Mark Packer has an interesting call-in radio show in the Sirius college sports (Channel 84) afternoon time slot. On a slow news day, he came up with a thought-provoking question for his listeners:
What was the best (fill in the name of your favorite college) team ever?
That is a more difficult question for some schools than others, and Alabama might be at the top of the list for the tough choice.
In the case of the Crimson Tide, it starts with the national championships. As Packer pointed out, players get bigger and stronger and faster with every generation and so the comparison basis of “best” would logically be best of its time.
Still, we can pretty much take out of the conversation those early national championships – which were awarded based on Rose Bowl success – primarily because there is no one around who remembers them. Alabama also besmirches its national championship legacy with the unfortunate claim of the 1941 title. Not even Don Salls – a halfback on that team thought to be the oldest living former Alabama football player – would be likely to claim that squad as Bama’s best.
Thus, the candidates come from the teams of Paul Bryant (1958-82), Gene Stallings (1990-96), and Nick Saban (2007-present).
The candidates would include the national championship teams:
Alabama 1961 was composed in great part of the first class recruited by Bryant when he returned to Alabama, inheriting a program that had gone winless in the season prior to his arrival and had only four wins in the three years previous to Bryant’s arrival. That 11-0 team finished the regular season with five consecutive shutouts, outscored opponents 297-25, and included such stars as Lee Roy Jordan, Billy Neighbors, Pat Trammel, Bill Battle, Tommy Brooker, and Mike Fracchia.
Alabama 1964 went 10-0 in regular season play and the national championship was awarded only on the basis of regular season games that year. That team had Joe Namath at quarterback, though he was somewhat lame by the time faced Texas in the Orange Bowl. Steve Sloan was his backup, and the team included the likes of Ray Perkins, Paul Crane, Gaylon McCullough, Creed Gilmer, Les Kelly, and Steve Bowman. That team’s one blemish was the controversial 21-17 loss to Texas in Miami when officials ultimately ruled that Namath’s quarterback sneak had come up short of the end zone.
The Associated Press decided to change its rules for Alabama 1965, and it worked out just fine. The AP said it would wait until after the bowl games to decide its national champion. It had been a relatively rough year for Bama with a controversial loss (18-17 at Georgia) to start the season and Kenny Stabler’s infamous fourth-down-stop-the-clock play that allowed Tenessee to tie the Tide 7-7. But at the end of the year, Alabama was ranked fourth in the nation, Nebraska third, Arkansas second, and Michigan State first.
On New Year’s Day, Arkansas lost in the Cotton Bowl to LsU, Michigan State was beaten in the Rose Bowl by UCLA, and the evening game matching the Tide and Cornhuskers was an historic national championship game. Alabama won by 39-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score to win its second consecutive championship and third in the fifth season of the eight-year Bryant era. Steve Sloan, Ray Perkins, Jerry Duncan, Cecil Dowdy, Tim Bates, Tom Somerville, John Mosley, and Bobby Johns were among the Tide stars.
Alabama 1973 was the third year of the wishbone under Bryant and the offense was starting to click. Bama opened the season with a 66-0 win over California, put up a record-setting 77-6 win over Virginia Tech, and closed regular season play with a 35-0 win over Auburn for an 11-0 record as the Tide would outscore its opponents by 477-113. United Press International still based its national championship on regular season games only, and Alabama had that one. In one of the greatest Sugar Bowl games ever played, though, the Fighting Irish came out with a 24-23 win and took the AP trophy.
The list of stars on that 1973 team is a long one, including Gary Rutledge, Richard Todd, Sylvester Croom, Wilbur Jackson, Buddy Brown, Wayne Wheeler, John Croyle, Mike DuBose, Woodrow Lowe, Mike Washington, Ricky Davis, and David McMakin.
Alabama 1978 played in another great Sugar Bowl and this time with a better result, primarily because of one of the great goal line stands in college football history. The Tide had been upset by Southern Cal early in the season, but rebounded with a 10-1 record and had risen to No. 2 in the polls and matched against Joe Paterno’s No. 1 Penn State Nittany Lions in New Orleans.
