If unranked Tennessee beats No. 1 Alabama today, it will no doubt beat the odds. Rarely does an unranked team beat a No. 1 team as powerful as Alabama on the road. At the same time, though, an Alabama win could achieve something more amazing and many more times improbable.
There have been more than 73,000 major college football games played since the 1870s, and only four times has a series been decided by the same margin of victory in four or more straight games. Such a streak has happened only once since 1939. But today, Alabama has a shot at becoming the second program to accomplish this feat if it beats Tennessee by 31 points—the margin of victory it had against Tennessee in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Almost everybody who loves an underdog will root for Tennessee to win today, but those who really want to see an upset against the odds should root for Alabama to win by 31.
Here are the four previous instances of the streak:
1. 1876-1879: Columbia over Stevens Tech, 0-point margin (1-1, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0)
2. 1877-1880: Princeton over Harvard, 1-point margin (1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 2-1)
These streaks happened when the sport more resembled rugby than our modern version. Fifteen players composed each side, forward passes weren’t allowed, the quarterback position hadn’t yet been invented and the field was 140 yards long. Goals were scored one point at a time, and teams could take possession of the ball for a whole half by incurring repeated safeties—for which there was no penalty or change of position.
If you aren’t yet convinced that 1870s football was a ridiculous, ridiculous thing, check this: the concept of downs wasn’t even around. Suckers.
3. 1936-1939: Villanova over Detroit, 7-point margin (13-6, 7-0, 13-6, 13-6)
Somewhere, Howie Long smiles; the NFL Hall of Famer knows just how good his alma mater was in the 1930s. In fact, in 1937 and 1938, Villanova didn’t lose at all and tied twice. In that span, it beat Boston University and Auburn.
4. 1997-2000: Georgia Tech over Clemson, 3-point margin (23-20, 24-21, 45-42, 31-28)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a rivalry that, in recent decades, has been more consistently competitive than this one. Nine of the games between 1996 and 2006 were decided by five points or less. A touchdown catch with seven seconds left in the 2000 game helped secure a win over No. 4 and previously undefeated Clemson.
In case you’re wondering, yes, such a streak has happened in the pros, too.
There has been only one instance in NFL, AFL and AAFC history (nearly 15,000 games) in which a series has had the same margin of victory four games in a row. It started in 1942, in the second game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, and lasted through the teams’ first game in 1944.
The Packers won each game by 21 points: (28-7, 35-14, 27-6, 27-6).
H/t to Andrew McKillop of FootballGeography.com for majority of the statistical research.