Thursday, August 07, 2014

Autonomy and What I Think It Means for College Football

The so-called Power 5 conferences received autonomy today from the NCAA Division I Board of Directors (although it still has to go to a member vote). In effect, this frees the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 to create their own rules within the NCAA structure and most likely prevents the Power 5 from breaking away entirely.

For folks who don’t follow college football closely, this appears to be a move to allow large college football programs to give some money to players, in the form of stipends, and that is certainly part of what’s going on here. However, the long-term impact to college football is still largely unknown. Let’s take a look at how we got here and what I think the future holds for America’s second largest sport.

Three major factors brought us here today. The first is television. College football fans my age and older remember the days when ABC carried a game of the week on Saturdays, or maybe two. Now nearly every major college game can be seen on any number of outlets during the season, not only on Saturdays, but Thursdays, Fridays, and Tuesdays as well. It might surprise you to learn that we owe this development not only to the proliferation of cable television, but also to the Supreme Court.

In 1984, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that the NCAA’s limitation of television rights was a restraint of trade – basically a monopoly. The NCAA argued that it was protecting football stadium attendance by limiting the appearance of university teams on television. The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia Athletic Association disagreed, and sued the NCAA. The Court sided with the universities. Stripping the NCAA of its ability to control television rights not only led to the ability of conferences to negotiate their own deals, but also began a proliferation of the product, culminating in increased viewership, a surge in the sport’s popularity, and huge television contracts.

Secondly, these big money contracts began coming in at the same time that a growing body of research began to reveal to the general public that head injuries were much more common and dangerous than previously believed. Memory problems, degenerative brain diseases, and a number of otherwise unexplained suicides among several high-profile former football players appeared to be tied to repetitive brain injuries sustained during play years, and even decades, prior. The research also showed that small, repeated blows to the head, such as any number of football players would sustain during a game, could have the same long-term effects as repeated severe concussions.

As it became clear to casual fans of the game that football could be much more detrimental to the athletes who played it than previously believed, the inequities of NCAA regulations became more and more odious. How could it be fair that universities like Texas, Alabama, and Notre Dame were earning tens of millions of dollars in profits, and paying their coaches obscene amounts of money, while NCAA rules prevented the athletes who played the game from controlling their own images or earning any revenue of their own from their play? Wasn’t this another example of the NCAA exerting a restraint of trade?

Finally, lawsuits like the EA Sports Video Game case and the threat of legislative action by Congress forced major universities to start discussing providing additional value to college athletes beyond that of a sometimes farcical college education. Some schools and conferences began guaranteeing four-year scholarships to the athletes, rather than the typical one-year renewable deal. The major conferences then proposed changing NCAA rules to provide $2000 stipends to college athletes in addition to their scholarships. However, the smaller schools in Division I blocked this proposal.

All of that brought us to this day. Rather than splitting off completely from the NCAA - which provides some modicum of legitimacy, not to mention tax-exempt status, to its members – the Power 5 worked to separate themselves from the small schools, which claimed not to be able to afford stipends. The arrangement, if approved, would provide a means for major schools to create their own sets of rules, which smaller schools could decide to follow, or not. So, what does this mean for the future of college football?

1. The end of “BCS-Busters”

Of course, with the advent of the college football playoff, the BCS is dead anyway. However, my point is about the teams that were often labeled BCS-busters – minor conference teams that appeared to have a chance to compete for a national title. Boise State, TCU, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Utah, and a handful of other teams have risen to national prominence in the last decade or so, finishing with undefeated regular seasons and facing off against a major conference opponent in a Bowl game. While none of them won a national title, the college football playoff at least gives teams like that a real shot, right?

Well, it might, if not for autonomy.

See, the BCS-Buster schools were “busters” precisely because they weren’t part of the six (at that time) major conferences that had formed the BCS. These schools, as members of minor conferences like the Mountain West and the MAC, had to basically finish with perfect seasons and hope that they could qualify for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl. That’s still theoretically possible, but not likely.
To see why, first, look at what happened to those teams.
  • Boise State – Tried hard to convince the Pac-12 to invite them. However, relatively poor academics and a tiny television market made that a nonstarter.
  • TCU – Joined the Big 12 after Texas A&M left for the SEC.
  • Louisville – Joined the ACC after Maryland left for the Big Ten.
  • Cincinnati – Relegated to the American conference after the Big East imploded, it has been rumored as a candidate for Big 12 expansion, if the Big 12 actually goes to twelve teams.
  • West Virginia – Invited to the Big 12.
  • Utah – Invited to the Pac-12.
So, the lucky ones got swallowed up by major conferences during the realignment of 2010-2013. The Big 6 became the Power 5, and a few more schools got left out of the process. Now, assume that the Power 5 conferences go ahead and vote to offer stipends covering the full cost of tuition to all student-athletes. Right now, a proposed sum of $5000 per athlete is being bandied about. The minor schools have no big television money to keep up with the Power 5 and cover that cost. Keep in mind that only around 25-30 university athletic departments even operate in the black today, and then add another one or two million dollars a year in expenses. Schools like Alabama can absorb that without batting an eye. Schools like Fresno State cannot.

And if you are a star athlete, the majority of whom are not wealthy by any means, and you could choose between a school that can offer you a scholarship and a school that offers you a scholarship plus five grand a year, what would you do? There was never a level playing field, but the rules were at least the same for everyone in Division I. Now they won’t be, and there’s every reason to think that the minor schools will be less competitive.

2. UAB will die.

Ok, not really. But teams that are at the fringe of the Football Bowl Subdivision, like UAB, will likely drop out of the FBS, or stop playing football altogether. In recent years, a number of schools, like UAB, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, and Texas State, have joined the FBS, latching on to the same division that boasts major traditional powers like Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and of course, Alabama. The idea is that by competing with the major powers, revenue, attendance, and competitiveness will increase.

This has largely gone poorly for these teams, who had a hard time competing on the same field with established teams. To compete in FBS requires certain stadium attendance levels that can be difficult for new members to meet. Major college football is expensive too, and without major television revenue, the major conferences are distancing themselves from their smaller brethren. The separation of the Power 5 into, what for all intents and purposes is another division, makes it highly unlikely that many of these fringe programs will be able to justify the continued experiment to trustees and alumni.

That’s not to say that there won’t be an upset now and then. At least a couple of times a season an FCS school will knock off a major college opponent, but these occasions are memorable precisely because they are rare. FCS schools are less competitive because they are limited to 63 scholarship players per team (as opposed to 85 for FBS schools). What would keep the Power 5 schools from expanding that number for themselves in the future? In the past, the smaller schools prevented that from happening. Now, they could not stop it.

3. Major college football will become semi-professional.

This is the one I am dreading. No one would argue that NFL football is played at a higher level of talent than college football. After all, only the best college players make it to the pros. However, another difference between college and pro games is discernable to anyone who can hear. Last season people marveled at the crowds at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks’ “12th Man” gives them a decided home-field advantage. The reason it was so remarkable is that it is so rare in NFL football. What seems fairly normal to SEC football fans – loud, raucous crowds screaming and cheering for three solid hours – is almost nonexistent in the NFL. Although it isn’t exclusively true, many college football fans spent years attending their alma maters. They have memories and friendships that tie them to the school. They don’t have to worry about their favorite team leaving town, or their favorite player leaving to play for more money somewhere else.

The fallout of the Northwestern football team’s vote on whether or not to unionize, regardless of what the outcome will finally turn out to be, has altered the landscape of college football. If the National Labor Relations Board upholds an official’s ruling that scholarship football players are employees, then they willnot only have the right to unionize, but may be entitled to workers compensation benefits, unemployment insurance, and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.

It would be hard to argue, in light of the potential for catastrophic, life-altering injuries and long-term disabilities from playing football, that these players don’t deserve at least the opportunity to decide to unionize. In their best incarnations, unions protect workers from abuse and exploitation. However, the natural progression of this might mean free agency, contract disputes, and work stoppages. Can you imagine the Alabama-West Virginia game being delayed or cancelled by a players’ strike? Or having a group of non-scholarship walk-ons playing the game while the scholarship players sit out? It has happened before in all the major professional sports, and there’s little reason to believe it couldn’t happen here.