That team is remembered almost exclusively for its 14-7 win in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship, but Alabama had also beaten the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, and Washington on the road. In the Sugar Bowl, the Lions had driven to a first-and-goal. Cornerback Don McNeal was first star of the goalline stand with an unbelievable tackle at the one. It was then turned over to the front seven of the defense, led by Barry Krauss, to stop the Lions on two runs from the one.
That team included, in addition to McNeal and Krauss, Dwight Stephenson, Jim Bunch, Jeff Rutledge, Tony Nathan, Major Ogilvie, Steve Whitman, Marty Lyons, E.J. Junior, and Murray Legg.
Alabama 1979 left no doubt as to the nation’s top team, starting the season at No. 2 and moving to No. 1 by midseason in an 11-0 season. The Tide had outscored its opponents by an average score of 33-5 with the only scare a 3-0 win over LSU on a wet field in Baton Rouge. The Tide provided Bryant with his sixth and final national championship with a 24-9 win over an Arkansas team coached by Lou Holtz.
Ohio State had moved ahead of Alabama in the final poll following regular season play, but the Buckeyes lost in the Rose Bowl to Southern Cal to make Bama’s title official.
Steadman Shealy had taken over at quarterback in 1979, but the team had many of the same stars who had been on the 1978 team, including Dwight Stephenson, Jim Bunch, Major Ogilvie, Steve Whitman, E.J. Junior, and Don McNeal, and had added the likes of Billy Jackson, Randy Scott, Thomas Boyd, and Tommy Wilcox.
Alabama 1992 was an extraordinary national championship season under Gene Stallings. There was reason to expect Bama to be good after an 11-1 1991 season, but those expectations were tempered by the one loss of the previous season, a 35-0 shellacking at Florida. As it turned out, the 1992 season would be historic with the first ever Southeastern Conference Championship Game, held in Birmingham and pitting Bama against Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators. Bama was ranked second in the nation and a win over Florida would send the Tide to the Sugar Bowl to face the Gino Torreta-led Miami Hurricanes, the unanimous No. 1 team and a prohibitive favorite to win the national championship. Alabama ran its record to 12-0 when Antonio Langham intercepted a Florida pass and returned it for a game-winning (28-21) touchdown.
In New Orleans, the Alabama defense of Coach Bill Oliver completely destroyed the Hurricanes as Bama completed its first ever 13-win season with a 34-13 win. George Teague was spectacular with a dramatic take-away from Lamar Thomas on what would have been a Miami TD and Teague also returning an interception for an Alabama touchdown. The defensive front led by John Copeland and Eric Curry held Miami to only 48 yards rushing, 47 of them on an inconsequential late game drive. Although quarterback Jay Barker was only 4-13 for 18 yards with 2 interceptions in that game, he was a steady leader of a Tide team that included Derrick Owens-Lassic, David Palmer, Martin Houston, Copeland, Curry, Teague, and Langham.
Alabama 2009 completed the rapid rebuild of Crimson Tide football under Nick Saban. He arrived for the 2007 season, taking over a team that had finished 6-7 and ended with the firing of Mike Shula in 2006. After a 7-6 record that first year, Saban’s second team finished regular season play 11-0 before losing in the SEC title game to Florida and in the Sugar Bowl to Utah. And his third team could be considered to have been the most accomplished in modern Alabama football history. That 2009 squad completed a second straight undefeated regular season, then defeated Tim Tebow-led and Urban Meyer-coached No. 1 Florida, 32-13, in the SEC Championship Game.
That sent Alabama, with its first Heisman Trophy winner in Mark Ingram, to the site of the start of Tide greatness, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The BCS National Championship Game matched two of the bluebloods of college football in Alabama and Texas, and the Tide was a 37-21 winner, completing a 14-0 season.
