Alabama came up on the short end of an all-timer Monday night, but that shouldn’t exclude Nick Saban’s latest batch of college football destroyers from being discussed as one of the SEC’s best teams ever.
The 2016 Crimson Tide won’t join the conference’s many recent title-winners after taking a 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game, which might’ve been the most dramatic one seen by the sport since Texas and USC met in the Rose Bowl. Their relentless quest for perfection survived from September to January, before finally meeting its end in the literal last second of the final game. There Saban stood, dour and defeated, as his blue-chip defense took blow after blow from Deshaun Watson, whose legendary performance finally sunk the defending champs with a 1-yard touchdown pass — his fourth score of the night.
Talk about a brutal outcome for the SEC; its teams finished 0-3 against the Tigers this season.
After being so dominant for the entire season — only two of Alabama’s 14 wins came by fewer than 17 points — Tide fans probably feel like a team this good deserved a better fate.
Well, guess what? The numbers show that they’re right:
National champions from the SEC vs. 2016 Alabama
|School||Year||Avg win margin||Wins vs. Top 25||Total offense rank||Total defense rank||Sagarin rating||S&P+ rating||S&P rank|
Reflecting on some of the greatest SEC teams to never win a championship — LSU in 2011, Florida in 2009 and Auburn in 2004 — the silver lining is that this year’s Alabama team might have jumped to the top of any such list. Even without championship rings to flaunt, one can argue the Crimson Tide still favorably stack up against the conference’s all-time elite.
Take an iconic team like 2010 Auburn, which rode incredible individual performances from Cam Newton and Nick Fairley on an unexpected trip to title town. The Tigers went undefeated, but they also won seven games by 7 points or fewer. A defense that allowed 5.36 yards per play almost cost them at a few turns.
LSU won it all in 2007 despite losing pair of overtime games to Kentucky and Arkansas (both 8-win teams). The Tigers’ average margin of victory that year (18.7 points) is among the lowest on the list above, as well.
How about Florida’s touted 1996 and 2008 championship teams? Tim Tebow maintains a strong case for best SEC player of all-time, and Steve Spurrier ranks among its legendary coaches. Both of those Gators offenses were elite, and they had NFL-quality defenses to match.
Here’s the rub: Spurrier’s championship team only needed to beat five ranked opponents, including its Sugar Bowl rematch with Florida State. The 2008 Gators only played six top-25 foes, and one of them (South Carolina) would finish the year 7-6.
The Crimson Tide got the benefit of playing an extra game, sure. But they still played and beat nine ranked schools, plus an 11-win Western Kentucky team. That counts for something.
We’ll dive into the numbers again using sports-reference.com’s Strength of Schedule rating.
Strength of schedule:
- 2015 Alabama: 7.46 (1st of 128)
- 2016 Alabama: 7.29 (1st of 128)
- 2006 Florida: 6.95 (4th of 119)
- 2009 Alabama: 6.62 (2nd of 120)
- 2007 LSU: 5.77 (14th of 120)
- 2008 Florida: 5.58 (5th of 120)
- 2012 Alabama: 5.51 (14th of 124)
- 1996 Florida: 5.30 (17th of 111)
- 1998 Tennessee: 4.42 (26th of 112)
- 2011 Alabama: 4.21 (17th of 120)
- 2003 LSU: 3.28 (41st of 117)
The overall S&P+ rating, developed by Bill Connelly, which is “a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play and drive data of all 800+ of a season’s FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays).” A positive number reflects precisely how above-average a specific team was during a given season.
These numbers go as far back as 2007. Reminder: All of these teams won a national championship, and this year’s Alabama squad beat them all in both Jeff Sagarin’s ratings and the S&P+ metric.
The eye test
Late in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s title bout, the ESPN broadcast shared a shocking tidbit: Alabama had never once trailed in the fourth quarter this season before it faced Clemson.
The numbers illustrate plenty about where the 2016 Tide fit among their fellow SEC champions of years past. But focusing only on the data doesn’t fully do justice to this team’s consistent dominance.
Jalen Hurts, as my colleague Alex Smith writes, should go down as the best true freshman quarterback of all-time. His final performance of the year got off to a rocky start — understandable, given the opponent, the stage and a new man calling the offensive plays — but No. 2 reminded fans of his game-changing tendencies with his 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
You thought that would be the iconic image of the game, another one of Saban’s athletic freaks powering Alabama to another championship. Ho-hum.
The defense played as well as any of the other No. 1 units to don the crimson and white in recent years. Without a healthy Bo Scarbrough, the offense lacked some of the beef that usually characterizes its running game; Lane Kiffin and others, however, will point out that the 2016 Crimson Tide had the highest rushing average of any team in the Saban era. That’s another testament to the one-man show Hurts put on in Year 1.
Saying a dynasty that has won four titles since 2009 caught the short end of the stick this season sounds silly. And yet, that’s basically what happened.
Alabama was an all-time great team that simply didn’t win its last game. We should speak of it as such.