Now that the season is done, and Alabama has accomplished what no one else in major college football ever has by winning five national titles in under a decade, a thought went through my mind. If I were to rank the seasons of the past decade, how would they come out? I thought it might be an interesting exercise.
This is just one fan’s humble opinion. I’d never deign to say I know enough about the inner workings of the game to call this an “expert” analysis. That being said, I can run the numbers and remember my impressions of the teams, their players, and games they played, and arrive at a reasonable conclusion of where these 10 teams rank.
And yes, I know that Saban just finished his 11th year at Alabama. I’m starting in 2008 because a) 2007 would obviously be last, even with the vacated wins, b) it was 2008 that made the college football world realize Bama was back and thus began the dynasty as we know it, and c) a ranking from 10 to 1 just seems more natural than 11 to 1.
So, here’s some criteria.
- Championships matter (a lot), but they don’t necessarily have the final say.
- Teams with more highly-regarded (i.e., award-winning) players are at an advantage.
- Potential for greatness doesn’t matter in hindsight; you are what your record says you were.
Here we go…
- 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
- Coaches #11, AP #10
- Capital One Bowl champs
The one team in this entire stretch that makes every Alabama fan think, “if only…”
A lot of fans I know still think this might be the most talented group in the Saban era. The reigning Heisman winner and an eventual Doak Walker winner in the backfield. Julio Jones out wide. A defense that included Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Courtney Upshaw, among others. How did this group lose three games? That’s exactly what Kirk Cousins asked as he left the Citrus Bowl stadium in Orlando following a 49-7 demolition of his Michigan State team. Well, Stephen Garcia has the game of his life for South Carolina against you. You get pipped by an eventual 11-2 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Then give up a 24-0 lead to your in-state rival and their Heisman-winning QB, who just happen to go on and win the national title themselves. This would be the first time Bama let their foot off of the gas against Auburn in this decade. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.
But we’re talking about 2010 now. And this team seemed to underperform. They finished 5th in the nation in total defense and 10th in rushing defense. They were 3rd in scoring defense, but when it really mattered: 35 to South Carolina. 24 to LSU. 28 to Auburn. Mark Barron was the only first-team All-American mention. This all sounds harsh, and I recognize that. I also recognize that at many schools, 10-3 with a pretty nice bowl win would make for a special season. That this season is 10th speaks to the level that Saban has raised the bar for Alabama football.
- 12-2 (8-0 SEC)
- Coaches/AP #6
- SEC Western Division champs
- Sugar Bowl
The one that started it all. And a pretty good team, at that. They just ran into a juggernaut.
The 2008 team was the first indication that Saban would have no qualms about throwing freshmen to the wolves. Mark Ingram and Julio Jones were among the many freshmen who would see significant playing time on this team. Bama didn’t quite yet have the talent to dominate opponents, but they had a lot of heart, and big wins against Clemson in the opener and Georgia in the “blackout/funeral” game made the nation take notice. A 36-0 win against Auburn in the Iron Bowl to break a six-game losing streak to the Tigers was certainly satisfying. But then came Florida and Tim Tebow, and after putting up a tremendous fight for three quarters, the Gator buzzsaw was too much in the 4th in a 31-20 loss. Florida went on to the national title. Bama found themselves up against an undefeated Utah team with everything to prove in the Sugar Bowl, and couldn’t dig themselves out of an early hole to finish the season on a down note.
Bama tied for third in the nation in total defense, were second against the run, and seventh in scoring defense. It was the team that set the tone for the salty Nick Saban defenses to come. Andre Smith won the Outland Trophy and was a unanimous All-American. Antoine Caldwell, Terrence Cody, and Rashad Johnson were also given first-team All-American honors.
- 11-2 (7-1 SEC)
- Coaches #8, AP #7
- Sugar Bowl
The other team that forgot to close the game out against Auburn. And thanks to a certain end-of-game play, they’ll never forget it.
