College Football Playoff: This Alabama team might be the best ever (if it beats Clemson)

ESPN announcer Chris Fowler: "It would be right up there in the greatest seasons we've ever seen."
Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) and Terry Saban, laugh with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, during the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game trophy presentation, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama defeated Oklahoma 45-34. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) and Terry Saban, laugh with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, during the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game trophy presentation, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama defeated Oklahoma 45-34. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Published January 7

Nick Saban's Alabama dynasty has made it too easy to take historic accomplishments for granted.

If the No. 1 Crimson Tide is able to top No. 2 Clemson in in tonight's College Football Playoff national championship, it'll be Alabama's sixth title in 10 seasons. The seventh title of Saban's career would move him past Bear Bryant for the most ever.

Here's one more superlative at stake in Santa Clara, Calif.: If the Tide triumphs, this 'Bama team can make a case as the No. 1 team not just of Saban's run but of all time.

"For me, I mean, it's up there," ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said. "It would be right up there in the greatest seasons we've ever seen — certainly a contender for the No. 1 spot in my view."

The numbers

It's really hard to go undefeated. Not only can 'Bama do so, but a victory would put the Tide alongside 1894 Yale and 1897 Penn as the only teams ever to finish perfect seasons with at least 15 wins.

'Bama hasn't only won its games; it has dominated them. The Tide won its first 12 games by at least 20 points each. The last team to accomplish such a feat? Yale in 1888. In the modern era, the only Division I-A team that has came close was 2002 Boise State, which won 10 consecutive games by 20 or more points.

Alabama has outscored its opponents by an average of 31.5 points per game. That doesn't come close to the record — Army outscored its opponents by 52 points per game in 1944 — but only three national champions this century have had higher margins of victory: 2013 Florida State (39.5), 2005 Texas (33.8) and 2001 Miami (32.9). The Tide's schedule was the toughest of the bunch with six opponents ranked in the final CFP top 25 and two (Oklahoma and Georgia) in the top five.

College Football Reference tries to quantify a team's success through its simple rating system, which measures a team's point differential against its strength of schedule. Using that metric, Alabama (27.13) has the highest number of any team since 1974 Oklahoma (27.8).

The talent

Although this isn't Saban's best defense, it's easily his best offense. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa passed Oklahoma's Kyler Murray in the Orange Bowl for the highest single-season passing efficiency ever (205.19).

It's not just Tagovailoa. Three different receivers rank among the top 35 nationally in yards per catch. The offensive line was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best unit in the country. The Tide might have the NFL draft's top defensive tackle (Quinnen Williams), offensive tackle (Jonah Williams), safety (Deionte Thompson) and inside linebacker (Mack Wilson).

The opponent

As impressive as Alabama is, Clemson might not be far off.

The Tigers have outscored opponents by 31.4 points per game —one-tenth of a point behind the Tide. Clemson is also 14-0 with an elite quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) and historically talented defensive line. All of that would make a 'Bama win even more impressive and bolster its status.

The coach

Regardless of what happens Monday, Saban already deserves to be called the best coach in college football history.

"I think you do have to have a much broader perspective throughout the history of sports to see where he would rank," Fowler said.

That means leaving college football and putting Saban in the pantheon of all sports, alongside legends like John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson.

In some ways, this team shows Saban's growth and greatness; the defensive mastermind is winning with offense. Despite facing three of the nation's top 15 scoring defenses, the Tide is averaging more points (47.7 per game) than any team in SEC history.

Here's the scary part: Saban just signed his best recruiting class, where the only player who wasn't a blue-chip talent was the nation's top kicker.

"We've never seen anything like this," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "It's not slowing down."

Which means even if this year's Tide finishes as historically good, next year's team might be even better.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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