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Alabama’s Only Worthy Opponent Is History

This Crimson Tide team is the best—and most dynamic—of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. It’s clear that Bama is no. 1 in the country, but could it be the strongest college football team ever assembled?

Tua Tagovailoa, Nick Saban, and Jerry Jeudy Elias Stein/Getty Images

The point spread entering Saturday’s matchup between Alabama and LSU was one of the wildest that I can remember. Alabama, the top-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings, went on the road to play LSU, the no. 3 team in those rankings. It was billed as the game of the season: ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast from Baton Rouge. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron hollered in extremely Cajun, and more than 102,000 people packed into Tiger Stadium to watch the SEC West’s premier programs square off. This was the sport at its finest—a college football gumbo as delicious as the stuff being served in the stadium’s surrounding parking lots. Maybe the best team in the nation could be thrown off by an environment so raucous that we call it Death Valley?

Vegas didn’t think so. Oddsmakers listed Alabama as a 14.5-point favorite. Basically, bettors felt this season-defining showdown would be as competitive as a game between the best and worst teams in the NFL. (The 8-1 Chiefs opened as 17-point home favorites against the 2-6 Cardinals heading into Week 10.)

But Vegas actually sold Alabama short. The Crimson Tide doubled up the point spread, shutting out LSU 29-0. And that 29-0 scoreline might sell Alabama short, too: Bama outgained the Tigers, 576 yards to 196. This was perhaps the most competitive blowout the Tide have played this season. For the first time all fall, Alabama felt compelled to play starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during the fourth quarter. Fans had long wondered what would happen when Alabama had to play a highly ranked opponent. Saturday we got our answer: another ass-kicking, but a slightly less thorough ass-kicking than usual.

Alabama being on top of the college football world is nothing new. The Tide have won five national championships in the last nine seasons and have made the playoff in all four years of its existence. They have just eight total losses since 2012, with none coming by more than 14 points. If you tell someone that Alabama is the best team in college football, it won’t move the needle. It’s like saying that the sky is blue, or that Rutgers is bad.

But sometimes the sky is particularly blue, or Rutgers is particularly bad. (Here’s evidence.) And this year, Alabama isn’t just good: It’s dominating college football to an extent that even past Alabama teams haven’t. Maybe this makes the 2018 season a horror show. Many have complained that the Tide’s year-in, year-out success has made the sport uninteresting. And in that sense, this season is worse than most.

To me, though, this Alabama squad is significantly more entertaining than any prior team coached by Nick Saban. In the past, Bama’s dominance was too workmanlike to love. It won by shutting down opposing offenses and scoring just enough points to make clear the game wasn’t close. Take its BCS championship demolition of LSU, for example. The Tide’s quarterbacks have often been called “game managers” for their ability to avoid turnovers rather than showcase any special talents. The Tide’s running backs have bludgeoned their way to two Heisman Trophy wins since 2009.

With Tagovailoa at quarterback, however, Alabama has unlocked a new level of offense—and a new level of dominance. If Alabama ends the season as it’s started it, the 2018 Tide won’t just go down as the best team in college football this season. They could go down as the greatest college football team of all time.

Alabama v LSU
Tua Tagovailoa
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I believe that the greatest college football team of all time is the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. Those ’Canes almost outscored their opponents with return touchdowns alone, scoring 10 on defense and special teams and allowing just 12 all season.). They beat the 14th-ranked team in the country 59-0, and the 12th-ranked team in the country 65-7. They produced 16 first-round NFL draft picks. Their starting running back (Clinton Portis), backup running back (Willis McGahee), and third-string running back (Frank Gore) all became Pro Bowlers.

But not everybody agrees with me. There are strong GOAT cases to be made for two Nebraska teams: the 1971 Cornhuskers, who defeated an Oklahoma squad that finished no. 2 in the polls, a Colorado squad that finished no. 3, and an Alabama squad that finished no. 4; and the 1995 Huskers, who averaged 53 points per game and beat four top-10 opponents by an average margin of 30 points per game. 1972 USC is also a popular pick, and I’d throw the 2004 USC squad featuring Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart into the mix as well. College football historians also like to heap praise upon a handful of Army teams from the 1940s, such as the 1945 group that capped off victories over the Axis powers with a 9-0 campaign during which it outscored opponents 412-46. (Sure, the players on that West Point team didn’t actually fight in World War II, but still: pretty good run of success for the United States Army.) A bunch of old Notre Dame and Oklahoma teams are candidates here too.

Through last weekend, 2018 Alabama has beat its competition as thoroughly as any of these teams did. 2001 Miami beat its opponents by an average margin of 32.9 points per game, 1971 Nebraska won its games by an average of 31.0 points, 1995 Nebraska won games by an average of 38.7, and 1972 USC had an average margin of victory of 27.8. This season’s Alabama team is winning its average game by 37.2 points, better than all those teams but 1995 Nebraska. Of course, that average may drop as Bama closes out its season with the SEC championship game and two potential playoff matchups, but the Tide also have contests against the Citadel and defensively challenged Auburn ahead. Plus, these guys just whupped the no. 3 team in the country by 29—who’s to say they can’t beat the no. 4 and no. 2 teams by equally embarrassing totals?

