Alabama opens the 2015 season Saturday against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas, and although there have been many steps to get to this point – recruiting, off-season work, spring practice, fall camp, etc. – the nuts and bolts of winning championships is winning football games.
Think Alabama and it’s reasonable to think National Champions. After all, Crimson Tide teams have won 15 national crowns, more than any other team. Coach Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have won three of the last six national championships.
But along the road to the national championship is the Southeastern Conference championship. That, too, has been dominated by Bama.
Alabama has won 24 SEC crowns. The next two teams, Tennessee with 13 and Georgia with 12, have won a combined 25.
Legendary Alabama Coach Paul Bryant early on made his team’s goal the national championship, and no coach ever did it better. In his 25 years as head coach of the Crimson Tide, Bama won six national championships. Bryant said it was his feeling that if Alabama was in contention for the national championship, the SEC Championship would take care of itself.
That was pretty accurate. Bryant had an all-time best record of 137-28-5 in SEC games in his quarter of a century at Alabama. (He is also Kentucky’s best football coach ever with a record of 22-18-4 in his with years with the Wildcats.)
And Bryant won 13 SEC championships at Alabama (and, perhaps nearly as impressive, one at Kentucky).
Things were different in Bryant’s day, however. There was no SEC Championship Game and no College Football Playoff. The SEC title was based on the record in league games and the polls named a national champion – before the bowl games in three, after the bowl games in three.
And Bryant could say the SEC championship would take care of itself because it had only marginal importance in making it to a de facto national championship game. The important thing was to be ranked among the best teams, preferably first, and then win the bowl game.
There was also the matter of Bryant’s power in manipulating the bowl games in Alabama’s best interest. That was because the Crimson Tide and Bryant had the star power in college football and the major bowls in which Bama could play – Sugar, Orange, Cotton – fell over themselves in hopes of landing the biggest names in college football.
Alabama and Saban today are the gold standard in college football, but to make it to the national championship game the Crimson Tide almost certainly has to win the SEC Championship. True, Alabama made it against the odds in the old BCS era in 2011 when Bama had lost to LSU in overtime in the regular season and the Fighting Tigers earned the bid to the SEC Championship Game. But Alabama got a reprieve with the BCS selection rematching Bama and LSU in the Sugar Bowl, and the Tide proved its worthiness with a convincing 21-0 win and the national crown.
There still are chances for a national championship without winning the conference title, but the CFP selection committee is likely to be hard to convince to put a non-champion into the four-team playoff.
What, then, does Alabama have to do to win this year’s SEC Championship?
Obviously, the easy answer is win all its games. But remember that Alabama has been judged to have not only the nation’s most difficult schedule, but also – by far – the toughest road of any SEC team to the conference championship.
In all likelihood, if Alabama can do what it did last year, that will be good enough. The Tide went 7-1 in regular season play (a six-point loss at Ole Miss the one setback), and then defeated Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. Behind Alabama in SEC Western Division play last year were Mississippi State at 6-2, Mississippi at 5-3, and Auburn and LSU at 4-4.