Greg McElroy quarterbacked an offense that included Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones, and Barrett Jones, while the defensive stars were Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, Mark Barron, Javier Arenas, Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, and Kareem Jackson.
Alabama 2011 got that bit of luck that national championship teams sometimes need. After losing a 9-6 overtime game to LSU in regular season play, Bama was out of the SEC Championship Game and likely out of the BCS title game. But when No. 2 Oklahoma State lost at weak sister Iowa State in the final week of regular season play, the Tide bounced up to No. 2 to set up a rematch with No. 1 LSU in the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans. Alabama’s defense held the Tigers to just 92 total yards and five first downs with only one brief trip over midfield. Jeremy Shelley kicked five field goals and Trent Richardson went 34 yards to complete the scoring in Bama’s 21-0 win.
AJ McCarron was quarterback of a team that included Richardson, Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, and Marquis Maze and a defense featuring Dont’a Hightower, Jesse Williams, Josh Chapman, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Alabama 2012 suffered a late-season 29-24 loss to Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s signature college game and fell to fourth in the polls with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. But back-to-back 49-0 wins, including one over Auburn, moved Bama back to No. 2. In a dramatic SEC Championship Game against Georgia, the Tide emerged with a 32-28 win and a date with undefeated and No. 1 ranked Notre Dame in the BCS title game in Miami. It was men against boys and Alabama dominated in every phase in a 42-14 win. Bama went on three long drives on its first three possessions and had a 28-0 halftime lead. Bama put up 28 first downs and 529 yards in the mismatch with AJ McCarron completing 20-28 passes for 264 yards and 4 touchdowns and Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both rushing for over 100 yards.
This complete team had an offensive line of Cyrus Kouandjio, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker with Amaric Cooper, McCarron, Lacy and Yeldon, and a defense featuring C.J. Mosley, Trey Depriest, Nico Johnson, Dee Milliner, HaHa Clinton-Dix, and Vinnie Sunseri.
Alabama 2015 lost to Ole Miss for the second consecutive season, but the Tide rebounded to an 11-1 regular season record, including upset wins over Georgia, Texas A&M, and LSU. Bama then defeated Florida in the SEC Championship Game, rushed Michigan State, 38-0, in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff in the Cotton Bowl, and won the national title in Phoenix with a 45-40 win over No. 1 Clemson.
Alabama had its second Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry, who rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns, Jake Coker at quarterback, Kenyan Drake, Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard (offensive MVP of the title game), Cam Robinson, Ryan Kelly, Jonathan Allen, Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, and Eddie Jackson (defensive MVP of the Clemson game).
A case can be made that some other Alabama team might be the best ever, even though denied the national championship. Again, not assessing the undefeated Rose Bowl champions of 1925, 1926, 1930, and 1945, reasonable nominees include:
Last year’s Alabama team came within seconds of the 2016 national championship. The Tide opened the season with a 52-6 win over eventual Rose Bowl champion Southern Cal, went undefeated through the 12-0 regular season, trounced Florida 54-16 in the SEC Championship Game, and downed Washington 24-7 in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
When freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts dashed 30 yards for a touchdown to five Alabama a 31-28 lead over Clemson with just over two minutes to play in the championship game in Tampa, it seemed possible Bama would finish with a 15-0 record and another championship. But the Tigers made a championship drive behind Deshaun Watson to score the winning TD with a second to play.
Alabama had some back luck with tailback Bo Scarbrough being injured in the game, but he and Damien Harris had given Alabama a fine rushing tandem all season. Defensive end Jonathan Allen was perhaps Bama’s most decorated player ever and was joined in national awards by Reuben Foster and Cam Robinson. ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard, Jonah Williams, DaRon Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Shaun Dion Hamilton were among other top players.
