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Who has more titles, Saban or Bryant? Here’s the hilariously complex answer(s)

Nick Saban arguably already has more championships than Bear Bryant, but historical context is a huge consideration.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

A stat you’ll keep hearing until Bama wins its next national title: Nick Saban can win a sixth Associated Press championship, surpassing fellow Tide legend Bear Bryant’s all-time record. That’s an amazing feat.

1. But there’s a reason broadcasters will specify they’re only referring to AP titles.

College football history is full of NCAA-recognized championship selectors who disagree. That’s in present tense because it happened as recently as 2017.

To wade into the historical debate and name one champion for each season (I did that here) is to invite angry emails, so it’s simpler to cite one particularly prominent selector and leave all debate at their feet, rather than your own.

If you wallow in a little complexity, it’s clear Saban has the most seasons in which his team had the best title claim. But if you go even further, you realize it’s still murky. Let’s do both.

2. Saban already has six national titles. The AP record shorts him one.

Saban’s Tide won the Playoff in:

  • 2017
  • 2015

And Saban teams won the BCS in:

  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2009
  • 2003

That’s six wins in title games. So why only five AP titles entering 2018?

In 2003, the AP awarded USC its final #1 ranking over Saban’s LSU, despite the Tigers beating Oklahoma in the BCS title game.

LSU was #1 per the Coaches Poll (as mandated by the BCS), National Football Foundation, and the majority of NCAA-recognized computer rankings. Saban’s team is considered 2003’s best champ by basically everybody but some human pollsters at the time and USC itself.

The AP is the closest thing to a universally acknowledged standard (this sentence is carefully worded), though it doesn’t always match the historical consensus. USC’s claim is fair, but this photo is hard to dispute:

LSU v Oklahoma

3. Bryant coached in the pre-BCS era, so his list is much less concrete.

The AP crowned Bryant in:

  • 1979
  • 1978
  • 1965
  • 1964
  • 1961

Those remain reasonable. I’d give ‘78 to USC due to a head-to-head win in Alabama, but nothing retroactively invalidates these claims. (More on ‘64 shortly.)

Saban’s six is more than Bryant’s five. So we’re done here, yes?

Lmao no.

Bama backers also call Bear the 1973 champ. That’s when the Tide finished #1 in the Coaches Poll (which still didn’t do a post-bowls ballot), but then lost a bowl to Notre Dame, the full season’s consensus champ. Bama trails Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in #1 rankings in ‘73 by NCAA-recognized selectors. For decades, zero full-season selectors called ‘73 Bama #1, until the Berryman computer’s retroactive rankings.

So there’s no need to include ‘73 unless you’re a Bama fan. Several other teams hang on to old titles like this (‘70 Texas, ‘70 Ohio State, ‘65 Michigan State, ‘53 Maryland, ‘51 Tennessee, ‘50 Oklahoma, ‘47 Notre Dame, ‘35 SMU, etc.) — they can claim whatever they want, but we don’t have to agree at the expense of teams that had better seasons.

You could likewise give Alabama’s ‘64 title to undefeated Arkansas, though at that time, the AP also awarded its championship before bowl season. Within the next decade, the college football world agreed bowls should count, but since neither major poll had decided that by ‘64, Bama’s claim is fair. (If history can only pick one ‘64 champ, however, it’s Arkansas.)

There’s more!

Bama should claim a piece of 1966, but doesn’t. The Tide went unblemished and rank #1 in two NCAA-recognized computers, while consensus champ Notre Dame and fellow claimant Michigan State took the polls after tying each other on the field. However, if the Tide don’t claim ‘66, why should anybody else claim it for them?

(I also think Bryant’s Kentucky claiming the 1950 title many decades later is fine, but now we’re way off course.)

4. Let’s briefly simplify it like this: Saban already has the best championship argument in more seasons than Bryant has.

If we look back, weigh the historical evidence, and name only one champ per season:

  • Saban has the best claim in six seasons (‘09, ‘11, ‘12, ‘15, and ‘17, plus ‘03 split title with BCS win).
  • Bryant has somewhere between three (‘61, ‘65, and ‘79) and seven (‘64 with bowl loss, ‘66 unclaimed title, ‘73 with bowl loss, and ‘78 split title with head-to-head loss), depending on your standard.

By the harshest count, Saban has already doubled up Bryant.

5. No, we’re not done yet! This is all unfair to Bryant for one simple reason: he never got consensus title shots just for finishing the regular season in the top four, something that has benefitted Saban.

There’s a chance modern rules would’ve increased Bryant’s count, even though it would’ve meant putting all his claims at risk.

  • If there had been a BCS at the time, Bryant would’ve gained title shots in ‘71 and ‘74, perhaps winning one.
  • If there’d been a four-team Playoff, he probably would’ve made the field in ‘66, ‘72, ‘75, ‘77, and ‘81, likely winning one or so.

Meanwhile, playing under Bryant’s system would’ve cost Saban titles.

  • The 2017 Tide ranked #4 entering bowl season. If we apply ‘70s bowl rules to ‘17, then Oklahoma probably would’ve played Clemson in the Orange Bowl or Georgia in the Sugar, and the final #1 would’ve been one of those three teams.
  • A ‘70s-style Sugar wouldn’t have given ‘11 Bama a rematch against LSU. We probably would’ve lucked into the LSU-Oklahoma State title game we wanted IRL.
  • Saban probably wouldn’t have a 2003 poll title, since the Coaches Poll wouldn’t have been obligated to move his team ahead of USC (and Saban might not’ve gotten a bowl against Oklahoma or USC anyway).

However! Saban could’ve gotten some of those back, if we continued messing with eras.

  • Under Bryant’s rules, Saban likely would’ve won the ‘16 championship he lost to Clemson, only needing a bowl win over a team like 10-2 Oklahoma.
  • With a Playoff, the Kick Six would’ve amounted to Bama getting a rematch against Auburn, then possibly FSU in the final.
  • The Tide might make a 2008 Playoff over USC, meaning a semifinal against OU and possibly a rematch against Florida.

6. Either way, it’s easy to argue Bama has the two most adaptive dynasties ever.

Yale won a ton of titles in the regional 1800s, and North Dakota State’s FCS reign is nearly impossible to top, but Saban’s run in modern major college football is unprecedented.

Yet Saban has called Bryant “probably the greatest coach that ever coached college football, and that would be my vote.”

“It would stay that way for a long time, because he had success over a long, long period of time,” Saban said.

“The environment of college football changed dramatically during his time, and he won championships running the wishbone, he won championships passing the ball. He effectively changed with whatever his players could do and whatever was required at the time.”

Saban might as well have been describing himself. After Bryant adopted the option and won two titles with it, Saban went from being the most prominent member of the anti-tempo chorus to overseeing a totally modern, pass-first, spread offense.

7. So the lesson of all this, from both these coaches and the historical record alike, is this:

You can’t control how the times change, but you can control how you change with them.

8. Oh, and either way, neither Saban nor Bryant has the most national championships in college football history.

Mount Union’s Larry Kehres won 11 in Division III, for starters.