TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though the College Football Playoff has been around since 2014, and its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series, went back to 1998, the concept of having the sport’s national champion determined on the field is still a relatively young one.
College Football is turning 150 years old this season, and the bowl system has been firmly entrenched though a lot of it. So much so that many believed they would never see a playoff of any kind during their lifetime.
Of course, the biggest benefactor of the change has been Nick Saban, who has won six national titles, including five at Alabama. The Crimson Tide is the only team to make the playoff all five years, and the 2011 title came in a rematch game that wouldn’t have occurred during the old system.
So how many titles might have Saban won if college football was still under a pure bowl system?
Here’s one way it could have played out, assuming many of the conference bowl alignments stayed intact. In this scenario, league championship games exist as the SEC began the trend in 1992:
Pre-Alabama: In 2003, LSU was in danger of being on the outside looking in for the national title, finishing the regular season 10-1, but ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 after defeating No. 5 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, 34-13. However, with the Tigers set to meet No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0) in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 2 USC (10-1) facing No. 4 Michigan (10-2) in the Rose Bowl, the door is still open for the Tigers. The 21-14 victory results in a split national title.
2008: After running the table during the regular season, Alabama is in the driver’s seat and will play for the national title with a win against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. It doesn’t happen. The Gator go on to dismantle No. 2 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the crown while the No. 4 Crimson Tide faces No. 18 Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.
2009: The breakout win against Florida in the SEC Championship Game has Alabama and Boise State as the nation’s only two undefeated teams, but the Sugar Bowl is beholden to the Big 12 and eager for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 match up with Texas. The result is the same, Saban completes his first undefeated season.
2010: Alabama’s loss at LSU ends any title hopes, and the Crimson Tide’s bowl destination takes a tumble as well. The No. 16 Crimson Tide ends up at the Chick-fil-A Bowl against No. 23. Florida State, and not playing on New Year’s Day.
2011: There’s no rematch to the Game of the Century. LSU closes out at No. 1 and wraps up the league’s automatic invitation to the Sugar Bowl, where the Tigers manhandle No. 3 Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide gets the Cotton Bowl as a consolation prize, for a lackluster game against No. 8 Kansas State.
2012: Alabama’s stunning win against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game has fans clamoring for a showdown with the undefeated Fighting Irish, but Notre Dame signs on for the Orange Bowl while the Crimson Tide is obligated to face No. 5 Kansas State again in the Sugar Bowl. UND easily defeats No. 12 Florida State to claim the national crown.
2013: Not playing in the SEC Championship Game kills Alabama’s title chances. With Auburn heading to the Sugar Bowl the Crimson Tide returns to the Cotton Bowl to face Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, undefeated Florida State gets an unexpected matchup against No. 4 South Carolina in the Orange Bowl to win the title.
2014: At 12-1, Alabama is in the driver’s seat and heading back to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, where No. 5 Baylor is the only thing standing in its way. No. 4 Ohio State’s upset of No. 2 Oregon in the Rose Bowl results in a split national championship, but Alabama has a claim on the prize.
2015: Alabama is 12-1 again, but ranked only No. 2 behind undefeated Clemson. The Crimson Tide heads to the Sugar Bowl for yet another matchup with No. 4 Oklahoma, while the Tigers top No. 5 Iowa in the Orange Bowl to win the national title.
2016: After running the table, Alabama heads to the Sugar Bowl for a rematch with Oklahoma, while No. 2 Clemson gets No. 5 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. The undefeated Crimson Tide gets widely hailed as being the best team in college football history.
2017: Alabama’s loss at Auburn costs it a shot at the national championship, but the Crimson Tide still has to see how things play out. It’s a No. 4 vs. No. 1 matchup against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, where Alabama takes care of business, but after winning the SEC Championship Game No. 3 Georgia wins the shootout against No. 2 Oklahoma and subsequently edges the Crimson Tide in the polls.
2018: The Crimson Tide finishes the regular season undefeated and heads to the Sugar Bowl for what has become an incredibly repetitive matchup, Alabama vs. Oklahoma. It wins to claim the national title, while Clemson’s stomping of Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl isn’t enough to propel it to No. 1 in the polls.
So many titles would that have been for Saban?
Five, including three split.
But the years of his titles would likely have been very different.
This is the third story in the "What if" series: