Can You Compare Alabama's Title Runs to the Nebraska Dynasty of the '90s?
In the college football world, there's no more loaded word than "dynasty." It's the highest honorific for any program, and the standards set by previous dynasties make issuing such a designation for a current college football program a dicey affair.
Tom Osborne's Huskers were a dynasty. At their peak, they won three titles in four seasons, and Osborne won his final 39 conference games straight. And yet, even then, were it not for Osborne's late spree of titles with guys like Tommie Frazier, Grant Wistrom and a host of other greats, we'd still be debating whether or not Nebraska had truly earned the "dynasty" title (and it would be a grossly tiresome debate).
Since Alabama has now matched Nebraska's spree of three titles in four years, the natural desire is to put the two programs on the scale and compare them, to see which mastermind of college football reigns supreme, Osborne or Alabama head man Nick Saban.
Such a discussion likely makes for great debate, and there's no harm in debate (as long as Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti are in no way involved), but here's the less-thrilling reality: Comparisons of the two dynasties are, at best, limited in their usefulness. They are different programs in different conferences from different eras under different circumstances.
That the two programs come from different conferences is not a pointless distinction. Alabama's SEC is one where wins are extremely difficult to come by; during this current streak, five of the SEC's seven national champions had at least one loss coming into the game. Heck, LSU was 10-2 before walloping Ohio State for the title five years ago.
Nebraska, on the other hand, played in a rather top-heavy Big Eight (and then Big 12). While Kansas State was on the slow rise and Colorado occasionally put together great seasons, the reality was that Nebraska and Oklahoma were the two titans of the conference. During Osborne's 25-year reign, either Nebraska or Oklahoma won at least a share of 22 of the 25 conference titles.
To contrast, four SEC teams have won national championships in the conference's seven-year reign, and Georgia was one play away from being the SEC's fifth representative in the streak this season.
So when two teams dominate a conference as thoroughly as Nebraska and Oklahoma did (and even when the Big 12 was formed, Texas was still stagnating under John Mackovic), what it essentially creates is a one-game season for the two teams, with a basket of cupcakes to fill out the rest of the schedule.
And to Nebraska's credit, the Huskers stayed dominant for a long, long time, keeping those other programs out of arm's reach. That is not an insignificant achievement.
Which four-year run is better?
Also, Alabama doesn't have that other historically great foil on an annual basis in the SEC. Yes, the conference is much tougher as a whole. But Les Miles' LSU is not what Barry Switzer's Oklahoma was, and Saban avoided Florida and South Carolina this year.
In other words, Nebraska had much fewer hurdles to clear, but that annual game with Oklahoma was higher than any Saban's had to contend with on an annual basis.
Thus, you see Nebraska's 49-2 record in its four-year span of greatness and compare it to Alabama's 49-5—to say nothing of Nebraska's three undefeated titles and Alabama's one—and you have two choices: Give the credit to Nebraska for having the more dominant record, or recognize that the two situations are different by miles and refuse to compare the two.
The latter is wiser.
Further, the two styles with which the two teams played are totally different. Nebraska ran teams off the field on offense (with zero regard for sportsmanlike final scores), then finished the job off with an elite defense. Alabama, meanwhile, chokes its opponents out with a historically great defense, then scores all it needs to in order to win comfortably.
So, what's the more impressive number: Nebraska scoring 44.3 points per game in its four-year stretch or Alabama giving up 11.1 points per game in its run? Yes, Nebraska's margin of victory was better, but again: two different conferences, two different average levels of competition.
What joy is there in quantifying which of the dynasties is better, anyway? Under Tom Osborne, Nebraska did awesome things—especially in the mid-'90s—and it has three rings to show for that run. Under Nick Saban, Alabama has done awesome things, especially around the turn of the decade, and it has three rings to show for that run.
We can appreciate both situations for what they were and are and leave them at that.
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