One might argue that the decision on autonomy is an effort to stave this off, allowing schools to address some player complaints by sharing revenues above and beyond the cost of scholarships. But I’m afraid that the genie is already out of the bottle, and college football will be completely unrecognizable in the next decade or two, assuming it even still exists.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Alabama and the 15 National Championships, Part II

Part I

In the first part of this series, I reviewed Alabama's fifteen claimed national championships, including the season results and how Alabama arrived at that number.  In my opinion, fourteen of those titles are very hard to dispute, although the 1941 championship is pretty dubious.  The College Football Data Warehouse (CFDW) web site, agrees that Alabama has 14 "recognized" national championships, but lists 28 total.  So, if Alabama claims fifteen of those titles, what about the other thirteen?  Are any of those titles "legitimate?"

Everyone knows that the BCS era has eliminated multiple national champions, right?  After cruising through the regular season undefeated in 2011, top-ranked LSU made it to the BCS National Championship Game and met second-ranked Alabama for the title.  Alabama beat LSU 21-0, and everybody agreed that they won the Mythical National Championship (MNC), or did they?

As a matter of fact, many people felt like Oklahoma State, who finished third in the BCS, deserved to play in the title game, since LSU had already defeated 'Bama in the regular season (a 9-6 win in overtime).  Others were less concerned about the fact that the Tigers and the Tide had already played each other, and more about the fact that Alabama had not won its conference title, as LSU and Okie State had.  While Alabama won the championship game, three selectors (1st-N-Goal, CBSSportsLine, and Colley) chose Oklahoma State as the 2011 national champ.  In fact, Congrove and the Seattle Times, chose LSU as the 2011 national champion, basically stating that the bowl game was meaningless!  How's that for irony, given the so-called dispute over Alabama's 1964 and 1973 titles?  So, is Oklahoma State's claim to the 2011 title illegitimate?

In 2004, the Auburn Tigers finished 13-0-0, winning the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech.  Unfortunately, Auburn had been ranked seventeenth in the AP poll and eighteenth in the Coaches poll, while USC and Oklahoma started the season ranked number 1 and number 2, and never lost.  Auburn was shut out of the title game, which USC won and subsequently vacated.  At the time, Auburn was named as a national champion by two small-time selectors.  Is that claim illegitimate?

In 2003, the regular college football season ended with three teams in title contention - USC (ranked #1 in the AP and Coaches Poll), LSU (ranked #2 in both) and Oklahoma (ranked #3).  Each team had one loss.  The BCS formula selected LSU and Oklahoma to play in the Sugar Bowl for the national title, while USC played fourth-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl.  The AP chose USC as national champ, while the Coaches Poll, which is obligated to select the BCS champion, selected LSU.  Are either of their claims illegitimate?

My point is that even in an era where the "top two" teams are matched up in a BCS title game, the definition of which teams are the top two, and even who won the title, are still controversial.  Good cases can be made for several teams every year, and that was even more true in the days before the BCS, when there was no guarantee that the top-ranked teams would (or even could) play each other.  Without a large-scale playoff system, a large part of every MNC is based on a beauty contest - which games were won by how many points, who did you lose to, what conference are you from, etc.  So, it's fair to say that even in the years that there is a consensus about the champion, there is often a case to be made for someone else.  With that being said, let's take a look at the thirteen "lost championships" and see whether any of them make a fair case for the Tide.

  • 1936 - Finished 8-0-1 (chosen by four minor selectors, finished 4th in the AP).  The only blemish on the Tide's record was a 0-0 tie with Tennessee.  The AP (and numerous other selectors) chose Minnesota (7-1-0), who had lost in October to Northwestern, as their national champ, while Pittsburgh (8-1-1 with a loss to Duquesne and a tie versus Fordham's "Seven Blocks of Granite") defeated Washington in the Rose Bowl and was named national champion in ten retroactive polls.  Neither Alabama or Minnesota played in a bowl, as the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game played in this era.  I think a decent case could be made for Alabama here, given the final record of each of the teams.
  • 1937 - Finished 9-1-0 (chosen by Bryne, finished 4th in the AP).  Alabama finished the regular season undefeated, but lost the Rose Bowl to Cal.  Pittsburgh was selected by the AP and other selectors after a 8-0-1 season (again marred by a 0-0 tie with Fordham), while California (10-0-1 with a tie versus Washington) was selected by the contemporaneous Dunkel system as well as five other retroactive selectors.
  • 1945 - Finished 10-0-0 (three selectors, including the National Championship Foundation (NCF), finished 3rd in the AP).  The NCF is a retroactive selector, and while the NCAA doesn't recognize it as a selector for some reason after the AP poll came into being, it does use them as a recognized selector for pre-1936 championships.  Alabama destroyed every team it played in 1945 and won the Rose Bowl 34-14 over USC.  AP selected Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard's Army (9-0-0) Cadets as national champ.  Frankly, this Alabama squad is one of the the teams I wish Wayne Atcheson had selected for the eleventh national title (see Part I) rather than the 1941 team, as I think this team has a much better claim.
  • 1950 - Finished 9-2-0 (chosen by Kirlin, finished 16th in the AP, 17th in UPI).  This one is a head-scratcher.  Alabama lost to Vanderbilt and Tennessee on the season and did not go to a bowl.  Oklahoma (10-1) won both the AP and UPI titles (which were selected before the bowl games at this time) but lost to "Bear" Bryant's Kentucky Wildcats in the Sugar Bowl.  Tennessee, which had beaten both Kentucky and Alabama, but had dropped a game to Mississippi State, wrapped up its 11-1 season with a win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl.  Several selectors retroactively awarded the title to Tennessee.
  • 1962 - Finished 10-1-0 (chosen by Montgomery, finished 5th in both polls).  Alabama lost to Georgia Tech in the regular season, but blanked Oklahoma 17-0 in the Orange Bowl.  Other claimants for 1962 include USC (11-0, AP and UPI champs) and Ole Miss (10-0, seven minor selectors).
  • 1963 - Finished 9-2-0 (chosen by Koger, finished 8th in the AP, 9th in the UPI).  Losing to both Florida and Auburn, this team defeated Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl.  Texas (11-0-0, defeating Navy in the Cotton Bowl) was the consensus champion.
  • 1966 - Finished 11-0-0 (chosen by six selectors including NCF, finished 3rd in both polls).  The 1966 season is a notorious one for 'Bama fans.  Alabama had won both the '64 and '65 title, outscored its opponents 301-44 on the 1966 season, and throttled Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl.  In the meantime, #1 Notre Dame and #2 Michigan State, who were both 9-0 and faced off in late November, played each other to a 10-10 tie.  Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian famously chose not to go for the win late in the game, electing to kick the field goal to tie the game.  Notre Dame at this point in their history refused to go to any bowl game, and Michigan State was denied a bowl game by Big Ten rules, which didn't allow the same team to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl two years in a row and also didn't allow a conference team to go to any other bowl game.  In addition, some feel that voters purposely denied Alabama the opportunity to win its third wire service (i.e. AP or UPI) national championship in a row, a feat that has still never been accomplished to this day, due to the state's dismal civil rights stance at the time, including its refusal to allow African-Americans to participate in football.  Remember that Alabama governor George Wallace's "stand in the schoolhouse door" had taken place barely three years before.  Regardless, this is the season that Alabama fans universally regard as one where the Tide was cheated out of a deserved title.
  • 1974 - Finished 11-1-0 (chosen by the Washington Touchdown Club, finished 5th in the AP, 2nd in the UPI).  The Tide completed the 1974 season undefeated, and like the year before, lost to Notre Dame in a bowl game, this time the Orange.  Southern Cal (10-1-1, UPI, NFF, FWAA) lost to Arkansas in the season opener and tied California.  Oklahoma (11-0-0, AP, NCF) ran the table, but was on NCAA probation and did not go to a bowl.
  • 1975 - Finished 11-1-0 (chosen by three minor selectors, finished 3rd in both polls).  The Tide lost the season opener to Missouri 20-7, then won out, including a 13-6 victory over Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.  Oklahoma (11-1-0, including a shocking 23-3 loss at home to Kansas but a 28-27 win over Missouri) went into the Orange Bowl with Michigan ranked third in both polls.  The top two teams (Ohio State and Texas A&M) lost their respective bowl games, and Oklahoma finished at #1 in both polls.
  • 1977 - Finished 11-1-0 (chosen by two minor selectors, finished 2nd in both polls).  Alabama's one loss on the season was to Nebraska in Lincoln 31-24 in the second game of the year.  The Crimson Tide crushed the Buckeyes of Ohio State 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl.  Notre Dame won both the AP and UPI titles, finishing 11-1 with a four-touchdown victory in the Cotton Bowl over Texas.  Notre Dame's sole loss was a 20-13 decision to Ole Miss, whom Alabama had beaten 34-13 the week before.  Are you getting the picture on why Alabama fans hate Notre Dame?
  • 1980 - Finished 10-2-0 (chosen by two minor selectors, finished 6th in both polls).  The Crimson Tide again was a two-time defending champion and ranked number one, but lost a 6-3 game to Mississippi State to break the team's 28-game winning streak.  'Bama lost 7-0 to Notre Dame two weeks later.  Georgia (12-0-0), led by one of the greatest of all time, Herschel Walker, won the consensus national title.
  • 1991 - Finished 11-1-0 (chosen by Annual Football Predictions, finished 5th in both polls).  After losing in week two to the Florida Gators in a 35-0 blowout, the Tide started its longest unbeaten streak of all time, finishing 1991 with a victory over Colorado in the Blockbuster Bowl.  Miami (12-0-0, AP) and Washington (12-0-0, UPI) both finished undefeated and split the title.
  • 1994 - Finished 12-1-0 (chosen by Annual Football Predictions, finished 5th in AP, 4th in UPI).  The third-ranked and undefeated Tide lost 24-23 to the sixth-ranked Florida Gators, in one of the greatest SEC Championship Games ever played.  Nebraska (13-0-0) was the consensus champion, winning their first of two in a row.
It is puzzling to me why Wayne Atcheson chose the 1941 season for Alabama to claim a title rather than 1945 or 1966.  My guess is that Army in 1945 was recognized as the power of the era.  After all, during World War II, the Army had a number of great athletes at its disposal, and the Cadets were on their best three-year run ever, winning three national titles and two Heisman trophies.  The 1966 title seems like a more logical choice, given the long-time controversy over the Notre Dame-Michigan State game and the fact that neither team went to a bowl, which was becoming more rare for top teams.*  Also, despite the fact that the Associated Press had made a decision in 1965 (after Alabama won the 1964 national title then lost their bowl game) that they would publish their final poll after the bowl games, in 1966 they reversed that decision and chose Notre Dame as the champion at the end of the regular season.  This seems to add credence to the theory that the goal of the AP voters was to punish Alabama for its segregationist policies (on campus as well as statewide) rather than to solely to award the best team (Alabama had begun the 1966 season at #1 in both polls). 