There were cracks in the armor earlier, though. The second game of the season saw Johnny Manziel do more Johnny Football things and Bama had to outlast Texas A&M 49-42. Bama played a sloppy game against what would be a 7-6 Mississippi State team, turning over the ball four times, in a 20-7 win. Other than those two games, though, this team was a powerhouse heading into the Iron Bowl. They beat Virginia Tech by 25 at the beginning of the season, blasted Tennessee 45-10, and gave LSU a 21-point shellacking (the Tigers beat Auburn that year by 14 and their other two losses came by three-point margins).
But that play against Auburn happened, as well as multiple chances to put the game out of reach beforehand. And a brokenhearted team with nothing left to play for limped out against Oklahoma and got beat handily.
Bama finished 7th in rushing defense, 5th in total defense, and 4th in scoring defense. C.J. Mosley won the Butkus, and AJ McCarron won the Maxwell and was second in the Heisman voting. Mosley, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, and Cyrus Kouandjio were consensus first-team All-Americans.
- 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
- Coaches/AP #4
- SEC Champions
- Sugar Bowl
One of the most entertaining teams in the Saban era, and also one that I think perhaps overachieved a little bit. This was the first year of the Lane Kiffin experiment, and accordingly, things were turned on their heads. It featured a former running back taking snaps and the feature player in the offense was not a running back, but a wide receiver…and what a wide receiver!
Amari Cooper was supposed to be pretty good, but people weren’t expecting the next Julio Jones. And he wasn’t – he was better. Cooper took the lid off of defenses designed to counter the Alabama ground-and-pound games of the past. After 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman, Cooper slumped a little as a sophomore, partly due to injury. But no one could have expected the heights to which he’d rise in 2014. Cooper caught 124 passes for 1.727 yards and 16 touchdowns – at Alabama. All three of those were not only single-season Alabama records, they blew away the previous marks by a wide margin. Not surprisingly, Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award, finished third in the Heisman voting, and was also named a unanimous All-American. Thanks in large part to this, that former running back, Blake Sims, set a school record for passing yards in a season.
This team had a difficult road. Ole Miss was at their absolute zenith under Hugh Freeze, and beat the Tide 23-17 in Oxford. Mississippi State had Dak Prescott and was #1 coming into town; the Tide found a way to win, 25-20. LSU was an overtime victim, 20-13. They beat Arkansas 14-13 in the pouring rain in Fayetteville, a game that I attended; I wondered out loud, “how did Bama just win that game?” And then there was the Iron Bowl, perhaps the wildest game I’ve ever personally attended. The teams basically played basketball on grass, as both offenses flew up and down the field. The final 55-44 score is the highest point total ever in an Iron Bowl. Cooper’s line that day: 13 catches/224 yards/3 TDs. They caught a mediocre Missouri team in the SEC title game and dispatched them with ease, 42-13. The loss to Ohio State in the CFP semifinals stung, but overall this team was really fun to watch.
Statistically, the team finished 15th in scoring offense, 6th in scoring defense, 4th in rushing defense, but only 12th in total defense. In the “that’s really good for Alabama” department, they finished 28th in passing offense. In addition to Cooper, Landon Collins was named a unanimous All-American. Arie Kouandjio, JK Scott, and Trey DePriest also made All-American at various levels.
- 14-1 (8-0 SEC)
- Coaches/AP #2
- SEC Champions
- Peach Bowl Champions
One second away from glory.
I mentioned earlier that championships wouldn’t necessarily always be the trump card in ranking these teams. That being said, winning a national title has to be considered table stakes for being included in the top half of this list. That’s incredible on the face of it, but I think it’s a valid statement. Given that, if somehow Hunter Renfrow doesn’t catch that touchdown pass on the pick (and yes, it was a pick) play and Alabama wins against Clemson, I’d rate the 2016 Alabama team the #1 or #2 team in the Saban era. That’s the knife edge we’re dancing on here.
