Which Alabama Championship Team Was Best: 2009, 2011 or 2012?

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2013

Only a week removed from establishing Alabama as the first modern-day college football dynasty of the BCS era, head coach Nick Saban is back at work preparing for the 2013 season.

While Saban only dwells on the past for a limited time, that doesn't mean that the rest of the college football world has to.

Three national titles in four years is almost unfathomable in the age of scholarship limits, conference parity and the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

So which of those teams was the best?

The 2009 edition of the Crimson Tide was the only team during the current dynasty to run the table and finish the regular season undefeated. But it wasn't without stress.

Alabama narrowly escaped an upset loss to Tennessee, led by then-head coach Lane Kiffin, thanks to Terrence Cody's blocked field goal as time expired. The Crimson Tide then closed out the regular season with a come-from-behind 26-21 win on the road against intra-state rival Auburn.

The hallmark of that team—much like every Crimson Tide squad during the last four years—was a punishing rushing attack. Mark Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to becoming the first Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history. A young freshman named Trent Richardson wasn't so bad himself, rushing for 751 yards and eight touchdowns.

Defensively, that group was led by linebacker Rolando McClain, safety Mark Barron and cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas. They finished the season with as the second-best defense in the country, giving up an average of 245.4 yards per game—one spot behind TCU (239.7 YPG).

It was a team that controlled the tempo, controlled the line of scrimmage and was smart with the football.

In other words, the stereotypical Alabama team.

The 2011 Crimson Tide dropped the one game to LSU but came back to topple the Tigers when it counted most to claim the crystal football. It also was one of the most talented teams in college football history.

Trent Richardson led the offensive charge rushing with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns, while quarterback AJ McCarron threw for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns in a wildly efficient season.

That defense was simply filthy. Led by linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, the Crimson Tide finished the season with the top defense in the country after giving up a minuscule 183.6 yards per game—77.9 yards per game ahead of second-place LSU.

Not second in the SEC—second in the country.

That's insane.

Six members of that defense were drafted in the 2012 NFL draft alone, with several contributors likely to be selected in the upcoming draft.

That was too much for the most recent Crimson Tide team to live up to, although it certainly gave the 2011 team a run for its money.

Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both topped the 1,000-yard mark on the ground in 2012, combining for 29 touchdowns. McCarron shed the "game manager" label in favor of the more appropriate "gunslinger," throwing for 2,933 yards, 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

It was "next man up" for that defense, as defensive tackle Jesse Williams, linebackers Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley and cornerback Dee Milliner took on more of a leadership role for the Tide. 

Like a broken record, the Crimson Tide again finished with the top defense in the country (250 YPG), 3.8 yards per game ahead of Florida State.

Even though it had a loss, it's clear that the 2011 Crimson Tide team was by far the best of the modern-day "Crimson Dynasty."

While all of the defenses from the title teams could be considered elite, the 2011 defense put itself in the discussion of being the best defense of all time.

McCarron didn't have a great season at quarterback and the offense wasn't flashy, but it accomplished what Saban needed considering how stifling that defense was. Behind Richardson, the Tide were able to control the tempo, wear their opponents down and control the clock.

Debating the ranking of these three teams is like deciding if you want filet mignon, New York strip or a bone-in rib eye at a fine steakhouse. You can't really go wrong no matter what you choose. But the 2011 Crimson Tide team tops them all.

At least, for now.