Anyway, there you have it.  Alabama has fifteen claimed national titles, fourteen of which stand on very solid footing.  Additionally, the Crimson Tide could lay claim to up to thirteen other titles, and while a few of these are iffy, a fair case could easily be made for a few of them, particularly 1936, 1945, 1966, and 1977. I feel pretty certain that Alabama isn't going to back off of the 1941 title claim at this point, as it has memorialized that season in statue and stone, as well as numerous T-shirts, flags, bumper stickers, and whatnot.  However, at least when some ignorant Barner makes a comment about "NASHUNAL CHAMPEANS, PAWWWWLLL," you can rest easy knowing that whatever the number may legitimately be, it is way more than Auburn has.  As a matter of fact, no matter how you look at it, the Crimson Tide has more national championships than any other FBS team.

Claimed Championships: 15 (first); Notre Dame, Michigan and USC all claim 11
Poll Championships: 10 (first); Notre Dame has 8
BCS Championships: 3 (first); LSU and Florida both have two

Furthermore, the Tide isn't the only team that claims more titles than are broadly recognized.  I'll leave you with this list of all teams with at least three recognized titles (to include Auburn).

Team           Titles Recognized      Titles Claimed       Total (All Selectors)
Princeton                  26                                 28                                     31
Yale                          18                                 27                                     31
Alabama                  14                                 15                                     28
Notre Dame              13                                 11                                     23
Michigan                   11                                 11                                     21
USC                         10                                 11                                     22
Pittsburgh                   9                                   9                                      16
Harvard                     8                                   8                                       19
Ohio State                 7                                   7                                       20
Oklahoma                  7                                   7                                       23
Minnesota                  6                                   7                                       10
Pennsylvania               6                                  7                                       21
Army                          5                                  3                                       11
Miami                         5                                  5                                       10
Nebraska                   5                                   5                                       14
California                    4                                  5                                       5
Georgia Tech              4                                  4                                       7
Illinois                         4                                  5                                       6
LSU                           4                                  3                                       11
Michigan State            4                                  6                                       8
Penn State                  4                                  2                                       15
Tennessee                   4                                  6                                       14
Texas                          4                                  4                                       13
Auburn                      3                                  3                                        8
Cornell                       3                                  5                                        5
Florida                       3                                  3                                        5
Lafayette                    3                                  3                                        3

Props to Cal and Cornell for straight up, unabashedly claiming all of theirs, deservedly or not.

*(Note: In fact, the Big Ten abolished the rule that kept Michigan State from repeating its trip to the Rose Bowl in 1972 and the rule that prevented them from accepting an invitation from another bowl prior to the 1975 season.  Notre Dame did not accept a bowl invitation from 1924 to 1969.  The Big Ten and Notre Dame had both, in the mid 1920s, made a decision to decline all bowl offers as a protest against the commercialization of college football.  The Big Ten's ban lasted 26 years, Notre Dame's 45.)

Alabama and the 15 National Championships, Part I

Updated and re-posted to reflect Alabama's most recent triumph in Miami.

There are two popular memes about Alabama football fans that have pervaded over time.  One is that Alabama fans are, by and large, "sidewalk fans," meaning that the majority of them have never gone to school at the University of Alabama.  The other is that Alabama claims a number of illegitimate national championships.

I have never understood the criticism of fans who didn't attend The University of Alabama.  My parents both went to Alabama, as did a number of my aunts, uncles and cousins.  I was an Alabama football fan from an early age, and even if I had gone to college somewhere else, I feel pretty certain that I would have always had a place in my heart for the Capstone.  Besides, have all Notre Dame fans matriculated at South Bend?  Does everyone who cheers for Boise State hail from Idaho?  I suppose that the criticism is really one that is directed at any fan of a successful team - the so-called front-runners who come out of the woodwork when things are going well.  But does 'Bama hold a monopoly on bandwagon fans?  I doubt it.

Now the national championships.  Alabama claims 15.  Every other fan base in the country knows that's way too many, right?  So what are the disputes and why does Alabama claim the ones that they do?  If fifteen isn't the right number, what is?

As we all know, the NCAA does not name a championship team in FBS (formerly Division I-A) football.  The "mythical national championship" or MNC for more than a century was more or less a beauty contest, based on teams that most likely never played each other.  The BCS, for all its flaws, has largely eliminated the era of numerous national champions.  By pairing the (more-or-less) consensus top two teams in the country in a championship game, other teams rarely jump ahead to claim a share of the title.  But, in the days before every team with a record above .500 made it to a bowl game, this was not the case.  Rather than crowning a champion, bowls were regarded by many as postseason exhibition games.  Notre Dame famously refused to accept a bowl invitation for 45 years, from 1924 to 1969.  The Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) both initially chose national champs before bowl games were even played (Alabama actually contributed to both services changing their systems). 

