Alabama has 15 national football championships from which to choose, so it’s an arduous – albeit, fortuitous -- task. After all, isn’t a national championship so special that all are terrific?
Yes they are; but not all are equal.
For instance, Alabama’s 1973 national championship was based on regular season play only in the Coaches Poll conducted by United Press International, but by then (primarily because of Alabama) the Associated Press had decided its national championship would be determined after bowl games had been played. (And the AP might has well have added, “as long as it doesn’t adversely affect Notre Dame.”)
Bama’s 1973 team lost its bowl game to Notre Dame, and so even though the Crimson Tide has that UPI National Championship, it is a bit hollow because of the bowl loss. On the other hand, Alabama’s 2012 team, ranked second in the nation going into the BCS National Championship Game in the Orange Bowl, trounced Notre Dame, 42-14, for the Tide’s second consecutive national championship.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to leave out national championship teams. Bama’s first national title team under Coach Wallace Wade came with a 20-19 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl, the first time a Southern team had been invited to Pasadena.
No Bama list would be complete without a Rose Bowl appearance. Fortunately, Alabama had a later one that included all the elements to make the Top Four.
The first Alabama bowl game I ever saw in person, the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1965 season, is difficult to leave off my list of four. That was the first year the AP decided to wait until after bowl games to choose the national champion. Bama defeated Nebraska and claimed its second consecutive national championship and third under Paul Bryant.
In 1958, Bryant told his first batch of recruited players that it they would do what Bryant told them, they would win the national championship. Four years later, in 1961, those players were seniors and went 11-0 and won Bryant’s first national title.
It was not hard to leave off the 1941 team. One of these days Alabama may erase this one from the Crimson Tide list. That Tide team lost to Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in regular season play and was extraordinarily lucky to beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps it received a national title because of patriotism. Immediately following the game, members of both the winning Tide and losing Aggies teams lined up to be sworn into the military for service in World War II.
Just to recap, the nominees are:
Under Coach Wallace Wade, the 1925, 1926, and 1930 teams. Under Coach Frank Thomas, the teams of 1934 and 1941. Under Coach Paul Bryant, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979. Under Coach Gene Stallings the 1992 team. And under Coach Nick Saban the 2009, 2011, and 2012 teams.
The category “Four Best National Championship Teams” by our reckoning does not necessarily mean that these are the four most talented teams. This completely subjective ranking is based on things such as how and where and (because all depended on a bowl win) against what team.
Our four in order of achievement:
The 1978 Crimson Tide faced off against top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl in one of the most tense games ever played. The stakes were as high as they get for Alabama’s Bryant and Nittany Lions Coach Joe Paterno. Moreover, the game included an iconic moment, the extraordinary goal line stand by Alabama’s defense. In a game in which it seemed that one play could decide the outcome, Bama had three great ones in a row – Don McNeal making a touchdown-saving tackle at the one-yard line and then the Tide’s defensive front stopping Penn State runs from that point on consecutive downs.
Almost no one gave Alabama a chance against top-ranked Miami and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Toretta in the Sugar Bowl to end the 1992 season. Excepts to those doubters included Gene Stallings, Defensive Coordinator Bill Oliver, and Bama players. The Crimson Tide thoroughly out-played what was expected to be a far superior Hurricanes team and completed and undefeated season – including the first ever Southeastern Conference Championship Game – with a 34-13 victory. Safety George Teague had a terrific game, including the unforgettable takeaway from Miami star receiver Lamar Thomas to save a touchdown.
Nick Saban’s third Alabama team made it to the mountaintop. The 14-0 Crimson Tide thrashed top-ranked Florida, 32-13, before taking on Texas in the Rose Bowl – where Alabama tradition could be said to have begun – for the BCS National Championship. Alabama’s 14 victims include six nationally-ranked teams as Mark Ingram became the first Crimson Tide player to win the Heisman Trophy.
There was some grousing (not from Bama fans) over Alabama’s 2011 national championship when the Tide shut out LSU, 21-0, in the Sugar Bowl to win the title. No one could question the 2012 championship, though. Alabama won the SEC Championship with what was probably the most competitive game of the entire national post-season by holding on to defeat number three Georgia. Bama then went to South Florida to take on undefeated and number one ranked Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the BCS title.
It was a massacre.
No one in the Crimson Tide camp will be surprised if an upcoming Alabama team doesn’t add to the list of national championships, perhaps earning one that ranks among the top four.