Another way of comparing teams across eras is with the simple rating system, a Sports-Reference metric that takes into account a team’s average point differential and strength of schedule. (Sports on Earth compiled a list of the top 100 SRS teams a few years ago.) Per SRS, this Alabama team is the best ever—the second-, third-, and fourth-best Bama squads were all coached by Bear Bryant in the 1970s. This Tide squad is on pace to finish 23rd all time in SRS, which seems low, but would make it the only team since 1980 to place in the top 30. SRS heavily favors teams from the earlier eras of college football, when the ass-kickings were more vicious: Seven of the top 10 SRS teams played in the 1940s.

Of course, when we consider how dramatically the game and sport’s landscape have evolved, it becomes impossible to truly compare teams from across eras. All those lopsided seasons in the 1940s were the result of a sport played primarily by the few white college-aged Americans not fighting in World War II. The forward pass had yet to catch on, as the leading passer for 1943 Notre Dame threw for just 525 yards all season. Tagovailoa has 601 passing yards in his last two games alone. If this discussion came down to determining which all-time team would win in a tournament, the squads from earlier generations wouldn’t stand a chance. Even the worst college team in 2018 (well, maybe not Rutgers) would demolish the top teams from the 1940s.

Of course, most greatest-of-all-time discussions don’t revolve around time-machine showdowns. They focus on how thoroughly historic powerhouses stood out against the competition of their time. In that regard, what 2018 Alabama is doing is just as remarkable. It should hypothetically be harder than ever for a team to be this dominant. Even small college football programs now have talented players and millions of dollars to spend on resources. The degree of difficulty is much higher than in the past, and, as a result, teams posting tremendously lopsided seasons have gone the way of the telephone cord.

Nobody has beaten everybody this badly in decades.

Alabama v LSU
Damien Harris
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The present sports discourse is obsessed with debating whether a player is the greatest of all time. LeBron James can’t dribble without being compared with Michael Jordan. Sunday Night Football dressed up live goats in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers jerseys to celebrate the two players facing off in New England over the weekend. Everything has to be GOAT-related. (I have partaken in the discourse.)

And yet here we have Alabama, legitimately in the running to be considered the greatest college football team of all time, and many fans consider it a massive turnoff. The Tide are making the season irrelevant, because it’s so obvious that they’re going to win it all.

I don’t find this Alabama season boring. I’ve often thought about how I wish I could relive Miami’s 2001 campaign, knowing everything we know now. Part of that stems from my desire to revel in the unbelievable accumulation of talent on the ’01 Hurricanes. In addition to trotting out Portis, McGahee, and Gore, that offense boasted Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, and Kellen Winslow Jr. And the offense was tame in comparison with a defense spearheaded by Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Jonathan Vilma, and Vince Wilfork.

But a larger part of my dream of going back is rooted in wanting to re-experience the sheer viciousness of that ’01 roster. It took immense pride in dismantling opponents. While box scores can show that the ’Canes crushed the competition, the team’s appetite for destruction could be fully appreciated only in real time.

2018 Alabama probably features a roster stacked with future pro greats. It should produce at least three 2019 first-round picks: offensive tackle Jonah Williams, nose tackle Quinnen Williams, and defensive end Raekwon Davis. Safety Deionte Thompson, linebacker Mack Wilson, and injured cornerback Trevon Diggs could all also go in the first 30 picks too. Then there’s Tagovailoa, who should be the no. 1 overall selection as soon as he goes pro. He isn’t eligible to declare until after next season.

More notably, though, 2018 Bama has the viciousness of that 2001 Miami team. No, the Tide’s defense isn’t nearly as good; Bama has allowed more points (127) through nine games than ’01 Miami did in 12. But the 2018 Alabama offense is superior. Last season, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield registered the most efficient season in college football history, averaging an adjusted 12.9 yards per pass attempt. This year, Tagovailoa’s adjusted yards per pass attempt is 14.7.

The Tide scored on the opening drive of their first eight games—congrats on that stop, LSU!—and averaged fewer than two minutes and five plays on those possessions. They’ve trailed for three plays all season. They appear to be on a quest to demoralize the opposition as simply and quickly as possible. And week after week, Alabama delivers.

It’s undeniable that Alabama is sucking some of the intrigue out of this college football season. If you thought oddsmakers’ 14.5-point spread in Bama-LSU was stunning, take a look at Bovada’s preliminary betting lines for the Tide’s most likely potential playoff opponents. They would be favored by nine points against Clemson, 14.5 points against Michigan, and a whopping 21 points against Notre Dame. Think about that: There’s just one team in the country that seems likely to come within 10 points of Alabama. If all that matters is whether Alabama outplays its opponents on the field every week, this season is dull. But it’s fascinating to watch Alabama try to outplay the ghosts of legends past. Can the Tide really make it through the entire season without playing a close game?

And hey, there’s always the chance that Alabama will screw up and lose one of its remaining games. That’s the other benefit of embracing greatness: Either 2018 Alabama is going to make its case as the GOAT, or it will stumble and fans will hurl toilet paper into the trees of every other damn campus in America. After all, in spite of having an all-time offense and a talent-stocked defense, Alabama still doesn’t have a good kicker.