According to the College Football Data Warehouse (CFDW) web site (, Alabama's football team has been named national champion 28 different seasons by one or more services.  CFDW lists fourteen of those titles as "Recognized."  The NCAA web site lists 13 Alabama championships, relying on nine or ten major sources.  The AP, which started naming a champion in 1936, has awarded the Tide nine titles.  The UPI/Coaches Poll, which dates back to 1950, has selected Alabama eight times.  So, which number is correct?  Let's start by examining the titles that Alabama claims, and why they did so.

This article, which initially appeared in the Birmingham News prior to the 2010 BCS National Championship Game between Alabama and Texas, says that the mid-1980s was when Alabama laid claim to, at the time, 11 national championships.  Wayne Atcheson, who served as SID at Alabama from 1983-1987, added five titles to what was then accepted as six titles, at least according to the 1982 Alabama media guide, the last one published under Coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. Bryant's teams won each of those six titles, awarded by the AP and UPI, between 1958 and his retirement in 1982.  Our journey begins with these six.

  • 1961 - Finished 11-0-0.  Awarded by AP and UPI and National Football Foundation (NFF).  This one is as ironclad as they come.  The Tide won every game, including the 1962 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, although Ohio State (8-0-1; did not accept a bowl bid) was crowned by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).  The Tide only allowed 25 total points by its opponents all season.
  • 1964 - Finished 10-1-0.  Awarded by AP and UPI.  Alabama lost 21-17 against Texas in the Orange Bowl, although 'Bama fans swear that Joe Namath crossed the goal line to score the go-ahead touchdown.  This game caused the AP to change its policy to award championships after the bowl games were played.  Arkansas (11-0-0, FWAA, defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl) and Notre Dame (9-1-0, awarded by NFF but not claimed by Notre Dame, who lost to USC in final regular season game) are recognized by the NCAA as co-champions.
  • 1965 - Finished 9-1-1.  Awarded by AP, FWAA and National Championship Foundation (NCF).  The Tide lost their season opener to Georgia and tied Tennessee 7-7 at midseason, then destroyed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Michigan State (10-1-0) was awarded the title by the UPI, NFF and FWAA (tied with Alabama).  The Spartans lost the Rose Bowl to UCLA.
  • 1973 - Finished 11-1. Awarded by UPI.  The Tide lost the Sugar Bowl 24-23 to Notre Dame, in what many hail as the greatest bowl game ever played.  After this game, UPI changed their championship methodology to select after the bowl games were played.  Notre Dame (11-0-0) was crowned by all the other major selectors.
  • 1978 - Finished 11-1.  Awarded by AP, FWAA, NFF, NCF.  USC defeated 'Bama 24-14 in the third game of the season, and then lost to Arizona two weeks later.  Alabama won the legendary 1979 Sugar Bowl over then-number one Penn State.  The Trojans finished 12-1 and defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl.  USC was selected as champ by UPI and NCF (Tied with Alabama).
  • 1979 - Finished 12-0.  Consensus champion.  Alabama defeated Lou Holtz's Arkansas team in the Sugar Bowl, but the closest contest was a 25-18 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which the Tide came from behind in the fourth quarter to win.

Okay, those seem fairly straightforward to me.  While some misguided individuals may argue that the 1965 and 1973 championships are something less than legitimate due to the bowl losses, the wire service titles are recognized by everyone.  Before we get to the five added titles, we might as well get four more out of the way that no one seriously disputes.

  • 1992 - Finished 13-0-0. Consensus champion.  'Bama defeated top-ranked Miami in dominating fashion in the Sugar Bowl, breaking a 29-game winning streak by the defending national champs.  The Tide also won the first-ever SEC Championship Game over Florida to make it to the title game.
  • 2009 - Finished 14-0-0.  BCS Champion.  Alabama defeated Texas 37-21 after knocking the Longhorns' starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, out of the game early.  The Crimson Tide defeated six ranked teams, including defending national champ and number one Florida, during the season.
  • 2011 - Finished 12-1-0.  BCS Champion.  After losing at home in overtime to the number one team in the country, Alabama got a rematch with the LSU Tigers in the title game and blanked them 21-0.
  • 2012 - Finished 13-1-0.  BCS Champion.  Alabama lost to Texas A&M, led by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel the week after a heartstopping victory over LSU in Baton Rouge.  The Tide later edged Georgia 32-28 in one of the best SEC Championship Games ever, then rolled Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS Championship Game.
So, now we're at ten national championships, and all of them are fairly undisputed "poll-era" titles.  So let's dive into the last five that Alabama claims.  The first question is, why were those titles added in the first place?

According to the previously-mentioned Birmingham News article, Taylor Watson - the curator of the Bryant Museum - said that the 1986 media guide was the first to mention the five additional titles.  What you may not remember about 1986 is that Alabama began a two-season home-and-home series with Notre Dame that year.  The Fighting Irish claim 11 national championships, but that number was ten at the time (the Irish later won the 1988 title).  It's clear in hindsight that Wayne Atcheson went back over the Tide's history to find enough titles to edge out Notre Dame's ten.  Hence, Alabama's number went to eleven national championships.  So, what about those other five?

  • 1925 - Finished 10-0-0.  Most disputes about Alabama's national titles start with the fact that the title selectors who are recognized today didn't exist in 1925, so while NCF, Helms, Houlgate and the College Football Researchers Association (CFRA), among others, all awarded the Tide the 1925 title, they did so retroactively.  However, that doesn't mean that the Tide wasn't the best team in the country.  In these early days when the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game in America, Alabama was the first team from the South to be invited to the game.  The Rose Bowl attempted to match the top team in the East and with the top team in the West, and Alabama played the champion of the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to today's Pac-12), Washington.  The Tide won 20-19, and was greeted with congratulatory crowds in every Southern train station on the return trip.  Furthermore, this newspaper article from the next day makes it clear that the game was regarded as the national championship at the time.  The 1925 Dartmouth Indians (8-0-0) were also recognized (retroactively, I might add) as national champions by a couple of selectors, although they are not recognized by the NCAA.
  • 1926 - Finished 9-0-1.  Alabama again finished the regular season undefeated and was invited to the Rose Bowl to play Stanford.  The game ended in a 7-7 tie, and as such, Alabama and Stanford shared the 1926 national championship awarded by Helms and NCF, while CFRA awarded the title solely to the Tide.
  • 1930 - Finished 10-0-0.  The Tide's third Rose Bowl trip ended in a 24-0 thrashing of Washington State, and the CFRA retroactively awarded them the title.  Notre Dame, which refused the Rose Bowl invitation and finished 10-0-0, also shared the national title, being awarded by the NCF and Helms (also retroactive).
  • 1934 - Finished 10-0-0.  Again Alabama traveled to Pasadena to face Stanford and defeated the Cardinal 29-13.  A number of selectors retroactively selected the Tide as national champs, although the three that the NCAA chooses to recognize (NCF, Helms, and CFRA) retroactively selected Big Ten champion Minnesota, who finished 8-0-0 (no bowl game).
  • 1941 - Finished 9-2-0.  This is the title that is the hardest to justify.  By this time, the AP had begun selecting national champions, and Alabama finished 20th in the poll.  In addition, the Tide didn't even win the SEC, losing to eventual champion Mississippi State (in their only SEC title to date) as well as Vanderbilt.  While the Tide was selected as a national champion by the Houlgate system, it's hard to see why.
 There you have it.  I believe a strong case can be made for every title that Alabama claims, except, perhaps, for the 1941 championship.  That one is pretty sketchy, and clearly that is where the CFDW gets the fourteen "recognized" titles.  On the other hand, there's nothing to say that a school can't claim a title that someone awards them, no matter how dubious.  So, that's how Alabama got to fifteen.  But what about those other thirteen titles that the CFDW lists, but that Alabama doesn't claim?  Are any of those title claims legitimate?  We'll take a look at the thirteen "lost championships" in Part II.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

SEC Football Bowl Week, Part II: The Rundown - Championship Edition

Click here for Part I.

So the 2012 football season came to an end as they all do nowadays, with the Southeastern Conference on top of the college football world as champions.  For the second year in a row, and the third time in four years, it was Alabama, who completely dominated the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish to win its 15th National Championship (or tenth poll championship or third BCS championship, however you want to look at it).  Let's start the Rundown!