Bryant has been reported as saying that the 1966 Alabama team was the best he ever had (although if he said that it was likely before his wishbone era starting in 1971). There were so many things wrong with that 1966 team not winning the national championship. Going for a third consecutive national championship, Alabama was preseason No. 1 and went undefeated in regular season play with six shutouts among its 10 wins. Bama fell to No. 2 behind Michigan State in the second week, and eventually fell to fourth while Notre dame rose from eighth in week one to first in the fifth week, passing four undefeated teams.
In the 10th week of the season, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State, met. Late in the game with the score 10-10, Notre Dame elected to run out the clock, satisfied with a tie. Its reward? The Irish strengthened their hold on No. 1.
The AP was more than satisfied with this as the wire service reversed its one-year-old policy about waiting until after bowl games to make a national championship decision. That was because Notre Dame didn’t participate in bowl games at the time and Michigan State would be ineligible under an unusual Big Ten rule.
Alabama finished the regular season as the nation’s only undefeated, untied team and went to the Sugar Bowl to play once-beaten Nebraska. Bama rushed the Cornhuskers, 34-7, but the national championship game had been rigged against the Tide.
Ken Stabler was the Tide’s leading rusher and passer with Ray Perkins and Dennis Homan the wide receivers and Les Kelly the tailback. Cecil Dowdy and Jerry Duncan were top linemen, while the defense was led by Louis Thompson, Richard Cole, Mike Ford, Wayne Owen, Bob Childs, and Bobby Johns.
Alabama 1971 was following back-to-back six-win seasons by the Tide, and there were rumors that Bryant might be thinking about retirement. Instead, Bryant made a monumental change, adopting the wishbone offense and installing it in August camp. That was particularly noteworthy because Alabama was going to open the season against Southern Cal in Los Angeles, and many expected the Trojans to win the national championship.
Instead, Alabama unveiled its new offense, upset Southern Cal 17-10, and went on to an undefeated regular season and a No. 2 national ranking. The season included ending the regular season with a 31-7 win over previously undefeated Auburn, led by Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan.
The storybook season came to an end against one of the great teams in college football history when Nebraska won the national championship with a 38-6 win over Bama in the Orange Bowl.
That team restored the Crimson Tide to national prominence and Bryant would say later that he wanted to be remembered by Alabama fans for having rebuilt Bama two times.
Stars of that team included Johnny Musso, John Hannah, Terry Davis, David Bailey, Jim Krapf, Buddy Brown, Robin Parkhouse, John Mitchell, Jeff Rouzie, and Steve Higginbotham.
We would agree with an Alabama fan choosing any of the above. Our choice, though, would be another team that was denied the national championship.
The 1977 Alabama team had a tough schedule, including non-conference road games at Nebraska and No. 1 Southern Cal and home games against Louisville and Miami. Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge would suffer only five interceptions that season, but all five came in the second game of the season at Lincoln and Bama lost a 31-24 game to Nebraska. The Tide got back into national championship contention with a 21-20 over USC and the Tide had moved up to second in the nation after beating Auburn in the final regular season game.
The big news of the bowl season was that Alabama, with Bryant having the most wins of any axtive coach, going against Ohio State with its coach Woody Hays ranking second in active coaching victories in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama trounced the Buckeyes, 35-6, and when No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 1 Texas fell in bowl games, the chances for another Tide national championship looked good. But once again, the voters favored Notre Dame, which went from fifth to first with its win over Texas.
The Irish had suffered a loss in regular season to Ole Miss, a team Alabama had beaten by 34-13. One might have thought Alabama fans would be used to the apparent bias in the polls, but all that final ranking did was harden the disappointment.
Alabama players included Ozzie Newsome, Dwight Stephenson, Tony Nathan, Johnny Davis, Jeff Rutledge, Bob Cryder, Lou Green, Jim Bunch, Marty Lyons, Barry Krauss, Don McNeal, Terry Jones, Dewey Mitchell, David Hannah, and Murray Legg. A number of the 1977 players would be a part of national title teams in 1978 and 1979.
And even though we agree with the premise that the players of 40 years ago wouldn’t measure up physically to the players of today, with Paul Bryant coaching that 1977 team…