Will we ever see another undefeated national champion in college football?
It was a thought that occurred to me in the aftermath of Monday’s sterling national championship rematch between Alabama and Clemson, a 35-31 Tiger victory that wasn’t secure until Clemson’s Greg Huegel recovered his own onsides kick to deny Alabama a final shot at a game-winning TD.
It was the first loss for Alabama since September 2015, when the Tide was shocked at home by Ole Miss. Bama, as you know by now, rebounded from that loss and went on a tear, ultimately ending the year as the national champion after defeating undefeated Clemson in the national title game.
If that sounds familiar, it ought to — the Tigers were shocked at home by Pittsburgh in early November 2016 before righting themselves and setting the world on fire on the way to their national title. As with the previous edition, both Alabama and Clemson finished with identical 14-1 records.
Which is what brought me to the question that led off this column.
College football fans are conditioned to expect undefeated seasons. In fact, it is not uncommon, when one examines the history of college football, to see multiple teams finish the season undefeated and with a claim to the national title (the most recent example is Nebraska and Michigan in 1997). Still others have finished undefeated with no shot at a national title — Utah did it in 2008, and Auburn famously did it in 2004.
Still, most college football fans consider finishing undefeated — or, at least, close to it — a prerequisite for a national title claim. Win all your games, win your conference … then we can talk about whether you deserve to carry home that weird-looking trophy.
This is something unique to college football. College basketball certainly doesn’t expect perfection — Kentucky came the closest in 2015, ripping its way to a 38-0 record before finally losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Pro football isn’t as concerned with perfection, either. Only one team has gone undefeated in the Super Bowl era (1967), and that team (the 1972 Miami Dolphins) still lords it over everyone who cares about the league today. The 2007 New England Patriots came the closest to matching them, with an 18-0 record that ended when Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress for a touchdown in the final minute of that season’s Super Bowl.
In both the case of the 2007 Pats and 2015 Kentucky, the teams were superlative, and in fact, dominated much of their competition. But expecting to run through an extended season without a loss, in the age of parity, simply wasn’t reasonable on any level.
Which, naturally, brings us back to Alabama. The Tide has been on a historic run since the beginning of 2008, with double-digit wins in every season since then. Nick Saban’s squad is a three-time defending SEC champ and has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 entering the final weekend of the regular season every year since 2011.
Even so, Alabama has run through a season completely unblemished only once: in 2009, when the Tide survived scares against Tennessee, LSU and Auburn before whipping Florida and Texas to finish 14-0 and win the BCS title.
That 2009 squad might have the thinnest resume of Alabama’s title teams, considering the number of draft picks and the relative strength of schedule. The Tide was a more complete squad when it won crowns in 2011, 2012 and 2015.
And in 2016, advanced stat geeks at FiveThirtyEight proclaimed that the Tide could finish as the best team in college football history (at the end of the regular season 2016 Alabama was 2nd to 1995 Nebraska). All it needed was to dominate its last three games — the SEC championship, the CFP semifinal and the national title game — and all those superlatives would apply. And until :01 remained on the clock, it was all happening.
It’s worth wondering if next year’s Alabama team would be better off losing its opener to Florida State, to gear up for a title run in the latter part of the season.
Final overall record: 36-31-2