(2) Alabama 42, (1) Notre Dame 14
BCS National Championship Game, Miami, FL

While the performance by the Tide wasn't perfect throughout the entire game, the first two quarters of play by Alabama were nearly flawless as the team built an insurmountable 28-0 halftime lead.  Notre Dame's defensive front seven, purportedly better than any Alabama faced in the SEC this season, were manhandled and road-graded by the Crimson Tide offensive line in a fashion that suggested that the Irish may have been vastly overrated.  Notre Dame's Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o, who is, no doubt, a person of high character who continued to perform for his team in the face of personal tragedy this season, nevertheless was completely exposed by the passing of AJ McCarron and the running of Eddie Lacy and T. J. Yeldon.  Lacy and Yeldon repeatedly evaded Te'o, when they weren't running through his arm tackles, and McCarron burned Te'o on a touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams when every Irish defender expected a run.  Notre Dame had not allowed a touchdown drive of over eighty yards all season, but the Tide had four in the game, including a back-breaking 97-yard drive following an acrobatic interception by Hasean Clinton-Dix (assist to Demarcus Milliner for the pass break up).  Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called a masterful game, and the Tide offense executed it well.  For all of the credit that Nick Saban and Kirby Smart get for defensive scheme and firepower, this Alabama team won the game with an offensive juggernaut that took on the strength of the Irish squad and rendered it impotent.  Looking back, it's fair to say that the Alabama defense underwhelmed against LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, and even had trouble with Ole Miss (keep in mind Alabama's defense still ended the season as the best in the country), but the Tide won those games, and came within a hair's breadth of beating A&M, due to the best offense Alabama has fielded under Saban.  Credit for that falls largely upon Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D. J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, Anthony Steen and Michael Williams, the offensive linemen and tight end who blocked their way to a national title.

(21) Louisville 33, (3) Florida 23
Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, LA

The most surprising outcome of the bowl season apart from the dismantling of Notre Dame by Alabama was Florida's anemic performance in the Sugar Bowl.  While props must be given to Cardinals coach Charlie Strong, whose longtime Florida ties certainly helped serve as motivation for this game, the Gators played like they left their hearts in the French Quarter, or maybe back on the field in Tallahassee, where they whipped Florida State back in November.  For this Florida squad to win 11 games was an overachievement, given their level of on-field talent and lack of a quarterback who can actually throw a consistent pass.  Watching the game, I was reminded of Alabama's Sugar Bowl performance against Utah following the 2008 season.  Florida came up one game short of its 2012 goals, like Alabama in 2008, and didn't appear to want to be in New Orleans, and their fans agreed.  Maybe Florida should have done the right thing and declined the BCS invitation so that Georgia could take their place.  However, much like Alabama in 2008, I don't think you can read too much into this loss.  Coach Will Muschamp's focus in the off-season should be discipline.  In the team's two losses, the Gators turned the ball over nine times and had 19 penalties.  That's not a formula for success.

(9) Texas A&M 41, (11) Oklahoma 13
AT&T Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX

Perhaps the only way that this victory could have been more fulfilling for the Aggies, coming as it did against a former Big XII rival in the Jerry Dome in Dallas, is if it had come against Texas rather than Oklahoma.  Heisman winner Johnny Manziel had probably his best game of the season, which should be troubling to every other team in the SEC West who will have to face the still-improving young quarterback.  Manziel had over 500 yards of offense in the game and set a bowl record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 229 on 17 carries.  It should be clear at this point that there is no such thing as a Heisman jinx when the actual best player in the country wins the Heisman.  Fortunately, that player was from College Station rather than South Bend.  The Aggies will enter the 2013 season as a title contender.  It will be interesting to see how they perform with a target squarely on their backs, but regardless, the team's inaugural season in the SEC has been an unqualified success.

Ole Miss 38, Pittsburgh 17
BBVA Compass Bowl, Birmingham, AL

The Rebels rewarded the nearly 60,000(!) fans who traveled to Legion Field to see them take on the Pittsburgh Panthers with a rout to wrap up a 7-6 season in Hugh Freeze's first year.  Ole Miss stepped up markedly from a 2-9 effort in 2011 and showed significant improvement as the season progressed, suggesting that the Rebels hired the right man for their job.  The most significant victory is still on the horizon though -- it will come in February if Freeze can land top high school prospect Robert Nkemdiche, whose brother plays for the Rebels, in Oxford on National Signing Day.

2012 Bowl Summary

The final bowl breakdown by conference looks like this:

    CONFERENCE     WINS     LOSSES     PCT      
    WAC                        2              0                 1.000
    C-USA                     4               1                 .800     
    SEC                         6               3                  .667  
    Big East                    3               2                  .600    
    ACC                        3               2                  .600     
    Pac-12                     4               4                  .500     
    Sun Belt                    2               2                  .500        
    Big XII                     4               5                  .444     
    Independent             1                2                 .333     
    MAC                       2               4                  .333     
    Big Ten                     2               5                  .286     
    Mountain West          1               4                  .200    

So, the SEC finished first among the major conferences and third overall (second among conferences that will exist next year).  Couple that with the SEC's 7th BCS national championship in a row, and it's easy to see why fans of every other team have "SEC fatigue."  That's like saying that the Japanese in World War II had "US Navy fatigue."  Getting beaten up and down the field year after year will do that to you.  Conference USA had a surprisingly strong performance in bowls that nobody watched.  The ACC and Big East did fairly well, with the ACC especially improving over 2011's dismal bowl record.  The Big XII finished disappointingly, and the Big Ten was abysmal, falling below even the lowly MAC.

My Final SEC Power Rankings

1.  Alabama (13-1) - Four national titles in three years.  The Tide bookended the 2012 season with remarkably similar performances against Michigan and Notre Dame, two of the all-time elite teams in the college football pantheon.  This is arguably the best five-year run in Alabama history, if not college football history.
2.  Georgia (12-2) - Nick Saban said in his postgame comments that Georgia was five yards from "being here."  Whether Saban meant here as in Miami or here as in the postgame victory celebration is debatable, but there's no doubt in my mind that both would have been true.  Fortunately, Georgia recovered fully from their loss in Atlanta to defeat Nebraska and set themselves up for a title run in 2013.
3.  Texas A&M (11-2) - With Manziel under center and Kevin Sumlin at the helm, this team turned into a juggernaut by season's end.  The Aggies are the team to watch in 2013.
4.  South Carolina (11-2) - Although South Carolina stumbled late in the season, they recovered nicely with wins over Clemson and Michigan.
5.  Florida (11-2) - The loss to Louisville took some of the shine off 2012, but the Gators still look to be ahead of schedule in year two under Muschamp.
6.  LSU (10-3) - This might be the most disappointing ten-win season in LSU history.
7.  Vanderbilt (9-4) - Yes, Vanderbilt.  This has to be the ceiling for the Commodores, right?  Right?
8.  Ole Miss (7-6) - The Rebels are improving, and should be even better next year.
9.  Mississippi State (8-5) - New coaches at Auburn and Arkansas likely mean that the Bulldogs' window is closing in the SEC West.
10.  Missouri (5-7) - Injuries hampered the Tigers from the beginning, but the stellar success of fellow newbie A&M has to be somewhat galling.
11.  Tennessee (5-7) - New coach Butch Jones has his hands full as he tries to take the Volunteers back to the mountaintop.
12.  Arkansas (4-8) - Ditto new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who will also have to retool the Razorbacks' offense to fit his system.
13.  Auburn (3-9) - Auburn's "new" coach Gus Malzahn will have to deal with a talent deficit and a team that quit on the last coach.
14.  Kentucky (2-10) - Pity new Wildcats coach Mark Stoops.  On the bright side, there's nowhere to go but up.

The Final Word

There's been a lot of talk about Nick Saban and Alabama's program and whether the win signals a dynasty.  I think that calling what Saban has done at Alabama a dynasty is fine, although he will be the first to tell you that every team has a life and story of its own.  That is the way it has always been, of course.  What is more interesting to me is the comparison between Saban's achievements at Alabama with those of other coaches through history, and particularly with Alabama legend Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.

