By Christopher Walsh
Ninth of 10 Parts
As far as Gary Danielson is concerned, Nick Saban’s consistency is unlike anything college football has seen.
He should know. Although Danielson has been an analyst for CBS since 2006, primarily on the broadcast team for the SEC’s weekly showcase game, he previously was with ESPN/ABC covering the sport on a national scale.
From Michigan to Texas, he’s been around all the major programs and feels that the pressure to win has never been greater, especially in the Southeastern Conference. Whereas most other conferences have a couple programs that are regularly in the running for the national title, it’s been half of the SEC since Saban landed in Alabama in 2007.
“If you couple that with a predominance of great players who reside in this area, where maybe in the 1970s and the ’80s of college football it was mostly a Midwest dominance of star football players in the Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania area, I just think that the competitiveness, you’re fighting to stay [on top] there makes it a pretty amazing feat of what Nick has done,” Danielson said.
Factor in how the game has changed over the past 50 years — scholarship limits, most games are now televised, no more split national titles, the longer season, recruiting becoming front and center — and Danielson is even more impressed with Alabama’s recent stretch than anything in the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s.
“The only two teams, maybe two-and-a-half, three teams, that compare are Florida State, Miami and USC,” he said. “They’re the only teams that come close. The closest in my mind is Miami because of the ability to turn out professional football players.
“I know that there have been runs at Notre Dame and Oklahoma, Ohio State, Army, but I think these four teams are the cream of the crop not only because of the pressure that they played under, but with the elite athletes they also turned out.”
Nowadays a coach being with a school for a decade can seem like an eternity, as evidenced by Saban already being the dean of the SEC. Led by Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (1999), only seven coaches have longer tenures at the FBS level.
“He’s been obviously the most consistent coach that we’ve had in our profession in a lot of years,” said Grant Teaff, College Football Hall of Fame coach and former executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “Year after year, after year, after year, he’s there.”
Saban’s time at Alabama actually has been unlike any 10-year stretch in college football history.
When the NCAA lists best records by decade it does so like an odometer. After the nine turns into a zero it automatically starts over again. Based on that, here are the top 10 decades:
Saban’s winning percentage since 2010 is .886, but a decade can be any 10-year period, regardless of when it starts.
Thus, here’s how Saban’s first 10 seasons with the Crimson Tide stack up against the most dominating decades during the poll era of college football. The Ivy League dynasties before the advent of World War I are not included. The key word is dominating, so it’s not just about national titles claimed.
Please keep in mind the following when looking over the numbers:
- While the Associated Press Poll currently lists the Top 25 teams in the nation, from 1936-61 the wire service ranked only 20 teams. From 1962-67 only 10 teams were recognized. From 1968-88, the AP again resumed its Top 20 before expanding to the current 25 teams in 1989.
- The first NFL draft was held in 1936 and for years the number of rounds fluctuated, with as many as 32 in the 1940s, and 30 rounds in the 1950s. The first combined (AFL-NFL) draft in 1967 consisted of 17 rounds. The draft was reduced to 12 rounds in 1977, eight rounds in 1993, and has been set at seven rounds since 1994.
- The entire 10-year period counts, even if the coach departed.
Five worth noting
» Penn State 1977-86: Joe Paterno’s best stretch led to national championships in 1982 and 1986, and a 98-21-1 record (.817). There were 77 players selected in the draft, with 10 in the first round, and seven consensus All-Americans. However, the Nittany Lions played just seven games ranked No. 1 over the 10-year span.
» Nebraska 1963-72: Bob Devaney won back-to-back national titles in 1970-71, and went 92-18-2 overall (.821). The Cornhuskers were 12-10-2 against ranked opponents, and only 6-9-1 versus top-10 foes.
» Southern California 2002-11: Pete Carroll was well on his way to establishing a dynasty at USC, but the 2004 title has been vacated due to NCAA penalties, along with 14 wins. That leaves the 2003 split title as its lone national championship claim and dropped the program’s record to 95-20 (.826) over the 10-year stretch. The Trojans played 33 games ranked No. 1, to go with 17 consensus All-Americans and 17 first-round picks.
» Minnesota 1932-41: The Gophers’ dynasty peaked during the years both the Associated Press Poll and NFL draft were being conceived. It won national titles in 1936, 1940 and 1941, and can also claim 1934 and 1935, when the poll was determined by one person. Overall, Bernie Bieman’s program went 63-12-5 (.819) during the stretch and had nine consensus All-Americans.
» Notre Dame 1921-1930: Knute Rockne’s dynasty was just before the poll era, but deserves a mention. The Fighting Irish went 84-11-3 (.857) and claimed the 1924, 1929 and 1930 national titles.
Five that just missed
» Texas 1961-70: The Longhorns went 89-17-2 (.824) and won national titles in 1963, 1969 and 1970. They only had 21 games against ranked opponents (14-6- 1), but played 25 games as No. 1. Darrell Royal had nine consensus All-Americans and four first-round draft picks.
