Alabama and Nick Saban are on the precipice of history

TAMPA, Fla. -- We take No. 1 Alabama's success for granted. Leaves turn, snow falls, Tide win. Alabama fans always expect the Crimson Tide to win, but at this point, seven years after Nick Saban won his first national championship in Tuscaloosa and a few hours before he may win his fifth, against No. 2 Clemson, the Tide's annual success is treated as a given.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney tossed off a comment about playing on Alabama's national championship team in 1992, the Tide's first in 13 years. "It's not like now. They win it like every year or every other year with Coach Saban," Swinney said.

Ah, we are guilty of Saban's most feared bugaboo: complacency. So take a minute. In the Snapchat world in which we live, when attention spans expire in seconds and history is something that occurred in 2012, let's look at a picture bigger than the one on our iPhones.

As programs go, as history goes, as the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET on ESPN & ESPN App) goes, Alabama stands on the precipice of doing what no FBS school has done in the 80 years of the poll era: win five national championships in eight seasons.

Notre Dame under coach Frank Leahy won four in seven seasons in 1943, '46, '47 and '49, a streak that began during World War II, when a lot of schools put their uniforms in mothballs. Miami won four in nine seasons under three different head coaches (1983-91).

No other school has won more than three in any 10-year period. Not Oklahoma in the '50s, when Bud Wilkinson led the Sooners on a still unmatched 47-game unbeaten streak.

Not Alabama in the Bear Bryant era, when the legendary coach won three national championships in the '60s and again in the '70s.

Not Florida State when it finished in the top five in 14 consecutive years (1987-2000).

Not Nebraska when it finished No. 1 three times in a four-year span (1994, '95, '97).

And not USC in the 2000s, when it came within a last-minute touchdown by Texas of winning three consecutive national championships.

None of them achieved what Alabama is achieving under Saban. If you want to stretch back before the polls, and compare Saban to Knute Rockne's run at Notre Dame in the 1920s or Fielding Yost's at Michigan in the first quarter of the 20th century, go right ahead.

It's hard enough comparing today's game to the 1970s and 1980s, when schools handed out more than 85 scholarships, much less to the era before that, when Southern schools refused to sign African-Americans.

This means it's harder to win games now than it ever has been. The television contracts signed by the Power 5 conferences have left their member schools awash in money. The arms race has narrowed the gap in resources -- indoor practice fields, weight rooms, training tables -- among the top schools.

And still, Alabama wins.

Think of the teams that have risen and fallen since Saban won his first title at Alabama in 2009. Oregon has been to two national championship games and now is a reclamation project. Texas, since losing to the Tide in the Rose Bowl seven years ago, has one top-25 finish, and is starting over for the second time with Tom Herman.

And still, Alabama wins.

Joe Paterno won 10 games at Penn State that season. That's how long ago this run began. LSU fired Les Miles after he lost five straight games to Saban, his predecessor in Baton Rouge.

And still, Alabama wins.

How many coaches have won at least five national championship games and never lost one? John Wooden, Geno Auriemma, Vince Lombardi. Not one of them is a college football coach. Saban is 5-0: four wins at Alabama and one at LSU.

And yes, Saban could be removed from that list before the sun rises again. Perhaps a loss to Clemson would blot his record. The Clemson head coach doesn't think so. When Swinney had the tossed-off comment above read back to him and was asked to assess what Saban has achieved, Swinney used the adjectives "incredible," "unbelievable," and also said "I really have no words, because it's really hard to do."

So is finding a topic for which Swinney has no words.

Three living coaches have approached the Saban standard. Bobby Bowden came close at the FBS level, winning two national championships at Florida State and leading the Seminoles to 14 consecutive top-five finishes. The other two did so in lower classifications of the NCAA.

In Division III, Larry Kehres led Mount Union to 11 national championships in 27 seasons, including a run of seven in 11 seasons (1996-2006). He retired four years ago and on Monday, the College Football Hall of Fame named him to its 2017 class.

"Who would you compare it to in [FBS] football?" Kehres asked. "I can't think of anyone who has dominated like this for this length of time."

Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl built North Dakota State into a program powerful and consistent enough to win three consecutive FCS championships -- and the Bison extended the streak to five after he left for Laramie.

"What I think is so phenomenal," Bohl said, "it's kind of like NASCAR. ... When you have the same number of scholarships, the same number of coaches, the same number of days you can be out recruiting, the same number of strength coaches, what has been accomplished there has really been exceptional."

Bohl said he admired how Saban's demand for excellence extends to the farthest tentacle of the program.

"There are messages that get sent," Bohl said. "Even little things that you may not think that are that big a deal. You look at Alabama's uniforms. ... Alabama has the same damn uniforms they had when Bear Bryant was there. Well, everybody was all caught up with what Oregon's doing, all these damn uniforms, all the different messages they were sending? Alabama knows who the hell they are on Saturday, I can tell you that."

The 87-year-old Bowden's knowledge of college football dates to his World War II childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. Speaking on the ESPN Championship Drive podcast, Bowden said we shouldn't try to place Saban in history until his career is history.

"I'm such a big Bear Bryant fan," Bowden said. "He was my hero when I was coming up. ... He can't win any more doggone ballgames. But Coach Saban, let him finish his career, then let's see who we think is the greatest. Because right now," he said with a laugh, "it's going to be one of those two, it looks like."

Bryant won six national championships in the poll era. He won't win any more. Try finding someone who says that about Saban.