Coach Bryant will always have a place of prominence at Alabama, regardless of what Saban's accomplishments finally turn out to be.  Bryant played at Alabama, for a national champion Rose Bowl team no less.  He served as head coach for 25 years and won 232 games at Alabama, both records which Saban is unlikely to challenge.  Bryant led the Tide during the state's darkest days since the Civil War, when segregation and the Civil Rights struggle were tearing the country apart.  He gave Alabamians something to feel positive about, winning six national titles and eventually becoming the nation's all-time winningest college football coach.  And Bryant was a larger-than-life figure - a hard-living mountain of a man who wrestled a bear, played against Tennessee with a broken leg, and kicked down a locker room door after returning from the field to find it locked.  The Legend of the Bear has all but replaced the man now, and the Legend lives on.

Saban, on the other hand, is so focused on his process and eliminating every distraction that doesn't contribute to its success, that he can seem to the outsider like something less than human - a college football robot.  This isn't entirely true - he loves his wife and his children, he cares about his players' success in life, and he has other interests besides his job, like music by the Eagles and driving his boat.  But it is easy to view Saban as a college football machine - recruiting blue chip talent, producing NFL players, and winning BCS championships.  It is ironic that during Saban's historic run at Alabama that he has defeated three Bryant bugaboos.  In two of the three title games Alabama has won under Saban, he has defeated Texas and Notre Dame, two teams that famously plagued Bryant.  He never beat either of them, and in fact missed out on additional titles because of it.  Under Saban, Alabama has also had its first Heisman winner, something Bryant never was able to accomplish in Tuscaloosa.*  Saban is the only coach besides Pop Warner to have won a national title at two different schools.  And, of course, he's the only coach to win more than two titles in the BCS era.  Saban has won four national titles, including his 2003 win at LSU, which ties him with Notre Dame's Frank Leahy and USC's John McKay, and puts him second behind Bryant's six. Can Saban reach that lofty pinnacle?  It's awfully hard to do, but there's no one in the country who has a better chance.

However, I told my kids last night after the win that they should remember this moment, as Alabama stands inarguably astride the college football world like a Colossus.  I came of age toward the end of Coach Bryant's career/life, and much of my teen and adult life has been spent watching the Tide dabble fleetingly with greatness before sinking back into mediocrity.  Saban's arrival at Alabama ushered in another of those eras, rare even for the powerhouses of sports, where sustained greatness is achieved.  It won't last forever.  It can't.  But I believe that most Alabama fans who have gone through the long drought between Bryant and Gene Stallings, and the longer drought between Stallings and Saban, realize that elite success is fleeting, and fans should enjoy it to the fullest while they can.

*Bryant did have a Heisman winner at Texas A&M in 1957 - John David Crow.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

SEC Football Bowl Week, Part 1: The Rundown

While the 2012 college football bowl season began in mid-December, SEC play began just yesterday on New Year's Eve.  Five teams have now played their bowl games, and with another four games remaining over the next week it seems a good time to assess the SEC's bowl performances so far.  Let's start the Rundown!

Vanderbilt 38, NC State 24
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, TN

Vanderbilt's post-season success just keeps coming.  First, the Commodores got a significant win in December by hanging on to second-year coach James Franklin, who has led Vandy to its best back-to-back seasons since the 1920s and its first nine-win season since 1915.  Franklin seems to be serious about making the Commodores a contender in the SEC East, which seems ludicrous until you see what he has already done.  Compare Franklin's body of work to, say, Dan Mullen's at Mississippi State, and it's hard not to like what is happening in Nashville.  In the Music City Bowl, the Commodores faced a NC State team with a lame-duck coaching staff and that is rarely a good formula for a bowl victory.  While the Wolfpack outgained the Commodores by almost a two-to-one margin (424 yards to 225), five turnovers gave Vanderbilt all the help they needed to pull off the win.

(14) Clemson 25, (8) LSU 24
Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Atlanta, GA

Les Miles has won a national title, two SEC championships and more than 80 percent of his games at LSU, so it would be fair to say that he is a very good coach, perhaps even a great one.  Miles, however, has perhaps the worst reputation for game and clock management of anyone in the conference, if not the country, and it is well-deserved.  The Fighting Tigers went up 14-7 early in the second quarter of the game and did not relinquish that lead until the last play, but the play calling in the late minutes, and perhaps the entire offensive game plan, seemed designed to keep Clemson in the game.  Freshman running back Jeremy Hill had 124 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but only carried the ball 12 times, none of which came in the fourth quarter.  The Tigers nursed a 24-22 lead with 2:47 on the game clock, but elected to pass three straight times instead of trying to run out the clock or force Clemson to use its timeouts.  Clemson scored on its last three drives of the game including the game-winning field goal as time expired.  Zach Mettenberger threw for a mediocre 120 yards and was sacked six times, as LSU's pass protection was abysmal against the lightly-rated Clemson defense (74th nationally in total defense).

(20) Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20 Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL

I don't know if it's fair to say that Dan Mullen will be on the hot seat in 2013.  After all, Mullen has a 37-26 record at MSU and has taken the Bulldogs to three straight bowl games.  Even as the bowl pairings were announced, this game had the look of the best (worst?) opportunity for the SEC to lose a bowl game.  But after starting 7-0 in 2012, the Bulldogs lost five of their last six games.  Quarterback Tyler Russell, who was incredibly efficient during the regular season, throwing only six interceptions on 366 sttempts, threw four picks against the Wildcats, including one of the worst decisions I have seen this season - an up-for-grabs hurl on third and five in the fourth quarter that basically gave Northwestern their final deciding touchdown.  The late-season collapse and Russell's deterioration in the last two games don't really speak well for Mullen's ability to coach his best players up to the next level.  Set aside Nick Saban and Les Miles in the SEC West and just compare Mullen to Kevin Sumlin, Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn, and Hugh Freeze.  I think its fair to say that Mullen is, at best, in the middle of that group, and at worst might be the bottom.  The inability to overcome a middling Northwestern team doesn't speak well for the Bulldogs' future under Mullen.

(10) South Carolina 33, (18) Michigan 28
Outback Bowl, Tampa, FL

The back and forth finale of the Outback Bowl was perhaps the most compelling football of the 2012 bowl season.  The game turned on one particular sequence that was so extraordinary, I called my entire family in to watch the replay.  Michigan had clawed its way back into the game after falling behind 21-10, while Carolina had missed two field goals and fumbled the ball to Michigan in between.  The Wolverines led 22-21 with 9:58 remaining in the game and faced a fourth and four to go at their own 37 yard line.  Faking a punt, Michigan ran the upback Floyd Simmons close to the first down marker, and the officials measured the spot and inexplicably awarded the first down to Michigan even though the ball was clearly short of the first down pole.  Steve Spurrier and the rest of the South Carolina bench went nuts on the sideline and Spurrier asked for a review of the spot.  However, the called stood, and it appeared that South Carolina might be on the ropes.  Then, the very next play, this happened.  Jadaveon Clowney, the Gamecocks' all-American defensive end, shot through the offensive line unblocked and delivered a bone-crushing hit to Vincent Smith, who had not even had time to fully receive the handoff yet.  Smith lost both his helmet and the ball, and Clowney recovered the fumble with one hand.  It was one of the single best defensive plays I have ever seen.  The Gamecocks, in textbook Spurrier fashion, threw for the endzone on the ensuing play, and Connor Shaw hit Ace Sanders for a touchdown.  Michigan would score again on its next drive, forcing a heroic effort by both South Carolina quarterbacks on the final drive to score the game-winning TD with 11 seconds remaining, but Clowney's play got the Gamecocks and their fans back into the game when things started to go sideways.

