In case you hadn't heard, Alabama won college football's national title in 2020. Thirteen victories in 13 games, every one of them against Power 5 competition, all but one by double digits. One national title trophy was handed out after 2020's completion, and the Tide lifted it.
But not everyone runs the same race in college football. Half the game's top division is constitutionally barred from even playing for the title and in practice only 10-ish programs a year begin the year with realistic hopes of even playing for the title, and so it would be foolish to measure all teams with the same stick.
For this exercise, we'll judge 2020 teams not against each other, but against every team that has come before it. We'll learn nothing by declaring the cheetah faster than the frog, so let's instead compare the frog against other frogs.
Eight of the year-end AP Top 25 -- nearly one third of the poll -- posted the highest finish in school history, another handful came close. Who had the best 2020, comparatively speaking?
No. 1 Alabama: Alabama claimed its 18th national title in 2020. The AP ranked Alabama its year-end No. 1 for just the 12th time, so technically speaking this season joins a 12-way tie for first place. But only the 2020 team won their title the way they did it, against an all-Power 5 schedule.
No. 8 Cincinnati: Luke Fickell's 2020 team tied Brian Kelly's 2009 outfit, which also went undefeated before losing a New Year's Six game to an SEC opponent. But Kelly had already left for Notre Dame by the time the Sugar Bowl rolled around, and Cincy lost 51-24 to Florida. Cincinnati very nearly beat Georgia and Fickell is sticking around for 2021, so we can go ahead and declare 2020 the best season in school history. So far.
No. 9 Iowa State: Iowa State did not snap its longest-in-the-Power 5 108-game conference title drought, but it came damn close. It did not win the CyHawk game (because it was canceled). But the Cyclones did beat Oklahoma, they did beat Texas, they played in their first Big 12 Championship, they won their first New Year's Six game, and they finished in the AP Top 10 for the first time in school history. In fact, ISU had only finished inside the AP Top 25 twice before, and never higher than No. 19.
No. 14 Coastal Carolina: Coastal Carolina did not play football until 2003 and didn't join FBS until 2017, so 2020 was a year of firsts. In fact, Coastal had (not surprisingly) never cracked the AP Top 25 before they joined on Oct. 18, and once they climbed in they never left. Jamey Chadwell's team climbed as high as No. 9 before its No. 14 finish in a season that saw an 11-1 record, two wins over ranked opponents and an undefeated regular season.
No. 15 Louisiana:The University of Louisiana cracked the AP Top 25 once before 2020 -- for all of two weeks in 1943, when it was known as the Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning. The 2020 Cajuns won a share of the Sun Belt title, thumped Iowa State on their home turf, and closed the year with their highest-ever No. 15 ranking.
No. 17 Liberty: Another program that had never been ranked before 2020, Hugh Freeze's Flames went 2-1 against the ACC -- winning at Syracuse and Virginia Tech and losing to NC State by one -- and fended off Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl to peak at No. 17.
No. 23 Ball State: Ball State had been ranked once before, in 2008. Those Cardinals spent 10 straight weeks from October through December in the AP Top 25 before falling out after a bowl loss; the 2020 Cards were not ranked at all until upending No. 19 San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. But when you add in that 2020 also saw Ball State's first MAC title game victory and its first bowl victory, and 2020 clearly stands as the best season in school history.
No. 25 Buffalo: Buffalo cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time on Dec. 6 and, after falling out following their MAC Championship loss to Ball State, climbed back in after beating C-USA runner-up Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.
The following programs did not record their best AP Top 25 finishes ever but came close:
No. 2 Ohio State: 2020 stands as the 13th time the Buckeyes finished No. 1 or No. 2, and the program's highest finish since its 2014 national title.
No. 4 Texas A&M: The 2020 Aggies recorded the program's highest AP finish since winning the 1939 national title. The Johnny Manziel-led 2012 and the 1956 outfit finished No. 5 and the program recorded eight other Top 10 finishes between 1939 and 2020, but none higher than No. 4.
No. 10 Northwestern: This season marked Northwestern's sixth AP Top 10 finish, and the first since linebacker Pat Fitzgerald led the 'Cats to the Rose Bowl and a No. 8 finish in 1995.
No. 11 BYU: BYU climbed inside the AP Top 10 for the first time since 2009 and recorded its highest finish since ending the 1995 campaign at No. 5.
No. 12 Indiana: In 2019, IU cracked the AP Top 25 (for the first time since 1994, ending the longest Power 5 AP poll drought at the time)... for all of one week. The 2020 Hoosiers didn't just make an appearance at the party and then duck out, they stuck around for 10 weeks. Tom Allen's team climbed as high as No. 7, giving the program its highest ranking since 1967. The No. 12 ranking was IU's sixth AP Top 25 finish and its highest since that '67 Rose Bowl campaign.
We can safely say the following programs either equaled or posted the best seasons in school history: Alabama, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Liberty and Ball State.
But who had the best apples-to-apples season? For me, it boils down to Coastal Carolina or Liberty. Coastal beat two ranked teams, hosted College GameDay in the ultimate 2020 game, won a share of their first Sun Belt title (and beat co-champion Louisiana in the regular season)... but Liberty won head-to-head. Had Coastal held on in that Cure Bowl overtime thriller and the Chanticleers would be an easy answer, but they didn't.
Because of that, I'll have to say that while Alabama won the 2020 national title, Liberty won 2020.