Alabama nearing football's pantheon

Alabama is attempting to do what no program has done in the BCS era: win a third national championship and cross the threshold into a dynasty. It has been 15 years since a program last did so. Tom Osborne, dogged for two decades as the coach who couldn't win the big one, led Nebraska to its third big one in four seasons and retired as the Cornhuskers coach.

And now Nick Saban has brought the Crimson Tide to the precipice of matching Nebraska. No. 2 Alabama, with a defeat of No. 1 Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship on Jan. 7, would become the first team to win a third national title since the BCS began in 1999.

That third crystal football is the key that will unlock the door to the pantheon of college football. We have identified eight dynasties that have ruled the sport in the modern era (beginning in 1936 with the Associated Press poll, the most widely accepted measure of a champion in the pre-BCS era). By happy accident, the dynasties spaced themselves apart, arriving at the rate of one per decade until the onset of the BCS.

The AP poll and the coaches' poll that began in 1950 provide the yardstick by which to measure a dynasty: three national championships in a several-year span, with superb records in the interim. Notre Dame (1946 to 1949) and Nebraska won their three in a four-year span, as Alabama is attempting to do. Others, such as USC (1967 to 1974), won three across several seasons.

The bottom line is that the metric of three national titles chose itself, because history has shown it's so hard to accomplish. The list of schools that won national championships in a short period of time is much lengthier.

Winning two national championships can be achieved by one extraordinary group of players. The same is technically true for winning three crystal footballs -- the Crimson Tide have 21 fourth- or fifth-year players. However, only eight, including multi-award-winning offensive lineman Barrett Jones, actually played on all three teams.

The larger truth is that for a program to win three national championships, recruiting success must be sustained over a longer period of time. Recruiting success must be sustained as coaches job-hop, as players leave early for the NFL and as opposing schools dangle greater opportunities for playing time on less successful teams.

Jerry Duncan, the president of the A Club of former Crimson Tide athletes, played for Bear Bryant from 1964 to 1966, making him a part of Alabama's first modern dynasty.

"From just a pure athletic standpoint, just pure athletes, nothing compares to what Coach Saban has put together," Duncan said. "You can look at this last four years, and if you want to throw in '08 [11-2], what he has done here is phenomenal."

Former Tide offensive lineman John Hannah, a member of both the College and the Pro Football Halls of Fame, added, "I can't remember in my mind [this] amount of talent that's been assembled under one unit. I mean, Alabama has had some great players, but for them to put out, how many did they send to the pros last year, 9 or 10? I mean, that's never been done."

The 21 Tide players attempting to win a third ring notwithstanding, the scope of a third national championship in four seasons can be seen in the offensive backfield. Saban and his staff have recruited players who have been able to maintain the program's excellence.

In 2009, Greg McElroy played quarterback, Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy at tailback and freshman Trent Richardson backed up Ingram. In 2011, quarterback AJ McCarron handed off to Richardson and Eddie Lacy. McCarron returned to quarterback this season. Richardson gave up his senior season to go to the NFL. Lacy replaced him as starter, and freshman T.J. Yeldon has rushed for 1,000 yards as his backup.

It is no accident that only one program has built a dynasty in the past 20 years. With no disrespect meant to any team on the list, dynasty came more easily when Notre Dame played a nine-game season in the 1940s, or Alabama played a 10-game season in the 1960s, or even when the Crimson Tide and Miami played an 11-game seasons in the 1970s and 80s. In recent years, national champions regularly play 14 games.

Dynasty came more easily before 1974, when polls declared a national champion before the bowl games. For that matter, dynasty came more easily when there were five bowls, not 35.

Minnesota won its three AP national championships (1936, 1940, 1941) in eight-game regular seasons and didn't play in a bowl after any of them. In fact -- shades of the Crimson Tide a year ago -- the Golden Gophers finished second in the Big Ten to Northwestern in 1936 but still finished No. 1 after the Wildcats lost to Notre Dame late in the year.

The dominance of Notre Dame in the postwar era, when the Fighting Irish played four seasons without a loss (36-0-2, 1946 to 1949) is self-evident. Oklahoma won 47 consecutive games without a loss from 1953 to 1957. Not only does that streak remain the longest in college football history, but only two programs have come within one season of matching it. Miami (2000 to 2002) and USC (2003 to 2005) both won 34 consecutive games.

Earlier iterations of the Hurricanes and Trojans qualified as dynasties without the winning streaks, because they brought home more hardware over longer periods of time. USC won three wire-service championships from 1967 to 1974. Miami built the longest sustained dynasty, which also happened to be the most unusual. In the decade beginning in 1983, Miami won four national championships (1983, '87, '89, '91), fell one loss short of four others ('85, '86, '88, '92), and did it all under three different head coaches: Howard Schnellenberger (1983), Jimmy Johnson (1984 to 1988) and Dennis Erickson (1989 to 1994).

The odds of Alabama becoming a dynasty have narrowed considerably as the Crimson Tide have whittled their task down to one game. Should Notre Dame upset Alabama, the Tide still would have an opportunity to create that dynasty. But the task of achieving it would expand from winning one game to winning 14 next year. Even that is a bargain. When the FBS schools begin the four-team playoff in 2014, the national champion likely will have played 15 games, nearly double what Minnesota played when it established its dynasty more than 70 years ago.