(7) Georgia 45, (16) Nebraska 31
Capital One Bowl, Orlando, FL

Georgia's Aaron Murray threw for five touchdowns and 427 yards, both school bowl records, against the nation's top passing defense to rally the Bulldogs to a victory in the Capital One Bowl.  Nebraska's moved the ball well at times against the Bulldogs, amassing 443 yards of offense, but Georgia forced three turnovers and sacked Taylor Martinez five times.  After falling behind 31-23 early in the third quarter, the Bulldogs defense didn't allow the Huskers past the Georgia 39, forcing a fumble, two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs on their final five drives.  The big question for the Bulldogs in the off-season will turn to Aaron Murray.  Murray has passed for 3000+ yards in each of his three seasons at the helm in Athens, something no other SEC quarterback has ever done.  His entire offensive line returns in 2013 along with most of his skill position players.  Even with a defense that will lose several stars to the NFL, the Bulldogs will be strong contenders to repeat as SEC East champions if Murray returns.

First Half Bowl Summary

So far, with the Rose Bowl in progress and Orange Bowl on the way, the bowl breakdown by conference looks like this:

    WAC                        2              0                 1.000      None
    C-USA                     4               1                  .800      None
    Big East                    2               1                  .667      Two
    ACC                        3               2                  .600      One
    SEC                         3               2                  .600      Four
    Big 12                      4               3                  .571      Two
    Independent             1                1                 .500      One
    MAC                       2               3                  .400      Two
    Pac-12                     2               4                  .333      Two
    Sun Belt                    1               2                  .333      One
    Big Ten                     2               4                  .333      One
    Mountain West          1               4                  .200     None

So, while the SEC hasn't been as successful as one might hope, it's doing fairly well compared to the major conferences, with an opportunity to turn in a really stellar performance with wins in the last four games.  Meanwhile, the Big Ten is having yet another terrible postseason, and the Pac-12 can do no better than .500.

Monday, December 03, 2012

An Open Letter to Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas: Hire a Proven Head Coach

You might wonder why I, as a hardcore Alabama football fan, would write a letter giving advice to three of the Tide's rivals.  Well, first, I have little expectation that anyone of consequence at these schools will read this, so no real danger there.  Secondly though, and this is hard to say, but as much as I love crushing these three programs (average margin of victory by Alabama in 2012 against these three teams was 44 points), the only exciting rivalry Alabama has right now is with LSU, and that's a bit of a shame.

At one time, Tennessee and Auburn were games that Alabama fans anticipated all year - a measuring stick against which success or failure for a season was judged.  Former Tennessee coach General Robert Neyland famously said, "You never know what a football player is made of until he plays Alabama."  Among SEC teams, not counting the two new members, Auburn and Tennessee have the closest winning percentage against Alabama.  Alabama has beaten Auburn in 55.2% of its matchups, while Tennessee sits at 55.9%.  Among the old SEC, only these two teams and Georgia have beaten Alabama more than 40% of the time that they have played.  Arkansas, although its history against Alabama has largely taken place since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992, has a respectable 8-13 record against the Tide, which is second place in winning percentage among SEC West opponents (not counting newbie Texas A&M, which is 3-2).  Alabama has played Tennessee 94 times, more than any other opponent but Mississippi State.  And even though Alabama and Auburn didn't play each other for 40 years, stemming from a minor dispute, the Tide and Tigers have still played 77 times.  That's tied for fourth among Alabama opponents.

My point is that Alabama's success in many ways is bound up with the teams that they call their rivals, and years of terrible or even mediocre play by those rivals serves to tarnish the rivalry.  I often cringe when I hear Bama fans say that they want Auburn to win every game except against Alabama.  I don't.  I (perhaps irrationally) hate Auburn.  I hate their colors.  I hate their traditions.  I think Auburn's trees are stupid, their toilet paper rolling is stupider and their fans are the stupidest of all.  But I recognized last week that beating them 49-0, while satisfying, lacked any real punch.  Every Auburn fan I know knew that they were going to get killed.  Some of them ignored the game completely.  As much as I hated losing to them in 2010 by one point against *** Newton, I would have enjoyed winning that one and ruining their dream season a lot more than I did this year's contest.  So, that being said, I have some advice for the administrations of Auburn, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  Hire a proven head coach.

As almost any college football fan can tell you, Alabama fans speak with experience on this front.  Our greatest coach of all time, the legendary Paul William Bryant, was a Bama alum and championship winner as a player.  But Bryant was also an experienced winner when he was hired to helm the Tide in 1958.  Bryant won an SEC championship at Kentucky, for Pete's sake, the only outright title the Wildcats have ever won, and turned Texas A&M into a Southwest Conference champion before he came to Alabama to become the Greatest of All Time.  After Bryant, Alabama ran through nine different head coaches in 25 years, which incidentally was the same amount of time Bryant coached at Alabama.  Do you realize that Nick Saban, the supposed mercenary head coach, has been at Alabama longer than any other head coach since Bryant, save one?  Saban is only one year away from equalling Gene Stallings' tenure at Alabama.  What did Alabama learn during those (largely) fallow years?

Among those nine coaches, the people Alabama hired fell into three categories: proven head coach (one with a winning record and championship experience), unproven head coach (one with a losing/mediocre record), and former coordinator (little or no head coaching experience).

Proven Head Coach - Dennis Franchione (138-65-2 at Southwestern/Pittsburgh State/SW Texas State/New Mexico/TCU, nine conference championships); Nick Saban (91-42-1 at Toledo/Michigan State/LSU, three division championships, three conference championships, one national championship; 15-17 at Miami Dolphins)

Unproven Head Coach - Ray Perkins (23-34 at NY Giants); Bill Curry (31-43-4 at Georgia Tech); Gene Stallings (27-45-1 at Texas A&M; 23-34-1 at St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals); Mike Price (129-122 at Weber State/Washington State)

Former Coordinator - Mike Dubose, Mike Shula, Joe Kines (interim)

As you can see from these breakdowns, Alabama only hired two proven head coaches in the years after Bryant retired.  Everyone knows about Saban - the greatest college football coach of this era.  He had three conference championships and a national title before he came to Alabama, and he has won two more of each since arriving, with a third national championship potentially looming.  Franchione was also a proven commodity, winning nine conference championships before coaching the Tide.  Franchione was successful in his two seasons at Alabama, but NCAA probation scared him off to coach elsewhere.

Among the unproven head coaches, Stallings turned out to be the best of those - winning a national title and 70 games in seven years.  Perkins and Curry are generally regarded as failures, although both finished with winning records.  Price was an unmitigated disaster who never even coached a game for the Tide, unless you count A-Day.  And the coordinators?  The kindest way to put it is that they weren't ready for one of the biggest stages in college football.

So?  Why should Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee learn from Alabama's head coaching misfires?  Well, if that isn't enough of an example for you, take a look at the coaches in the SEC.

First, among the four coaches that were fired at the conclusion of the 2012 season, see if you spot a common pattern:

  • Gene Chizik (Auburn) - former defensive coordinator, 5-19 as head coach of Iowa State
  • John L. Smith (Arkansas) - interim, former special teams coach
  • Joker Phillips (Kentucky) - former offensive coordinator
  • Derek Dooley (Tennessee) - 17-20 as head coach of Louisiana Tech

Of course, all of these coaches were either unproven head coaches or coordinators.  What about the other current coaches in the SEC?  Let's start with the teams that are currently ranked in the BCS top ten.

  • Nick Saban (Alabama) - proven head coach - (62-13 at Alabama, 2 SEC, 2 NC)
  • Will Muschamp (Florida) - former defensive coordinator - (18-7 at Florida)
  • Mark Richt (Georgia) - former offensive coordinator - (117-40 at Georgia, 2 SEC)
  • Les Miles (LSU) - proven head coach (85-20 at LSU, 2 SEC, 1 NC)*
  • Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) - proven head coach - (10-2 at Texas A&M)
  • Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) - proven head coach - (65-37 at USC)

Richt and Muschamp are the only coaches here that were not proven commodities when hired.  Richt has clearly been successful.  It's too early to conclude anything about Muschamp at this point, although he looks better now than he did a year ago.

As for the rest?

  • Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) - proven head coach - (6-6 at Ole Miss)
  • Dan Mullen (Miss. State) - former offensive coordinator - (29-21 at MSU)
  • Gary Pinkel (Missouri) - proven head coach (90-61 at Mizzou)
  • James Franklin (Vanderbilt) - former offensive coordinator - (14-11 at Vandy)

Freeze and Franklin are too new to really pronounce judgment, but Mullen may have already hit his ceiling.  Pinkel has taken Missouri to new heights in the Big XII, although it remains to be seen whether he can win big in the SEC.

