)||11-4 (.733)||3-2 (.600)|
|Jimbo Fisher||17-10 (.630)||8-7 (.533)||3-4 (.429)||0-2 (.000)|
|Dabo Swinney||18-19 (.486)||11-5 (.688)||6-4 (.600)||1-1 (.500)|
While many focused on Saban finally finishing on the losing end of a national championship game in January, with Clemson scoring with 1 second remaining to pull out the dramatic 35-31 victory, what most missed was that it was his 50th game coaching Alabama when it was ranked No. 1.
At this point, we can cue everyone to say it along with us: That’s a record.
At 44-6, Saban has won more games coaching a No. 1 team at one school than any coach in college football history. Woody Hayes and Bobby Bowden are tied for second at 40, over 28 and 34 seasons, respectively.
The Crimson Tide have been ranked No. 1 in 36.2 percent of the 138 games under Saban. Hayes’ percentage was 16.7 and Bowden’s 10.8.
Of course, that’s when Alabama was No. 1. It won the 2009, 2011 and 2012 title games when ranked second.
Going back to the 2016 team, when Alabama defeated Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal, it had won 16 straight games against ranked opponents, which tied Southern California (2002-05) for the longest streak in college football history. Eight of those victories were against top-10 teams, and four were top-5.
Saban’s career average of 3.48 wins against ranked teams is a record.
His average of 1.71 wins against top-10 teams is as well, topping Frank Leahy’s 1.69 (although Leahy’s winning percentage of .865 against top-10 opponents likely will never be touched).
Saban is 5-1 in national championship games, and 7-1 in SEC championship games, which only keeps attracting top-end players who want to be a part of that.
“It’s good for college football,” said Spears, who played Saban’s national championship team at LSU in 2003. “I like dominating teams.”