In a season that has seen Notre Dame return to relevance and could see a freshman win the Heisman Trophy, it has come down to Nick Saban-led Alabama versus history.
If history holds, then Bowl Championship Series era, set to end with a four-team playoff starting in 2014, will escape without a repeat champion. If Alabama wins its next two games, which odds makers say the Crimson Tide will, then the BCS era won’t finish unbeaten.
Also, if Alabama wins its next two games, then the Tide will do something in the Saban era that it didn’t do even under Bear Bryant — win three national titles in four years.
Bryant came close, winning three titles (1961, 1964 and 1965) in a five-year span, but he won those three titles before NCAA-imposed scholarship limits wrought parity on college football.
Limits were imposed starting in 1973 and shrank to 85 in 1992. Nebraska (1994-95) is the only repeat champion since the 85-scholarship limit, and scholarship limits are the biggest reason why no school has repeated since 1998, when major college football went to the BCS system to determine its national champion.
That Saban-led Alabama can repeat and win three in four years in the time of the 85-scholarship limit makes the possibility so remarkable.
It’s so remarkable, in fact, that one can’t help wondering which is mightier — history or Saban-led Alabama.
There are reasons why teams struggle to repeat as national champions since the 85-scholarship limit. It’s harder to stockpile talent, which makes it harder to recover instantly from attrition or injuries.
Saban-led Alabama got a history lesson in 2010. One year after finishing as an undefeated national champion, the Tide replaced nearly all of its defensive starters and lost three regular-season games.
The Tide won a BCS title in 2011 but got the chance thanks, in part, to parity. Alabama lost a regular-season game to then-No. 1 LSU, but other teams like Oklahoma State blew their chance with losses to the likes of Iowa State.
The same scenario came about this year. A loss to then-No. 15 Texas A&M put Alabama in the position of needing help to slide back into the top two slots in the BCS standings. Help came a week later, with unbeaten Oregon and Kansas State losing.
Kansas State lost to unranked Baylor, partly because one injury in the secondary made the Wildcats more vulnerable. That’s how scholarship limits affect teams. Coaches can’t hoard talent, and the next man up after an injury or attrition might bring a more dramatic drop-off in quality or experience.
The upsets helped Alabama climb back to No. 2 in the BCS standings, so Saban-led Alabama has history in sight. He’s doing it with another team that replaced several defensive starters, not to mention a Heisman Trophy finalist in running back Trent Richardson.
All the Tide needs to repeat and make it three national titles in four years — an amazing show of dominance in the BCS era --- is to beat No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta on Saturday then No. 1 Notre Dame in the BCS final, Jan. 7 in Miami.
If those final hurdles aren’t enough, scholarship limits keep testing Saban’s depth. This week, he turned to freshman wide receiver Chris Black, who was due to redshirt because of a preseason shoulder injury.
Black’s shoulder has recovered, and Saban pulled the redshirt off of the coveted recruit to compensate for thinning depth. Kenny Bell suffered a broken leg in last week’s Iron Bowl, and DeAndrew White was lost to a knee injury earlier this season.
Bell averaged 25.4 yards on his 17 catches. Will Black make those big plays, if called on in his high-stakes college debut?
Saban-led Alabama has recruited better than any other program over his six-year tenure. Then again, history is a formidable opponent.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.