This team was loaded for bear. The defense had that year’s Nagurski, Lombardi, Bednarik (all Jonathan Allen) and Butkus (Reuben Foster) award winners on it, in addition to a future Thorpe/Bednarik winner in Minkah Fitzpatrick. The offense, in the final year of Lane Kiffin’s tenure as offensive coordinator, was anchored on the line by Outland Trophy-winning Cam Robinson. It utilized running back by committee – but it was quite an impressive committee. Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, and Joshua Jacobs got most of the touches. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart made for an excellent 1-2 wideout combo, totaling 16 receiving touchdowns between them. And then there was a freshman quarterback by the name of Jalen Hurts – a threat more with his legs than his arm, but one you had to take account of in the rushing game. Not many could – Hurts ended up with the second-most rushing yards on the team and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Most teams didn’t even come close. Ole Miss, who had been a thorn in the side for the past two years, came the closest in the regular season, succumbing 48-43. No other team came within ten points of the Tide, although that win, over LSU, was even closer than the final 10-0 score would indicate. Bama crushed USC 52-6 in the season opener; the Trojans would finish the season #3 in the nation. They dominated Florida in the SEC title game 54-16, and Washington in the CFP semifinal in the Peach Bowl 24-7. And then came Deshaun Watson and company…
The team was 1st in scoring defense, 2nd in total defense, and 1st in rushing defense. Allen, Foster, and Robinson were unanimous All-Americans; Fitzpatrick was a consensus All-American, and Marlon Humphrey also earned first-team All-American status.
- 13-1 (7-1 SEC)
- National Champions
- Sugar Bowl Champions
Someone has to be the shortest giant.
Throughout the Saban years, Alabama has been pretty fortunate with the injury bug. No quarterbacks have missed starts. Most years, one or two guys will get hurt, and sometimes will even miss extended periods of time. But this year was the exception to the rule. Two linebackers were thought to be lost for the season in the first game against Florida State. The linebacking corps as a whole in particular was decimated, as no fewer than seven players missed games due to injury at some point in the season. If there was ever a season where “next man up” was the mantra, this was it. The injuries didn’t stop there. Minkah Fitzpatrick was held out of a game to heal up, and played the national championship game with a kidney injury. Josh Jacobs played every game after the Ole Miss game with a broken bone in his foot. Even our kicker missed a game due to injury!
The other thing of note this year was the offensive coordinator change. Brian Daboll replaced Lane Kiffin, and with that came a shift from the West Coast style back to multiple sets, with a heavy emphasis placed upon the running game. Bama took to it like a fish to water, averaging 250 yards rushing per game, good for 13th in the country. Again, the wealth was spread among the backs. Damien Harris reached 1,000 yards for the second time in his career (on the exact number, in fact), but no other back eclipsed that mark. Jalen Hurts again had a good season on the ground from the QB position, picking up 855 yards. The passing game was a bit underwhelming; aside from Calvin Ridley, no receiver had more than 264 receiving yards. The defense was statistically as good as you get; the Tide finished first in the nation in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense, and second in pass efficiency defense.
Bama feasted on inferior competition at the beginning of the year, winning games against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss 59-0 and 66-3, respectively. But things got tougher. Texas A&M fought the Tide tooth and nail before finally falling 27-19. The end of the regular season was particularly rough. A 24-10 win over LSU seems good on the surface – but Bama was outplayed for long stretches of the game. It took a last-minute drive for a touchdown to pull out a 31-24 win over Mississippi State. But the injuries took their toll, and the team finally ran out of gas against an Auburn squad riding the high of beating #1 Georgia in Jordan-Hare. The 26-14 loss eliminated Alabama from the SEC title race and dropped them into the danger zone of being left out of the playoff for the first time. However, they earned the final playoff spot and a matchup with Clemson for the third straight year. The 24-6 win was perhaps the best the defensive game played by the team all year long, and set up an all-SEC final with Georgia in Atlanta. We all know the story from there – 13-0 halftime deficit, Tua comes off the bench, throws three touchdown passes, game goes to overtime, Bama holds Georgia to a field goal then hits perhaps the biggest walk-off play in the history of college football with a 41-yard touchdown pass on their possession. The 26-23 final was a game Alabama fans will remember forever.
Minkah Fitzpatrick won the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards, and was a unanimous All-American. Rashaan Evans also made first-team all American.
- 13-1 (7-1 SEC)
- National Champions
- SEC Champions
- BCS National Championship Game winner
The team that won in the trenches.