All this data shows us that there is no perfect way to hire a head coach.  There have been successful coaches in this league that have come from all different levels.  Tomorrow's great head coach might truly be today's offensive coordinator, but with each choice there is a degree of risk.  Auburn, Tennessee, and Arkansas are big-name programs in the most difficult conference in college football.  The fan interest, media scrutiny and cost of failure are as high in this league as they are anywhere in the country, especially for the top-tier programs.  While a perennial bottom-dweller like Kentucky can take a risk on a up-and-coming coordinator like Mark Stoops, two or three years of on-the-job training are not an option for a program that hopes to compete against those six guys in the top ten I mentioned previously.  Furthermore, all three programs have wealthy boosters who can help pony up to get a successful coach into the door.

A head coach with a proven record of success is going to be successful at an SEC school.  Most likely, he has been doing more with less somewhere else.  Take Urban Meyer for example.  A guy who can turn around a losing program at Bowling Green and go 17-6 in two seasons might be pretty good, right?  Then he went on to lead Utah to a BCS bowl and an undefeated season.  His success at Florida (2 SEC and 2 NC) was fairly easy to predict, and he has already led Ohio State to an 12-0 finish in 2012.  While few will attain Meyer's level of success, there are plenty of experienced winners out there that could do even more with the resources of an SEC program.

While I would never presume to tell the presidents and ADs at these institutions of higher learning how to do their jobs, I would give them this one recommendation: find a head coach with a record of success, even if it's with a lower tier school.  Steer clear of an unproven one-hit wonder or worse, a coordinator with no experience as a head coach.  Your job may depend on it.

*Miles is debatable as a proven head coach before LSU, but he had a winning record at Oklahoma State and turned around a losing program, taking them to three straight bowls.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Bama Wins 23rd SEC Title, Looks Ahead to Notre Dame

Alabama escaped the Georgia Dome Saturday with a 32-28 win over the Georgia Bulldogs to win the team's 23rd SEC Championship.  The Crimson Tide scored the winning touchdown on a 45-yard pass from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper with 3:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.  The Bulldogs drove to the eight in the final seconds with a chance to win, but a tipped pass was diverted from the intended receiver, instead going to Chris Conley, who came down with the ball at the five yard line as time expired.  The second-ranked Crimson Tide will go on to play number-one Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game in Miami, while Georgia will, unfortunately, be relegated to a second-tier bowl, possibly the Capital One or the Cotton.

1.  Tide Wins by Going Back to Basics.

The unanimous opinion of Alabama fans following the Texas A&M game was that the Tide largely abandoned the run game in the loss to the Aggies.  While that may not have been entirely true, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's playcalling in the red zone late against A&M seemed to forego running the ball for the pass.  Early success against the Bulldogs rushing the ball, as well as significant pressure from the UGA defense on passing downs, led the Tide to rely heavily on the running game Saturday.  Alabama set  at least two running records in the game, rushing for 350 yards as a team (most in SECCG history), and having two backs rush for over 100 yards.  Eddie Lacy, who won the game's MVP trophy, had 181 yards on 20 carries - an amazing 9.1 yard per carry average.  Lacy had two touchdowns, including a 41-yard effort that was a sight to behold.  Freshman sensation T. J. Yeldon carried 25 times for 153 yards, and also had a touchdown run.  The Tide's success running the ball led to the team's most unbalanced offensive effort of the season - 51 rushing attempts versus only 21 passes.  The game-winning pass actually came about as a result of this effort, as Georgia had gone to an eight man front with man-to-man coverage on the outside receivers in an effort to stop the run.  McCarron executed a play-action pass to perfection and hit Amari Cooper in stride to take the final lead of the game.

2.  Georgia Proved Ready for the Big Game.

Much was made in the lead up to this game of the fact that Georgia, under head coach Mark Richt, has had a tendency to underperform in big games.  In addition, the knock on Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray, who recently became the first signal caller in SEC history to throw for 3000+ yards in three straight seasons, has been that he has dominated weaker opponents, but played his worst in big games.  I personally felt that, despite the loss, Georgia had its best big-game performance since the 2008 Sugar Bowl win over Hawaii.  First, keep in mind that the Bulldogs were one play away from the win in the biggest game of Richt's career.  Murray completed 18 of 33 passes for 265 yards - a 55% rate of completion.  Murray was able to direct the Bulldogs up and down the field on the nation's top defense, and threw accurately in pressure situations.  Murray wasn't error-free, by any means, but he clearly performed well enough to win.  Even the alleged poor clock management at the end of the game was arguably better than Alabama's management of the clock at the end of the first half.  All in all, Georgia played its heart out and came up short.  That should be a welcome sight to Bulldogs fans who had been disappointed with previous efforts in marquee games.

3.  Nick Saban is the Greatest College Football Coach of this Era.

I made a point in one of last week's pieces that Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won 67 of his 80 games at Alabama on the field (officially, his record is 62-13, as Alabama had to vacate five wins in 2007), has outperformed Bear Bryant in his career so far at Alabama.  Bryant won a record six national championships, coached 13 conference championship teams (plus two others before Alabama), and won a then-record 323 games.  None of those marks are within Saban's reach.  However, Saban has won 83.8% of his actual games at Alabama, and officially he has won 82.7%.  Both marks exceed the 82.4% winning percentage that Bryant had at Alabama.  Saban has also now won two national titles,with a third win one game away, and two conference titles - all in six seasons at the helm.  He is the only coach in the BCS era to win the national title at two different schools, the only one to win it three times, and the only one to get his teams into the game four times.  Unlike Bryant, he has done this in an era with scholarship limitations and NCAA scrutiny at an all-time high.  I'm not arguing that Saban is better than Bryant, and it might even be a lively debate whether or not Saban is the second-best coach in Alabama history (although I think he edges out both Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade at this point, and closes the book with a win over Notre Dame).  However, he is indisputably the best college football coach in this era.  The fact that Alabama's then-record $4 million-a-year contract offer to woo Saban from the Miami Dolphins in 2007 was heavily criticized now seems laughable.  Even at nearly six million dollars a year at this point, Saban is worth every penny and then some.  Alabama is enjoying another historic high point, and fans should savor every moment.

4.  Notre Dame versus Alabama BCS Will Be Epic

Let's set aside for a moment the game itself.  There will be plenty of time to analyze the personnel, coaches, and position matchups in the weeks leading up to January 7th.  I just want to talk about the historic significance of the game.  On the one hand, you have top-ranked Notre Dame - currently number 1 in the nation in overall winning percentage and fourth nationally in all-time wins (865-301-41).  The Fighting Irish have won 13 recognized national championships (although the program only claims 11) out of 23 total, and have played in 31 bowl games.  The Irish have seven Heisman winners and 96 consensus All-Americans, both NCAA records.  On the other hand you have Alabama.  The Crimson Tide is currently seventh in the nation in overall winning percentage and in all-time wins (826-321-43).  Alabama has won 13 recognized national titles (claiming 14) out of 31 total, and have played in 58 bowl games, winning 33, both of which are NCAA records.  Bama has one Heisman winner and 47 consensus All-Americans.

The two teams are arguably the two greatest programs in college football history, with large, loyal fan bases.  Notre Dame supposedly has the largest following in the nation, but has been largely absent from the national stage competitively since the late 1990s.  Alabama conversely is in the midst of the program's third major "golden age," playing for its third national title in four years, and the Southeastern Conference is having an unprecedented title run.  The media and public attention for this game will be astronomical, and ESPN is already rubbing its collective hands together at the projected ratings.  The fact that these teams have won the most recognized championships among FBS schools and have some previous championship game history (which frankly is completely in Notre Dame's favor) just makes the pairing more attractive to fans of the two teams.  Notre Dame has a 5-1 record against Alabama, and I am really looking forward to an opportunity to even that up a little.  Roll Tide!