» Army 1941-50: Red Blaik built a short-term juggernaut during World War II, when scores of college football players enlisted and some continued to play for military installations and schools. Army won the 1944 national championship and finished atop the AP poll in 1945. It played 20 games ranked No. 1 and went 75-11-6 (.848) overall.
» Alabama 1959-68: Although Crimson Tide’s stretch was extremely impressive, it wasn’t the most dominating. The 1961 and 1965 national champions both played only one ranked opponent, and the 1964 title team lost a controversial bowl game after having already been named No. 1. However, the 1966 team went undefeated to finish just third in the final AP poll. Alabama went an incredible 91-13-6 (.854) overall, but played only six games when ranked No. 1, and faced just 21 ranked opponents, going 14-6-1 (.690).
» LSU 2003-12: Nick Saban and successor Les Miles both won a national title as the Tigers went 107-25 (.811) over 10 years. Ironically, it was Saban at Alabama that prevented what many feel was the best team in LSU history from winning the 2011 championship, as the Crimson Tide won the “Game of the Century” rematch in New Orleans, 21-0. LSU had a 61 players selected in the NFL Draft, including 14 in the first round.
» Notre Dame 1964-73: Ara Parseghian won national crowns in 1966 and 1973 as the Fighting Irish went 85-15-4 (.817). Notre Dame only played 14 games when ranked No. 1, but had 75 draft picks (11 in the first round) and 19 consensus All-Americans. Parseghian also went 10-2 during his final season at Notre Dame in 1974, reaching No. 1 in the AP poll, but finished sixth.
10. Ohio State 1968-77
- Coach: Woody Hayes
- National titles: 1 (1968)
- Overall record: 91-16 (.850)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 18-11-2 (.613)/11-8-2 (.571)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 3.1
- Games played as No. 1: 38
- Draft picks/First round: 74/16
- Consensus All-Americans: 19
Although Hayes won only one national title during the peak of his career, the Buckeyes played 38 games ranked No. 1. The 1968 team featured five sophomores on offense and six on defense, including safety Jack Tatum, nicknamed “The Assassin.” Ohio State upset No. 1 Purdue, 13-0, finished the regular season 9-0 and defeated Southern California in the Rose Bowl, 27-16, for the national championship. A total of 11 players from the team earned All-America standing during their careers and six became first-round draft selections.
9. Oklahoma 1971-80
- Coach: Barry Switzer (eight seasons) and Chuck Fairbanks (two)
- National titles: 2 (1974 AP, 1975)
- Overall record: 105-11 (.905)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 39-8-2 (.816)/21-7-1 (.741)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 4.9
- Games played as No. 1: 17
- Draft picks/First round: 75/8
- Consensus All-Americans: 19
The Sooners finished in the top three of the AP poll eight times. Chuck Fairbanks began the run with a pair of No. 2 finishes. Barry Switzer won the 1974 national title and finished atop the AP poll in 1975. However, Oklahoma didn’t play in a bowl game in 1973 or 1974 due to NCAA sanctions, and during the ’74 split championship its toughest opponent was No. 6 Nebraska, which finished 9-3.
8. Southern California 1967-76
- Coach: John McKay (nine seasons) and John Robinson (one)
- National titles: 3 (1967, 1972, 1974 coaches)
- Overall record: 91-18 (.834)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 30-9-4 (.721)/17-4-3 (.771)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 4.3
- Games played as No. 1: 19
- Draft picks/First round: 95/20
- Consensus All-Americans: 18
John Robinson did a terrific job of extending John McKay’s legacy. His 1978 team also finished No. 1 in the coaches’ poll, while the 1976 and 1979 Trojans were No. 2 in the AP poll. But statistically this was the best 10-year stretch due to the three national titles. Overall, McKay compiled a 127-40-8 record, including only 17 conference losses over 16 seasons. During his last nine seasons, USC went 18-3 against its two biggest rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame. Some consider the 1972 team possibly the best in college football history. It went 12-0, beat six ranked teams by an average of 20.2 points, and never trailed.
7. Alabama 1971-80
- Coach: Paul “Bear” Bryant
- National titles: 3 (1973 coaches, 1978 AP, 1979)
- Overall record: 107-13 (.891)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 27-9 (.750)/16-8 (.667)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 3.6
- Games played as No. 1: 11
- Draft picks/First round: 44/9
- Consensus All-Americans: 10
Although the 1973 title remains controversial, as Alabama was named No. 1 in the coaches’ poll before it lost to Notre Dame 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl, a regular-season loss to Nebraska in 1977 may have kept the Crimson Tide from winning three consecutive national titles. Instead, the SEC champions finished 11–1 overall and beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but were second to 11-1 Notre Dame in the polls. Regardless, the 107-13 (.891) record stands out.