It’s always fun to talk about “who was the best x” or “which team had the best y”. Bama has had some great offensive lines in the Saban era. 2015’s OL won the initial Joe Moore award for offensive line performance. But for my money, the best offensive line in the Saban era belonged to the 2012 team. How good was this group? They took the previous year’s Outland Trophy winner and moved him from left tackle to center so that they could put someone even better there. Oh, and that guy they moved to center, Barrett Jones? He ended up winning the Rimington Trophy for best center. The left tackle? Cyrus Kouandjio, who’d become a consensus All-American in 2013. The left guard? Chance Warmack, a unanimous All-American in 2012. The right tackle? D.J. Fluker, a top-10 NFL Draft pick. The least-heralded member of the group was the right guard, Anthony Steen, who was the only member of the starting OL to not have a penalty or give up a sack that season. Did I mention this group was really good?
One last thing before I move away from the offensive line: the backup center? Ryan Kelly, who’d win the Rimington himself in three years.
But what about the defense? Yeah, yeah. First in the country in scoring D, first in rushing D, first in total D. Standard Bama stuff.
With that group of road-graders, it makes sense that you’d smash your way to victory, and that’s exactly what Bama did. #8 Michigan got destroyed 41-14 in the opening game, and no team came closer than nineteen points until the LSU game in Baton Rouge, where AJ McCarron was called upon to conduct a game-winning drive with 94 seconds left. The drive culminated in a screen pass to T.J. Yeldon (AJ to TJ, as I like to call it), that went 28 yards and lifted Bama to a 21-17 win. The next week, the legend of Johnny Football grew, as Texas A&M walked into Bryant-Denny Stadium, staked itself to an improbable 20-0 lead in the first quarter, and held on for a 29-24 upset that burnished Johnny Manziel’s eventual Heisman campaign.
Then Bama got mad. Back to back 49-0 whippings of Western Carolina (ok, whatever) and Auburn (!) took the Tide to Atlanta, where they met Georgia for the right to go to the BCS Championship game. The game that resulted is still my candidate for the most thrilling game in the history of the SEC Championship. Alabama won 32-28 in a game that had it all, and advanced to meet undefeated Notre Dame for the title. That game was anti-climactic after the all-timer that was the SEC title game, as the Tide bulldozed the Irish 42-14 to win the national title for the second straight year.
In addition to Jones’ and Warmack’s award and All-American status, Dee Milliner was a unanimous All-American at cornerback, and C.J. Mosely was a consensus All-American linebacker.
- 12-1 (7-1 SEC)
- National Champions
- BCS Championship Game winners
The greatest defense in the Saban era.
Old-time Bama fans would tell you the 1961 defense was the best in the program’s history. I was a 15-year old when Alabama won the 1992 national championship with “the Bookends”, Langham, Teague, et al, and I thought I’d never see a defense better than that. And I’ve seen some incredible defenses throughout the Saban era, many of whom led the nation in several defensive categories.
But if my life depended upon a defense making a stop on one drive, I’d send out the 2011 unit.
Let’s just get the raw numbers out of the way first.
- First in rushing defense, at 72.15 yards per game, 10 yards per game better than #2 FSU.
- First in passing defense, at 111.46 yards per game, 20 yards per game better than #2 South Carolina, and 50 yards better than #3 Illinois.
- First in total defense, at 183.62 yards per game, almost 80 yards per game better than #2 LSU.
- First in pass efficiency defense, with a rating of 83.69, over 10 points better than #2 South Carolina.
- First in scoring defense, at 8.15 points per game, over 3 points per game better than #2 LSU.
This defense had five of its starters make All-American teams, led by Mark Barron’s unanimous and Dont’a Hightower’s consensus selections; the others were Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie, and Courtney Upshaw. Bill Connelly of SBNation and Football Outsiders, he of the S&P+ and F+ advanced stats, calls this group the best college football defense since 2005, when those statistics were created.
They played some offense as well: Barrett Jones won the Outland Trophy and was a unanimous All-American, and Trent Richardson won the Doak Walker, was third in the Heisman poll, and was a unanimous All-American. This team was stacked.
