Saban’s squad the best ever?

Spencer White

It seems that with every passing year, there is always a declaration to throw substantial superlatives at something.

The perennial “trial of the century.” A musical album or a film is placed into the pantheon of all-time greats. And in athletics, a high-achieving team is considered for status among the best the school or franchise has seen.

In Alabama, where recent national success has been fleeting until last week, the practice has sprung up around water coolers and newsrooms across the state.

Is the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide the greatest squad the storied program has produced in its history?

The question can prove especially troublesome in a state that has prided itself on tradition and history on the gridiron. Not only do Alabama fans now have 13 contenders from the ranks of national champion, there are several other groups, like the undefeated and uncrowned 1966 team, that have a legitimate case for wearing the all-time tag in the annals of Tide history.

In terms of pure accomplishment, there is certainly little evidence to counter the argument that Nick Saban’s team this year has not earned consideration at the least. This Alabama team reached several unparalleled milestones during the season. The program earned its first 14-0 season, and only the third in NCAA history.

Sophomore running back Mark Ingram dipped, dived, and dodged his way to Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy, while junior Rolando McClain became the second Tide linebacker, along with the legendary Derrick Thomas, to earn the Butkus Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top linebacker. Six players earned AP All-American honors, another high mark for the Capstone, and of course there’s the small matter of winning the BCS National Championship, Alabama’s first since the system was implemented in 1998.

But there are other important criteria to consider when stacking a team among the elite levels of dominance in collegiate athletics. Among them include difficulty of schedule, respect among other coaches and the media and the national strength of competition.

Alabama’s schedule this past season included contests with five opponents who were consensus top 25 teams, including three top-10 squads. From an opening season match up with Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome, to midseason clashes with Ole Miss and LSU to post-regular season battles with Florida and Texas, who finished the year ranked third and second respectively, the Tide proved all season long that it could beat any team in the country.

Throw in the fact that the average margin victory in the five victories was by more than two touchdowns and the argument for the Tide’s efforts against stellar competition is considerably strengthened.

Alabama was also a part of an interesting national phenomenon this season in regards to the records of the national powerhouses. In a season with relatively few late upsets, five teams finished the regular season undefeated. The Tide’s defeat of Florida narrowed the group to four, while their victory over Texas narrowed the group to three.

Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl triumph against the Texas Christian Horned Frogs left just Alabama and the Broncos without defeat in the 2009 season.

In the AP Poll, which has no ties to the BCS anymore, the Tide received every single first-place vote and once-defeated Texas and Florida finished ahead of Boise State in both the AP and Coaches’ Poll. This obvious show of respect for Alabama and its opponents gives further credence to their stake at earning the title of best ever.

But ultimately, these comparisons whittle away to irrelevant in the grand scheme of history. Radical leaps in technology, nutrition, strategy and resources render the differences in teams across eras too widely to make any kind of definite claim. For example, the 4-9 2003 Alabama team would likely mop the floor with any of the Tide Rose Bowl championship teams from the 1920s and 1930s. Does that make the 2003 squad a better team?

Whatever the answers to these and other questions regarding this 2009 squad’s place in history, it is a safe bet that Nick Saban and the players are quite content knowing that they were the best team this past season.