6. Nebraska 1988-97
- Coach: Tom Osborne
- National titles: 3 (1994, 1995, 1997 coaches)
- Overall record: 108-15 (.878)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 26-12-1 (.679)/14-11 (.560)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 3.9
- Games played as No. 1: 14
- Draft picks/First round: 63/9
- Consensus All-Americans: 14
The five-season stretch from 1993-97 might be the best in college football history, when the Cornhuskers went 60-3. One of the defeats was in the 1994 Orange Bowl when Nebraska missed a last-second 45-yard field goal against favored Florida State. It came 10 years after Tom Osborne famously went for two with the national title on the line, losing 31-30 to Miami. Michigan fans are still upset that the coaches’ poll split the 1997 title, leapfrogging the Cornhuskers over the Wolverines after No. 2 Nebraska pounded Peyton Manning and No. 3 Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl. The No. 1 Wolverines defeated Ryan Leaf and No. 8 Washington State in the Rose Bowl. It was widely viewed as a sendoff present to the retiring Osborne.
5. Oklahoma 1949-58
- Coach: Bud Wilkinson
- National titles: 3 (1950, 1955, 1956)
- Overall record: 97-7 (.933)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 21-6 (.778)/7-5 (.583)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 2.7
- Games played as No. 1: 24
- Draft picks/First round: 49/7
- Consensus All-Americans: 13
Some of Oklahoma’s players completed their varsity careers without experiencing a single loss. From 1953-57, Oklahoma racked up a major-college record 47 consecutive victories (snapped by Notre Dame in 1958, 7-0). There also was the famous 31-game winning streak that was ended by Paul “Bear” Bryant and Kentucky in the 1951 Sugar Bowl. The 1949 Oklahoma team outscored opponents 364-88 and topped the season with a 35-0 victory against LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The 1956 Sooners averaged 46.6 points per game, crushed Texas 45-0, and pounded Notre Dame at South Bend, 40-0.
4. Florida State 1991-2000
- Coach: Bobby Bowden
- National titles: 2 (1993, 1999)
- Overall record: 110-13-1 (.891)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 44-12-1 (.781)/19-10-1 (.650)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 5.7
- Games played as No. 1: 43
- Draft picks/First round: 67/17
- Consensus All-Americans: 22
Every Florida State team between 1987 and 2000 finished with at least 10 wins and ranked in the top five of the AP Top 25, a streak that might never be equaled. The two national championship teams were led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. The 1993 title was a bit controversial in that FSU lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against Notre Dame, a week before the Fighting Irish lost to Boston College, 41-39. Although West Virginia was undefeated, Florida State played Nebraska for the national championship at the Orange Bowl, and won 18-16. The final rankings had Florida State first and Notre Dame second. The 1999 season was Bowden’s only perfect finish as the Seminoles went wire-to-wire as the nation’s No. 1 team.
3. Notre Dame 1941-50
- Coach: Frank Leahy (Ed McKeever/Hugh Devore)
- National titles: 4 (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949)
- Overall record: 79-11 (.878)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 22-5-3 (.783)/14-4-2 (.750)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 3.0
- Games played as No. 1: 27
- Draft picks/First round: 94/13
- Consensus All-Americans: 19
Frank Leahy was able to claim a national title in 1943, when the Fighting Irish played a record four teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll, before serving in the Navy during World War II. Two assistant coaches manned the program in his absence. When Leahy returned in 1946, Notre Dame went 36-0-2 over the next four seasons, posting 12 shutouts in a 38-game span and claiming three more championships. However, two of them are considered among the most controversial in college football history. Leahy’s career record against top competition was nothing short of stunning — 32-5-4 (.823) against ranked opponents, and 22-3-1 versus top-10 teams.
2. Miami 1983-92
- Coach: Jimmy Johnson (five seasons)/Dennis Erickson (four)/ Howard Schnellenberger (one)
- National titles: 4 (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 AP)
- Overall record: 107-14 (.884)
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 35-12 (.745)/23-8 (.742)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 4.7
- Games played as No. 1: 29
- Draft picks/First round: 80/15
- Consensus All-Americans: 17
When Howard Schnellenberger was hired in 1979, the Hurricanes were coming off a decade in which they had nearly as many coaches (six), as losing seasons (nine). After shocking Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, 31-30, to win the program’s first national championship, he left for the United States Football League. Jimmy Johnson (52-9) and Dennis Erickson (63-9) followed and continued one of greatest runs in college football. From 1987-91, Miami won three national titles and missed a fourth by a point due to a controversial 31-30 loss to Notre Dame. During those five seasons, the Hurricanes went 56-4 and were considered both the giants and outlaws of college football. For example, in 1989, the Hurricanes didn’t allow a touchdown for one 10-quarter stretch, held six opponents without a touchdown and allowed 9.3 points per game. Miami bounced back from a loss to Florida State to defeat No. 1 Notre Dame, 27-10, and defeated No. 7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
1. Alabama 2007-16
- Coach: Nick Saban
- National titles: 4 (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015)
- Overall record: 114-19* (.857) | * — vacated wins not included
- Record against ranked teams/top 10: 50-16 (.758)/25-8 (.758)
- Avg. number of ranked teams faced: 6.6
- Games played as No. 1: 50
- Draft picks/First round: 56/22
- Consensus All-Americans: 29
The numbers speak for themselves, especially when factoring in strength of schedule and the seven-round NFL draft.
Consequently, there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn: We all just witnessed the greatest decade in college football history.