Except for LSU (in the regular season), no one came within sixteen points all year of this Tide team, and except for Alabama (both games), no one came within thirteen points of LSU. They were two of the best teams in college football history, flawed only by a loss to each other. Alabama just made sure to win the one that counted more – a 21-0 domination in the BCS National Championship Game in which LSU gained 92 yards of total offense for the game and ran one offensive play inside Bama’s half of the field all night. And that, to me, is why they get the nod over the 2012 team despite no SEC title – they had to beat an all-time great team (who won the SEC) in a quasi-road environment (New Orleans) to win the title – and they did it with the most dominant defensive game in BCS history.
- 14-0 (8-0 SEC)
- National Champions
- SEC Champions
- BCS Championship Game winners
The one that won them all.
After the 2008 season, the Alabama faithful had a lot to be excited about. The team had finished with two straight losses, sure, but they were to teams that had one combined loss between them. It seemed like a lot of talent was coming back, and with one more year of seasoning, who knows how far they could go? Well, how about to Pasadena?
The offense began the legacy of the Alabama running back pipeline. It featured Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, who saw significant playing time as a freshman. Ingram, of course, became Alabama’s first-ever Heisman winner in 2009, racking up 1,658 rushing yards (a school record at the time) and 17 touchdowns. Richardson wasn’t too shabby either – he had 751 yards and 8 scores. The line was solid, led by consensus All-American Mike Johnson at guard. But as usual, it was the defense that made the engine go. With Terrence Cody up front, Rolando McClain in the middle, and Javier Arenas at corner, there were All-Americans at every level. But McClain was the straw that stirred the drink. He was the Butkus Award winner that year, anchoring a defense that finished second nationally in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, and scoring defense. It’s also worth mentioning that Alabama’s notorious kicking adventures were nowhere to be found this year – Leigh Tiffin made 30 of 35 field goals and became the only kicker in the Saban era to be named a first-team All-American.
After a ten-point win over Virginia Tech in the season opener in Atlanta, Bama steadily moved up the rankings while not having any game closer than 14 points until the Tennessee game, where it took two Terrence Cody field goal blocks, one on the final play of the game, to preserve a 12-10 victory over the Vols. A tight game against LSU saw a simple wide receiver screen pass to Julio Jones turn into a 73-yard touchdown, providing the winning points in what ended as a 24-15 game. Then, there was the Iron Bowl, in which Auburn threw everything at the Tide, including a surprise onside kick after an early score and another touchdown, resulting in a 14-0 deficit for Bama. The Tide roared back, eventually going on a game-winning 79-yard drive in six minutes to score with less than 90 seconds to go and win 26-21. The rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship Game was close – for a half. The Tide and the Gators traded punches and Bama led 19-13 at the break, but Bama used some steady offense and timely interceptions to hold the Gators scoreless after the break and pull away for a 32-13 win. That sent Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game for the first time, where they met Texas. In the midst of spotting the Longhorns six points, Texas QB Colt McCoy, a Heisman finalist himself, was knocked out of the game with a shoulder issue. Texas fans swear that “if Colt hadn’t gotten hurt”, things would have been different. Bama fans might retort that Colt didn’t play defense. Both Ingram and Richardson ran for over 100 yards and scored twice. Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense feasted on Texas turnovers – five of them, including a picked-off screen pass by Marcell Dareus that he returned for a touchdown, and two more in the second half deep in Texas territory that led to 13 more Bama points. With the 37-21 victory, Saban had his first national title in Tuscaloosa, and the Tide’s ninth perfect season.
- 14-1 (7-1 SEC)
- National Champions
- SEC Champions
- Cotton Bowl Champions
The most complete team of the era, and the toughest-tested.
