Alabama and Clemson will play for the national championship on Monday night and, as with any championship game, more sits on the line than a trophy and a banner. History hangs in the balance, a fumble waiting to be scooped up. How we think about college football in the future will be shaped in real time by what happens in Tampa.
With that in mind, I took a quick look at what a win in the third national title game of the College Football Playoff era would mean for the coaches on each side of Tide-Tigers II.
Let’s start with Dabo Swinney.
In short, while he’s likely done enough to secure his place in there already, a national championship would rocket Dabo straight into the College Football Hall of Fame five years after his retirement — and he’d go in there as one of the greatest postseason coaches of his era.
A win on Monday night puts him in a group of five active (or recently active) FBS head coaches to own national championships, each of them future Hall of Famers — Les Miles, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban.
And he’ll be the only coach in that group to own victories over every last one of them.
- Miles won three of his first five meetings with Saban before losing his final six, split his six games against Meyer and split his four meetings (as a heavy underdog each time) with Stoops. But he lost his only meeting with Dabo, and he never faced Jimbo.
- Stoops has beaten Saban, swept his two meetings with Jimbo and split four with Miles. But he’s 0-4 against Meyer and Dabo.
- Meyer has beaten Saban and Stoops — one for a national title and the other in a national semifinal — and split his six meetings with Miles, but stands 0-for-3 against Jimbo and Dabo.
- Jimbo is a combined 5-3 against Dabo and Meyer, but he’s never beaten Stoops and he’s never faced Saban or Miles.
- Saban is the most accomplished among this group, because, come on, of course he is. He drove Miles out of Baton Rouge. He won a national championship over Stoops at LSU. He drove a stake through Meyer’s Florida dynasty in the 2009 SEC Championship. He beat Dabo for last year’s national crown. But he won’t face Jimbo for the first time until next year’s season opener.
This leaves only Dabo.
Dabo handed Stoops his last two postseason losses — a 40-6 blowout of Oklahoma in 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, and 37-17 runaway in last season’s Orange Bowl. He’s done the same for Meyer — winning a 40-35 shootout over the Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 season and a 31-0 blanking in last week’s Fiesta Bowl. Dabo beat Miles in their only meeting, a 25-24 win in the 2012 Peach Bowl. Dabo’s never faced Fisher in the postseason, but he has beaten Florida State two years in a row.
All that’s left is a victory over Saban — a victory that would make Dabo the only coach to ever beat Saban in a national title game, a task Bob Stoops, Mack Brown, Les Miles and Brian Kelly could not accomplish — to complete Dabo’s tour of victories over his era’s greatest competitors.
And this brings us to Saban.
Saint Nick can lose 40-0 and still retain his title as his generation’s greatest coach. But he’s running a different race at this point, a sprint against history, a run to catch down one man and one man only.
Saban already owns five national championships, placing him in a club shared only by pre-World War II giants Knute Rockne (who led Notre Dame to five titles, all by 1930), Howard Jones (winner of five at Yale and USC, none after 1939) and Bernie Bierman (owner of five national titles at Minnesota from 1934-41) and the only modern day giant still larger than Saban himself — Bear Bryant. (With all due respect to Rockne, Jones and Bierman, we’re going to throw each of them out moving forward. Pre-World War II college football is just too murky to compare moving forward.)
A win over Clemson gives Saban his second set of back-to-back titles, joining only Rockne (who repeated in 1919-20 and in 1929-30), Bierman (who won three in a row from 1934-36 and repeated in 1940-41) and Bryant, who repeated in 1963-64 and again in 1978-79.
Bud Wilkinson never repeated twice. Neither did Tom Osborne, or Darrell Royal, or Barry Switzer. Bobby Bowden, Woody Hayes, John McKay, Joe Paterno, Steve Spurrier, Ara Parseghian, Urban Meyer, great as each of them were and continue to be, none of them repeated once.
Only Bryant has in the modern era, and what Saban stands to accomplish stands above even the Bear.
Bear’s six national championships spanned 19 seasons. Saban’s would span 14. Bear’s repeats stretched over a period of 16 seasons. Saban’s? Six. Bear coached at four schools but only won his titles at Alabama. Saban turned LSU into a Godzilla, spent two seasons in the NFL, then turned Alabama into Godzilla on a diet of nuclear protein bars.
On top of that, it’s simply harder to win titles in today than it was in Bryant’s era. Only one of Bryant’s six title teams faced a No. 1 or No. 2-ranked opponent in its bowl game, and two of those champions claimed their titles before going on to lose their bowl games.
The goal posts have been pushed backward since then, and Saban is still sailing right through them. He beat No. 1 Oklahoma in 2003, No. 2 Texas in 2009, No. 1 LSU in 2011, No. 1 Notre Dame in 2012, No. 3 Michigan State and No. 1 Clemson in 2015 and already dispatched No. 4 Washington this season. All that’s left is another win over No. 2 Clemson to make Nick Saban the most accomplished coach in college football history — and he’ll have done so in the game’s most challenging era.
In the words of a former Alabama quarterback: “History is about to unfold, I guarantee it. So my question is this: who’s gonna make it?”