Guerry Clegg commentary: Which program really is the best in college football?

sports@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 6, 2013 

Last week, ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt debated an interesting topic with his special guest, Chad Millman, Editor In Chief of ESPN The Magazine:

Which fan base will be more obnoxious if they win another national championship, Notre Dame's or Alabama's?

Millman thought it was clear: Notre Dame. His case was based on sound logic but was hardly flattering to Alabama. His point: Notre Dame fans have been quieted somewhat by the quarter century drought since their last national championship. A win tonight -- particularly over Alabama and breaking the SEC's six-year championship streak -- would relight the fans' obnoxiousness.

Van Pelt argued that Bama fans have become insufferable after winning two of the last three championships. Nick Saban has already stood atop water longer than Peter. Just imagine how Tide fans would be after winning three out of the last four.

Millman countered with a point that not even Van Pelt could refute: Bama fans can't get any more obnoxious than they already are.

So that's what this BCS championship game is for the impartial majority. Even non-Bama fans around the SEC are conflicted. Which is lesser repulsive: Enduring another year of snide boasting from Bama fans or having this unprecedented streak broken by the one school that every fan base south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border loves to hate. (Immediately north of said border, the debate would be greeted with, "There's a football game tonight? We've got our SEC opener at Vandy to worry about, and you're still talking about football?")

The stakes in tonight's game are more than a mere national championship trophy to claim. Also on the line in the only major sport that considers opinion to be fact is the alleged claim of greatest program of all time.

Even the championship count is more marketing rhetoric than fact.

Got 14? Yeah, well, neither does Alabama, at least not in the eyes of the college football world outside Tide Nation. And make no mistake, the Crimson Tide following is national, even if the epicenter is pretty much the entire Yellowhammer State, save Lee County and parts of the immediate vicinity.

Their passionate fan-base is beyond geographical -- and, many critics would say, beyond logical. It's not satisfying enough to lay claim to nine "legitimate" (we'll get back to that concept) national championships; that is, the ones recognized by the mainstream of college football. No, they had to do a retroactive recount some years ago when they got antsy between the 1992 and 2009 titles. Someone dug deep into the irrelevant pages of the history books to add five to their then-total of seven, hence the catchy T-shirt phrase "Got 12? We do!"

Not exactly. The first five were bestowed by such dubious entities as The Football Thesaurus, the Davis Poll, and Houlgate and Helms, which sounds like an accounting firm.

Three of the 10 championships that Notre Dame claims are of the same variety. The first "legitimate" championship for either school was won by Notre Dame in 1943.

Ah, there's that word "legitimate" again. Let's address that. In 1936, the Associated Press began polling sports writers and proclaiming a national champion based on the regular season only. AP's chief competitor, United Press International, began polling coaches in 1950. Likewise, UPI crowned its championship based on the regular season. AP started including bowl games in 1965; UPI, not until 1975.

That's significant because Bama lost its bowl game in two of its so-called legitimate championship seasons -- 1964 (unanimous champs) and '73 (UPI title), the latter to Notre Dame. Another split decision came in the 1978 season. The writers and broadcasters voted for Alabama; the coaches, for Southern Cal. The only team to beat Bama that year? Southern Cal.

Even one of the Tide's most impressive championships -- last year's 21-0 beat down of LSU -- retained an asterisk. Bama had lost to LSU at home in the regular season, so it didn't even win its own division, let alone its conference.

Notre Dame's legitimacy is equally debatable. The first four championships came in the '40s, when the country was either at war or recovering. Its fifth came in 1966 and is of particular irritation to, of all schools, Alabama. The Irish and Michigan State finished undefeated and tied each other. Neither played in a bowl game. Bama went undefeated and buried Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. (One point often overlooked by almost everyone is that the Tide did not face Georgia, the SEC co-champs, or Florida, the top runner up.)

Then there was Notre Dame's '77 title. The Irish beat top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl and vaulted from fifth to No. 1 -- passing Alabama, which beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Bama's only loss that season was at Nebraska. The Irish lost to Ole Miss, which finished with a losing record.

At least this much is certain. After tonight's game, it will be clear which team is the best in college football. And that team resides in the SEC.

Yep, Texas A&M.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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