Ranking the top three in this list is like trying to rank your kids. You’ll feel like you’re doing the other two teams an injustice. All three of these teams have a good reason to be #1. 2011 had the D to end all Ds and whipped the only team that beat them in a rematch. 2009 is the only one that can say “no one beat us.” So, why 2015? Let me count the ways:
The defense, as usual, was incredible: first in rushing defense, third in total defense, third in scoring defense. With the exception of two games, it never gave up more than 23 points. (We’ll get to each of those games in a bit.) How good was this defensive line? Jonathan Allen, who won practically everything a DL could win in 2016? He was a backup on this line. Consensus All-American A’Shawn Robinson led the charge up front. By the time the 2018 NFL Draft is done, there’s a good chance that there will be five linemen in that group who were eventual 1st or 2nd round picks. How good was the linebacking corps? Reuben Foster, who would win the Butkus in 2016, wasn’t even the best inside linebacker on this team, because Reggie Ragland was a unanimous All-American this year. There might be as many as seven linebackers in this group who are 3rd-round picks or better in the NFL draft. They led the nation in sacks with 53. The secondary? The “weak” unit of the defense? Just Marlon Humphrey, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, and a true freshman by the name of Minkah Fitzpatrick. They were tenth in the country in interceptions. The Bill Connelly article I mentioned above, which said that the 2011 team had the best college defense since 2005? This unit ranks second on that list. Not just for Alabama – overall.
You want offense? Well, let’s start with the fact that the offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line unit in the country. Cam Robinson wasn’t yet an Outland Trophy winner, but he would be the next year. Ryan Kelly won the Rimington for best center. O.J. Howard was criminally underused (until the Clemson game, heh heh), but ended up being a 1st-rounder in the NFL. Calvin Ridley stepped right into Amari Cooper’s sizable shoes as a freshman and promptly had the best freshman season by an Alabama wide receiver in the history of the program – 89 receptions for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns.
Oh, they also had this guy, name of Derrick Henry. You might have heard of him.
While this was not the most prolific Alabama offense, it was perhaps the one best-suited to Saban’s modus operandi: after getting a lead, choke the life out of the opponent by handing the ball off to Henry over and over. Several games this year had fourth quarters that were Henry-dominated, including taking the last nine minutes off of the clock in one drive in the win over LSU, and calling Henry’s number 14 consecutive times in the fourth quarter in the win over Auburn. The end result was a stat line to remember – 395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns, all not only single-season Alabama records, but SEC records as well. Henry won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award, and the Walter Camp Award, and was a unanimous All-American.
There’s also the matter of who they played. The 2015 Alabama team played the most difficult schedule by an eventual national champion in history. Of the 15 teams Alabama played, 14 had a winning record, 13 played in bowl games, 8 won their bowl games, and 6 won 10 or more games. Alabama beat two other Power 5 conference champions: the Big 10’s (Michigan State) and the ACC’s (Clemson). Eight of Alabama’s opponents were ranked in the final AP or coaches poll. Alabama’s opponents’ record against teams not named Alabama in 2015: 134-49. That’s a 73% combined winning percentage, the highest opponent combined winning percentage of any national championship team in NCAA history.
What did it take to beat this Alabama team? Against an eventual 10-win, top-10, Sugar Bowl champion Ole Miss team, Alabama a) fumbled the opening kickoff on the way to losing five turnovers without gaining one themselves, b) handed the Rebels short fields numerous times as a result of those turnovers, c) gave up what could only be described as a miracle touchdown pass where Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly sidearmed the ball out of desperation to avoid a sack, had it bounce off of a helmet and into the arms of a waiting Ole Miss player, who proceeded to take it for the score, d) changed their quarterback mid-game in an attempt to jump-start the offense, which despite recent history is not something you normally want to do, and e) as a result of all this, fell behind by twenty and had to operate completely outside of their normal game plan of ground and pound with Henry. They lost by six points, 43-37.
The other game where Bama allowed more than 23 points? Just an all-time classic against a Clemson team that was aiming to be the first 15-0 team in college football since 1899, that’s all. That Clemson team was impressive: it boasted three first-team All-Americans, including DeShaun Watson, among a host of other high-level talent. They’d beaten three top-10 teams already. The Tigers averaged 38 points per game, and showed every reason why. It took 200 yards receiving by O.J. Howard, a surprise onside kick, a 95-yard kickoff return by Kenyan Drake, and even that almost wasn’t enough, as the Tide prevailed 45-40.
Alabama has put up great numbers over the Saban years. But to do it, and win fourteen games, against that schedule? That’s why I believe the 2015 team is the best of the Saban dynasty years.