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Alabama Is Making Its GOAT Case in the Strangest Season of All Time

The Crimson Tide have been perfect en route to the national title game. If Bama beats Ohio State on Monday, its place in history could go beyond simply triumphing in a season like no other.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bama even has a kicker this season. That’s what it’s come to. Normally, opponents have at least a small ounce of hope in their heads: Maybe if they play perfect football for 59 minutes and 57 seconds, and maybe if Bama doesn’t take them seriously for three full quarters, the game might come down to a last-second field goal attempt—and for some reason, Nick Saban forgot to get a good kicker while picking up future NFL superstars to back up his other future NFL superstars. Out trots some underclassman who hasn’t attempted a clutch kick since high school. Maybe his try sails wide left, or falls a few yards short.

But not this season, because this version of Alabama even has a damn kicker. Will Reichard, ranked as the nation’s top kicker as a recruit, has drilled every field goal and extra point that he’s attempted. He’s perfect, just like the rest of this team. Give Luke a call and tell him the Empire sealed up the exhaust port on the Death Star. There’s no use fighting anymore. Grab a cold one, sit back, and watch your favorite planet get destroyed.

If you follow college football, you know that Alabama has been in the planetary destruction business for some time now. But this season the explosions have been prettier than ever. In the 2011 season, when the Crimson Tide won their second national championship under Saban, they led the nation in defense, allowing 8.2 points per game. But they ranked just 20th in scoring, putting up 34.8 points per game. That formula has flipped. Now Alabama scores nearly 50 points per game—48.2, to be exact—and allows 19.0 points per game, the second-best offense and the 13th-best defense in the country, respectively. (We’re gonna put an asterisk next to the second-best thing—Saban’s alma mater, Kent State, averaged 49.8 points per game in a four-game schedule that included some of the nation’s worst teams.) Bama has become an offensive juggernaut, and is increasingly likely to win via blowout—and less likely to slip up and lose.

For all of Bama’s perennial dominance, the Tide rarely have been perfect. If they win Monday night’s national championship game against Ohio State, they’ll finish 13-0—Bama’s first undefeated season since 2009. It has won four national titles since, but always while losing a game along the way. And unlike that 2009 team, this Alabama group is perfect-perfect. The 2009 Tide needed a last-second field goal block to beat Tennessee 12-10 and a last-minute touchdown to defeat Auburn 26-21. They experienced tense moments in the national title game against Texas despite the Longhorns losing starting quarterback Colt McCoy to injury early in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the 2020 Tide are winning games by an average of 29.2 points. They’ve trailed in the second half once, against Georgia; they’ve never trailed in the fourth quarter. So far, they’re Saban’s best team ever.

And they should beat Ohio State. At full strength, the Tide were listed as touchdown favorites over the Buckeyes on account of how dominant they have been. Yet Ohio State will not be at full strength. We don’t know exactly how many players will be out Monday because of COVID-19—one report indicated the Buckeyes “may currently have upwards of 20 positive tests.” But the game will go on, as Ohio State has not met the threshold for cancelation. The Buckeyes will try to beat a supersquad with a significantly depleted roster.

If Alabama wins, it’s fair to say that this is the best Alabama team of the Saban era—and one of the best teams in college football history. Since 1960, only nine teams have gone undefeated with an average margin of victory of at least 30 points. The teams on that list are the type that we talk about with reverence: 1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami, 2005 Texas. Last season’s LSU team—which had a convincing GOAT argument—had an average margin of victory of just 26.5. The 2013 Florida State team led by Jameis Winston went 14-0 with an average margin of victory of 39.5 points, but that team played the 63rd-toughest schedule in the country, according to ESPN’s FPI.

While some aspects of this pandemic season made going undefeated easier than in years past—teams played fewer games, and sometimes faced opponents who were unable to practice or field full rosters—one aspect made it harder: There was no nonconference play. In a typical season, Bama would play eight SEC games plus a ninth against a Power Five team. It would also play a few games against non-power-conference FBS teams and a late-season game against a team from the second-tier FCS. The result in these games is never in doubt. Alabama hasn’t lost a nonconference game since 2007, when it fell to Louisiana-Monroe in Nick Saban’s debut season in Tuscaloosa. Since then, the Tide are 37-0 in such games. In 2019, Bama won its four nonconference games, against Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, and Western Carolina, by a combined score of 219-23.

This season’s Alabama schedule includes 13 games against teams from power conferences. It had a 10-game SEC schedule, then the SEC title game against Florida and College Football Playoff games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. And even in SEC play, Alabama didn’t take on the conference’s two worst teams, 0-9 Vanderbilt and 2-8 South Carolina. The worst team Alabama played in 2020 was probably Mississippi State, which went 4-7 and beat American Athletic Conference runner-up Tulsa in a bowl game. Every one of the Tide’s games was against a top-70 team in ESPN’s SP+. It’s tough to gauge the relative pecking order of leagues this season, because there were so few nonconference games, but Bama’s opponents went 5-2 in bowl games with five wins over ranked foes. It sure seems like the SEC was college football’s best conference, and Bama didn’t sweat it.

Of course, the greatest teams in college football history are defined by having great players. It’s clear that Alabama’s players this season are the greatest in the country. Bama is led by DeVonta Smith, the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991. Quarterback Mac Jones finished third in Heisman voting, marking the first time two teammates finished in the top three since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart in 2005. It’s telling that Alabama was so good that voters weren’t sure whether they should vote for the star wide receiver who kept getting open or the star quarterback who kept hitting the wide-open receiver.

The Tide tied a record set by 2003 Oklahoma by producing five unanimous All-Americans: Smith, running back Najee Harris, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, center Landon Dickerson, and cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Of the 20 major player awards listed by ESPN, Alabama won 10 this season. It boasts the nation’s best receiver, best running back, best lineman, best center, and most versatile player. Bama even has the best long snapper, although I’m not fully sure how that award is decided. (I think Surtain was snubbed for best defensive back.) Just about the only position in which the Tide lacked an award finalist was punter, and that’s probably because they didn’t punt very often.

One other factor that helps measure a college team’s greatness is seeing how well their players fare in the pros. (Consider this the U’s metric.) And while we obviously can’t say how college players are going to turn out based on draft stock, Alabama is in good shape. We can safely expect Smith, Surtain, Leatherwood, and receiver Jaylen Waddle to be picked in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. Bama probably won’t hit the record of six first-rounders, set by Miami in 2004, but it’s within reach: Jones is getting first-round buzz; linebacker Dylan Moses and defensive lineman Christian Barmore are both projected as fringe first-rounders.

Maybe college football historians will look back at the 2020 season and try to parse where Alabama belongs in the all-time rankings; maybe they’ll look back and wonder why we even bothered. We’re nearly all the way through this season, and I still can’t wrap my head around a national championship game being played with an indeterminate amount of players out because of a pandemic. If Alabama beats Ohio State, the Tide will have completed a strange and extremely on-brand season. As the sport crumbled around them, they will have been more perfect than ever. The historic greatness of their campaign would be matched only by its historic strangeness. After Monday night, the debate could turn to whether this Bama group was the greatest of all time or merely the greatest of this time.