Repeating As National Champion Is Difficult

Even though college football doesn’t begin having games for nearly three months, rare is a day in June in which some service or publication or broadcast is not predicting the upcoming national champion. And almost always that reasonable choice is Ohio State, which was a surprise winner of the inaugural College Football Playoff last season.

Repeating, though, is not as easy as it might seem. Many national championship teams have returned key elements seeming to set up a repeat performance, only to fail.

What better history to look at than Alabama. After all, the Crimson Tide has 15 national championships to its credit and Bama has repeated more often than any other team. By the same token, because Bama has been in the position so many times, Alabama also has failed to repeat more than any other team.

The good news for Ohio State is that it can be done. And all of last year, including the Buckeyes’ humbling home loss to a sub-par Virginia Tech team, seems to have been forgotten after Coach Urban Meyers’ team romped over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, then dispatched Alabama in the Subar Bowl and Oregon in the title game.

One advantage for Ohio State going to the 2015 season is that the Buckeyes are not playing in the nation’s toughest conference. The Southeastern Conference champion, and this year even the Pac-12 title winner, will be considered to have had a much more difficult regular season. Even the Big 12 with Baylor and TCU is considered tougher than the Big Ten.

Last year Florida State went through the ACC undefeated headed for defense of its 2013 BCS national championship, but failed miserably in falling to Oregon at the Rose Bowl in the first round of the CFP.

That 2013 season was one in which Alabama was most disappointing in losing its regular season finale to Auburn and then getting bashed by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. That was a year in which the Crimson Tide was attempting – for the fourth time – to become the first team in college football history to win three national championships in succession. That is another area where Bama has failed the most often.

Three in a row, though, is a rare failure because it is so difficult to win two in a row and get into that three-peat position.

Alabama got its national championship reputation off to a good start with Rose Bowl wins. Although nine of Bama’s national championships were recognized by the Associated Press, the AP awards did not begin until 1936. Later United Press International began the Coaches Poll. It was the 1960s before those awards gained general acceptance as the most important college football national championships, which continued until the advent of the BCS era.

Coach Wallace Wade’s 1925 Crimson Tide was the first Southern team to be invited to the Rose Bowl after a 9-0 regular season. Bama was not given much chance against powerful Washington, but Alabama came out with a 20-19 victory that rocked the college footbal world. Wade’s 1926 team was one of four named national champion at the end of the regular season (along with Stanford, Navy, and Lafayette) and Bama returned to the Rose Bowl where the Tide and Stanford tied, 7-7.

Alabama’s try for a third consecutive title in 1927 wasn’t close, the Tide having only a 5-4-1 mark.

Alabama’s 1930 team, Wade’s last as head coach, went 10-0, including a 24-0 win over Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

The 1931 team, the first of Coach Frank Thomas, went 9-1, but a loss to Tennessee scuttled Rose Bowl hopes.

Thomas got his Rose Bowl championship in 1934, a 29-13 win over Stanford completing a 10-0 season. The 1935 team, though, was only 6-2-1, including a 7-7 tie with Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham. Years later an end on that ’35 Tide team would say that he was offsides on a winning Bama touchdown. The player was Paul Bryant.

Under the heading of “No good deed goes unpunished,” Alabama’s national championship legacy is tarnished by a claim for the 1941 Tide. That Bama team went 9-2 with losses to Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, but did gain some measure of respect with its scrappy 29-21 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M.

Alabama’s national championship success of the Wade and Thomas years was rekindled in a big way when Bryant, who returned as head coach of the Tide in 1958, promised his freshmen that if they would follow coaching instructions, they would win the national championship. Those freshmen as seniors went 11-0 and defeated Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1961 national championship.

The 1962 effort to repeat was a point short, Alabama losing by 7-6 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta in 1962.

In 1964, Bryant’s Tide went 10-0 in regular season to win the national championship, but then lost to Texas, 21-17, in the Orange Bowl. As a result, the AP decided that the next year it would begin awarding its national championship after the bowl games. That worked out perfectly for Alabama, which had suffered a loss and a tie in regular season play, but went up against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl following losses by the top two teams in earlier bowl games. Bama won 39-28 for its second consecutive national championship.

Alabama did all it could do to win a third consecutive national championship, but the AP changed its rules so that it could award its 1966 championship to Notre Dame. The so-called Fighting Irish had ended a tie game against Michigan State in cowardly fashion, but the votes were stacked for Notre Dame to win the AP championship. All Alabama had done was go 11-0, including a 34-7 romp over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, and outscore its opposition by 301-44.

The Coaches Poll continued to be based strictly on regular season games with bowl games considered a reward for a good season, not part of the season. That worked out well for Alabama in 1973. The Tide went 11-0 in regular season play and won the UPI national championship. Bama, however, lost to Notre Dame, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl, and the Irish took the AP award.

Alabama’s 1978 team lost a regular season game to USC, but came back to go 11-1, including a dramatic Sugar Bowl game against No. 1 ranked Penn State. Bama’s famous goalline stand secured the 14-7 win over Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions and the AP title.

The Tide rolled to a 12-0 record in 1979 to win the national championship. The 1980 team wouldn’t challenge for a third straight title with a 10-2 record, but the 1978 and 1979 championships had Bama followers looking back at 1977. That Alabama team had a played a killer schedule with non-conference games at Nebraska (a 31-14 loss), at No. 1 USC (a 21-20 Tide win), vs. Louisville and Miami in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama and Bryant romped over Ohio State and Woody Hays, 35-6, in the Sugar Bowl and after Texas lost to Notre Dame, Bama was the highest ranking bowl team to win. Against any other competition, Alabama might have been awarded that title, but it went to Notre Dame, which poll vaulted from fifth to first in the closest ever voting in the AP Poll.

Alabama would not win another national championship until 1992 when Gene Stallings’ Crimson Tide won the first ever SEC Championship Game over Florida and then defeated No. 1 Miami and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, 34-13, in the Sugar Bowl.

NCAA distractions may have ruined a 1993 season that had only a 9-3-1 on-the-field record.

When the arrival of Nick Saban prior to the 2007 season, Alabama got back on the national championship path.

In his third season, Saban helped the Tide to perhaps its greatest overall year ever. Bama went 14-0, defeated No. 1 Florida in the SEC Championship Game, crowned Mark Ingram as the Heisman Trophy winner, and defeated Texas, 37-21, in the Rose Bowl to win the 2009 national championship.

Much like Ohio State this year, Alabama seemed the prohibitive favorite to repeat in 2010. That lineup included not just Ingram returning, but also quarterback Greg McElroy, wide receiver Julio Jones, offensive linemen James Carpenter, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, and D.J. Fluker, and defensive stars Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dee Milliner. That Tide team lost three SEC games before finally getting it together in the Capital One Bowl, dismantling Michigan State, 49-7.

The Tide was, indeed, back on track for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2011, Alabama lost an overtime heart-breaker to LSU, 9-6, but Bama more than made up for it when the teams were re-matched for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama dominated with a 21-0 win and took the 2011 crown with a 12-1 record.

The 2012 national championship was also quite rewarding since it came with a decisive 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Alabama had defeated Georgia to win the SEC Championship before crushing the Irish for its second consecutive national championship, third under Saban, and 15th overall.

Unfortunately, the 2013 Tide was unable to win at Auburn after having been ranked first in the nation up until the last game of regular season play. The two touchdown loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was more disappointment.

So feel free to predict a repeat national championship for Ohio State, but it may not happen.


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