|TideSports College Football Preview|
Consistency is a characteristic of the Nick Saban era at Alabama. Dominance is part of the design. Excellence is expected.
But perfection remains the rarest of accomplishments.
“We’ve only had one team that’s gone undefeated and won the national championship, and that was in 2009, and that is very, very, very difficult to do, for anyone,” Saban said this summer at SEC Media Days.
No national champion has gone undefeated since college football adopted the playoff system for the 2014 season. Clemson came within minutes of finishing its 2015 season undefeated before Alabama snatched its flawless season away in Phoenix; the Tigers returned the favor in Tampa to end the 2016 season.
Alabama begins the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 for the third straight season. There’s hope for another special season, and perhaps even more.
Of Alabama’s 17 claimed national championships, only seven have come in perfect seasons (an eighth perfect season came in 1926, when Alabama finished 9-0-1).
“It is just extremely hard to go through a season and be undefeated today,” said former Alabama running back Major Ogilvie, who was a junior when the Crimson Tide went undefeated in 1979. “I think it’s much harder today than it was when I was playing.”
It might be harder today than it ever has been. For one, an undefeated national championship season would require Alabama to go 15-0 with the advent of the College Football Playoff. That’s three more games than Alabama’s teams played 30 or 40 years ago. That includes the SEC Championship Game against a formidable opponent and a playoff game against a top-five team.
Other factors have increased parity in the sport. Limits on roster sizes and smaller signing classes make for a more even playing field. Greater outside attention from national TV broadcasts and social media adds pressures that weren’t always a factor.
Much of what was required to be successful in the past still holds true today, though.
“I would say the first thing is it takes all the cliché things,” former offensive lineman said Barrett Jones, a freshman on the undefeated Crimson Tide 2009 team. “Attention to detail, having the same mentality every single week — which you hear a lot but in reality is extremely hard to do, to come week-in, week-out, work the same no matter who you’re playing, have that same mental approach — it takes staying healthy, that’s a thing that’s sometimes overlooked, and you’ve also got to get a little lucky. You have to have a few moments that kind of bounce your way.”
It also takes strong leadership to keep a team focused. Talent is an undeniable part of the equation, but not the end of the discussion. Jones said Alabama’s 10-3 team in 2010 was the most talented group in his four years at Alabama, but not the best team.
Going undefeated isn’t even always the goal. Ogilvie said that coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was never shy about talking about playing for national championships, but an undefeated season wasn’t discussed. Ogilvie was a sophomore on an 11-1 team that split the 1978 national championship and a junior when Alabama went 12-0 in 1979. Things were different when poll voters decided the national champion.
“The other point (Bryant) made, if you win all your games 100-0, well, the polls will take care of themselves,” Ogilvie said. “Now you’ve got a playoff.”
As Jones said, any team that can finish undefeated will need a few breaks that are outside its locus of control. A brutal schedule can doom even the most talented team. Injuries can strike without discrimination. Sometimes, a fumble bounces the wrong way or the odd gust of wind can change the trajectory of a game and a season.
“In ‘09 we got some breaks and ‘10 it seemed like we didn’t get any breaks,” Jones said.
There are already some breaks in Alabama’s favor, though. The November road trip to Baton Rouge doesn’t appear to be the titanic struggle it has been in the recent past. Cross-divisional matchups against Missouri and Tennessee prevent a regular-season meeting with Georgia. Louisville lacks Lamar Jackson and enters the opener as a 25.5-point underdog.
“Bama is the only team in the country, I feel, that’s going to be a double-digit favorite in every game this year,” college football analyst Phil Steele said in July. “I know right now the Iron Bowl, they’re only a nine-point favorite but if they go 11-0 and play as impressively as I think they will, they’ll probably end up being a double-digit favorite in that game.”
Mississippi State and Auburn, both ranked in the preseason top 25, will face the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama was listed as a +200 betting favorite to win the national championship by Bovada two weeks before the season began. It also listed an even-money bet for Alabama’s regular season win total to be more than 11, effectively projecting a 50-50 chance for a 12-0 start.
Even a perfect team will face its own adversity. Ogilvie remembered a brutal game against Tennessee in Birmingham in 1979 that left him and several teammates bruised. The team held on for two weeks against Virginia Tech and Mississippi State before the injured players returned to help Alabama find a 3-0 win over LSU in a downpour in Baton Rouge.
Jones’ undefeated team needed some kismet, too. That team blocked two field goals to beat Tennessee 12-10. It took the right players and the right preparation to do that, but also some good fortune.
“I’m telling you, there’s just something about a team when you do the right things over and over — you practice the right way and you pay attention to detail and you have the right attitude and mindset — you get some of those breaks,” Jones said. “I guess you could say you make your own breaks.”
Lucky or not, undefeated seasons remain as enduring accomplishments. Ogilvie’s ring for the 1979 season includes “12-0” on it. Alabama was 44-4 in his four years. It was 49-5 in Jones’ career. They’re both parts of elite periods in Alabama history. Each only had one perfect season.
“There really hasn’t been many teams period in college football that have done it,” Jones said. “There’s been a couple, but it’s a tough challenge no matter how good a team is. When you look at the history of college football it’s not that surprising.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196. Tommy Deas contributed to this story.
|TideSports College Football Preview|