What’s on the line in tonight national championship game? A national title, duh. End of article, close tab, let’s go home.
Seriously, though: tonight’s game between Alabama and Ohio State is more than just a simple contest where the team with the most points lifts a trophy afterward. Tonight’s events will define legacies and shape careers for years to come, its echoes fanning out well beyond the final horn. How would we view Mack Brown today had Vince Young tripped on his way to the end zone on that fateful 4th and 5 run? Would Jimbo Fisher be at Texas A&M today had Florida State not mounted that 21-3 comeback in January 2013?
So while in some ways tonight’s stakes are obvious at first blush, others are not. For the final On the Line feature of the 2020 season, let’s dig in and think about what this game means for Alabama, Ohio State, Nick Saban and Ryan Day.
This would be National Title No. 18 (the AP poll credits them with 11, tonight’s result pending) and, equally impressive, would mark the ninth different decade in which the Crimson Tide planted that script A flag on the mountaintop. The 1950s and the ’80s are the only decades in which Alabama does not claim a title, dating back to the 1920s.
Furthermore, it would give Alabama three titles in the Playoff era alone, vaulting them back above Clemson and thereby ending any debate as to where the Tigers have pulled even with the Tide as the sport’s premier program. No more 1A and 1B; Alabama would be 1 and Clemson 2.
On the flip side, a loss means Alabama will have gone three consecutive seasons without winning the national title. That’s never happened before in the Saban era.
Think about what that says about the sustained excellence the program has enjoyed under its current head coach — a 3-year run in which Alabama will have gone 37-4, reached two CFP title games, won two SEC titles (including the only 11-0 title run in SEC history) and posted three AP top-10 finishes would be the low point of the Saban era, at least in terms of national title trophies.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, leading into the third Alabama-Clemson title game in four years, I wrote a column wondering aloud who college football’s third best program was at the time — Ohio State, Georgia or Oklahoma.
An Ohio State victory would exterminate that debate and birth another: Has Ohio State pulled even with Alabama and Clemson — or passed them? Ohio State would equal Alabama and Clemson’s two CFP era titles, and this Buckeye team would have beaten each of them in rapid succession to win it. (Ohio State also beat Alabama en route to the 2014 title.)
Furthermore, it would add another bullet point to Ohio State’s argument as the top program of college football’s modern era. This would be Claimed Title No. 9, with eight coming after 1950. Ohio State would vault past Miami and USC for sole possession of fourth place with six AP-recognized titles — all six coming in different decades, under five separate coaches. Ohio State’s argument is less dependent than its peers on transcendent coaches, because everyone who coaches for Ohio State either already is or quickly becomes a transcendent coach. (For evidence of how rare this is, Alabama has one post-1950 national title won by someone other than Bryant or Saban.)
Looking back just since the hiring of Jim Tressel in 2001, Ohio State has won 10 games* 17 times and, since the hiring Urban Meyer they will have posted an undefeated regular season, won or played for a national title, or won a major bowl game nine times in nine seasons.
* We’ll give them credit for 2020 here
Has a coach up for a national title ever had less at stake personally than Nick Saban?
Saban’s GOAT status is secure win or lose, but it would nudge him ahead of Bear Bryant in the official count, 7-6.
Saban’s seven rings would be more impressive than Bear’s six, simply because of the eras in which they were won. Back in the poll ‘n’ bowl era, Bear only had to beat one No. 1 or 2-ranked team to claim his titles, and in fact beat teams ranked No. 5, No. 6 and No. 9 in bowl games. A win tonight gives Saban 10 postseason victories over teams ranked No. 4 or higher, far outpacing Bear’s three.
Bryant’s argument used to be longevity — 19 seasons separated his first title (1961) and his last (1979). But Nick would almost have him here, too: 18 seasons separate his 2003 title at LSU and this one.
In practical terms, a loss could change the way Saban fills out his staff moving forward. He’d be 2-3 in CFP title games, with his offensive coordinators taking head coaching jobs before all three losses (Lane Kiffin, FAU; Mike Locksley, Maryland; Steve Sarkisian, Texas). A loss tonight could lead Saban to either force future assistants to delay head coaching decisions until after Alabama’s season is complete — either officially or unofficially — or to pursue coordinator candidates who have no head coaching aspirations in the first place.
Finally, to expand on the point above, a loss tonight means Saban goes three consecutive seasons without standing on the winner’s stage. He hasn’t done that as a college coach since 2000-02.
While Saban has relatively little to gain here, Day has the entire world waiting in front of him.
Tonight marks his 25th game as Ohio State’s head coach, including the three in which he pinch-hit for Urban Meyer back in 2018. With a victory, he’ll have won 24 of them, and along the way collected two Big Ten titles, two AP top-3 finishes, one win over Clemson, one win over Alabama and one national title. His only loss would be a CFP semifinal in which his team led most of the game and threw an interception on the game-ending drive.
And he’s 41 years old.
Only one coach in college football’s Championship Era (since the BCS’s creation in 1998) won a national title while celebrating fewer birthdays than Day. In fact, only six have won one before they hit their 50th birthday.
Here’s a look at the ages at which coaches won their first (or only) title in the Championship Era.
Age of First National Title
Bob Stoops: 40
Ryan Day: 41*
Urban Meyer: 42
Dabo Swinney: 47
Jimbo Fisher: 48
Phillip Fulmer: 48
Gene Chizik: 49
Jim Tressel: 50
Steve Spurrier: 51
Pete Carroll: 52
Nick Saban: 52
Mack Brown: 54
Les Miles: 54
Ed Orgeron: 58
Bobby Bowden: 64
Of course, winning one title doesn’t guarantee you any more. Stoops climbed the mountaintop at 40 and never did it again. But at the worst we can say Day is on track to become the next Bob Stoops — a guy who wins a ton and is in the mix to a title nearly every year until he gets tired of it.
At best, Day will be primed to become… well, the sky really is the limit here, isn’t it?