Nebraska football fans had a little extra rooting interest in Monday’s BCS National Championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. In defeating the Irish, Alabama won its third national title in four years, a feat not accomplished since Nebraska’s title run from 1994-1997.
So now that Alabama has matched the championship-winning feat of Nebraska’s run in the '90s, the question inevitably arises—which was the greater run?
In the Omaha World-Herald, Dirk Chatelain did a great deal of statistical heavy lifting to compare the two runs, and most of the numbers here come from his outstanding work.
Alabama has had 17 All-Americans and one Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram, 2009) play for the Crimson Tide football program during its current run.
During Nebraska’s run, the Cornhuskers had only 12 All-Americans. And Nebraska did not have a Heisman Trophy winner during its championship run, although a strong case could be made that Eddie George is still in wrongful possession of the Heisman Trophy he stole from Tommie Frazier in 1995.
Alabama has won three titles in four years while having to navigate arguably the strongest conference in modern football history. The Crimson Tide have regularly played NFL-laden rosters in LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, Auburn and other SEC conference foes.
Meanwhile, Nebraska’s strongest conference opponents during its run were a Colorado squad on the back end of its stretch of success and a Kansas State team getting its feet underneath it for the first time. Oklahoma was still reeling, and Nebraska lost its only matchup against Texas during the 1994-97 run.
Alabama’s three national championships are unquestioned. Nebraska’s three titles are not. In 1994, although Nebraska was voted No. 1 in both major polls, Penn State ended the season undefeated, with at least an argument for a title as well. And in 1997, the AP poll voted Michigan No. 1.
It was only the coaches’ poll, released after the AP poll, which gave Nebraska its third national championship.
This argument may not be entirely fair to Nebraska, as the BCS was created to eliminate split national titles (not always successfully, of course). But the fact remains that Alabama’s titles are less disputed than Nebraska’s.
In Alabama’s championship run, the Crimson Tide lost five games. In two of its title-winning years (2011 and 2012), Alabama lost a game during the season. In Alabama's four-year run, it has only had one perfect season.
In Nebraska’s championship run, the Cornhuskers only lost two games, both during the 1996 season in which NU did not win a title. Nebraska won three national championships with three perfect seasons in four years.
Sure, Alabama has navigated the SEC to win its titles, a conference tougher than what Nebraska faced. But Nebraska’s strength of schedule over that period favors comparably to Alabama’s. Nebraska beat 10 teams ranked in the Top 10 and 17 teams ranked in the Top 25 compared to Alabama’s 12 and 19, respectively.
So, as Lee Corso would say, not so fast about assuming Alabama had the tougher run. While the SEC of 2009-12 was the tougher conference, overall, Nebraska’s strength of schedule during its 1994-97 run matches very well with Alabama’s modern-day run.
Are all championships created equal? Looking back on the six titles in question, there can be little doubt that the most dominant performance was put on by Nebraska in 1995.
In that year, the Cornhuskers beat four top-10 teams by an average of 30.75 (!) points. Nebraska never scored fewer than 35 points in a game and its smallest margin of victory was by two touchdowns.
In Alabama’s only perfect-season title year (2009), the Crimson Tide had a two-point win at home over a Tennessee team that finished the year 7-6, a five-point win over Auburn and a BCS title game win over a Texas team that lost quarterback Colt McCoy on its first possession and never really recovered.
The achievements of both teams—current-day Alabama and mid-90s Nebraska—are remarkable examples of sustained excellence in a setting where it is very difficult to stay on top of the world. Picking one as better than the other should not in any way diminish the accomplishment of either team.
And it should be remembered that Alabama’s run may not be over. If the Crimson Tide win the final BCS championship in 2014, the debate over which dynasty was greater will be truly settled.
But based on the evidence at hand, it’s hard not to give the nod to the mid-90s Nebraska teams. Playing a schedule at least roughly equivalent to each other, Nebraska had three perfect seasons, lost three fewer games and produced a season in 1995 which could be argued to be the most dominant single-season performance in the history of college football.
So while Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide dynasty strides atop the world of college football at the moment, that dynasty has not dethroned the accomplishments of Tom Osborne’s 1994-97 Cornhusker dynasty. At least not yet.
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