Who Can Beat Alabama? A History Lesson Previewing 2017

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Much of college football’s allure resides in the sport’s unpredictability. Yet, for as much chaos as ensues in any given autumn, the Alabama Crimson Tide provide stability.

For as much as fans and pundits might insist that any four teams are surefire contenders for the Playoff, accurately forecasting the field at this juncture might as well require Biff Tannen’s Almanac.

Penciling in Alabama for one of those four spots, however, is as close to a sure thing as one can find. The Tide have played in every College Football Playoff to date, and there’s zero reason to assume ahead of 2017 that they won’t be one of the four in this next season’s field. They’re the only choice at 5Dimes designated as a favorite for the field.

And yet, because the only inevitability in college football is that nothing’s inevitable, Nick Saban’s juggernaut is 1-of-3 in national championship wins during the Playoff era. Going back to the beginning of Alabama’s rise under Saban, the Tide have gone wire-to-wire without a loss only once (2009).

For as good as Alabama has consistently been, the Tide aren’t unbeatable. Knocking them off requires a very specific formula, as the exclusive club of teams boasting Ws against the Tide suggests.

The first Keeping Alabama out of the Playoff altogether means the Tide losing at least twice in the regular season. That hasn’t happened since 2010, which marked a transitional period with outgoing upperclassmen recruited under Mike Shula exiting and Saban’s first signing class assuming leadership. Alabama also lost to two previous national championship-winning coaches that season, and a quarterback who put together one of the greatest individual campaigns in college football history.

The latter may be possible for a 2017 Tide opponent to replicate; who knows? Cam Newton’s emergence in 2010 certainly came from nowhere. However, Les Miles’ midseason firing from LSU last year leaves Saban as the only title winner in the SEC.

That’s not a necessary ingredient for knocking off Alabama, though it certainly helps. Of Saban’s 11 losses since the 2010 season, seven came against coaches who have a national championship as of 2017 (Miles twice, Steve Spurrier, Gene Chizik, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney).

One coach with a national championship to his name will be on a sideline opposite Saban this regular season, though, and it’s in Week 1: Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher.

Fisher returns 16 starters from a 10-win Orange Bowl team. The Seminoles are favorites to win the ACC, a conference that last year proved to be the best in college football. Florida State is likely to garner first-place votes when the initial Associated Press Top 25 is released, and the Noles look far-and-away like the greatest non-conference threat Alabama’s seen under Saban.

Now, the same was said of various other opponents; Michigan in 2012 and USC last season immediately come to mind. The Crimson Tide rolled over both by a combined 83 points.

What differentiates this Florida State team is that Fisher’s built physical defenses and offensive lines that look very much like those of Alabama. That’s no surprise, given Fisher’s a former Saban assistant. As far as competing with Alabama teams, Saban assistants are at historic disadvantage.

Mark Dantonio, Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley: All failed. But none faced Saban with teams constructed like Florida State. The Seminoles’ physicality and speed make this a rare, 6-star viewing experience come Week 1.

One facet of Florida State’s makeup that gives the Seminoles a fighting chance is lining up a dynamic, two-way quarterback in Deondre Francois. Francois was more of a passer than scrambler in his Florida State debut, but showed off some explosiveness in the ground game against SEC defenses Ole Miss (59 yards on six carries) and Florida (63 yards on nine carries).

Such playmakers play a vital role in knocking off Alabama. Auburn’s Newton was the first, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for a fourth on the Tide in 2010. Newton’s otherworldly play was perfect for then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s system, which has bested Alabama twice.

He did so in 2013 as head coach, with quarterback Nick Marshall’s dual play producing three of the biggest touchdowns in Auburn history. Likely Auburn starter Jarrett Stidham will have his own opportunity to make Tigers history.

Stidham was a sensation in 2015 at Baylor, filling in for injured Seth Russell. Stidham passed for 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions. And while he wasn’t called on to run too often, he still scored two touchdowns.

Stidham’s maturation and command of the offense once November arrives will shape Auburn’s hopes of dethroning the Tide. As is custom, Alabama ends its regular season with Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers filling that traditional final date book-ends the Tide’s season with what could be the two highest-ranked teams they’ll see in the 2017 regular season. If the Tide are to miss the Playoff altogether, these are the two games likely to do it.

But should the elephants stampede to a fourth consecutive SEC championship — a fourth last achieved by Florida from 1993 through 1996 — it’s up to the Playoff field to stem the Tide.

Clemson did so successfully last year, and nearly knocked them off the season prior in two national title game matchups. Quarterback DeShaun Watson was absolutely electric in both meetings, furthering the hypothesis that a team must have a dynamic, dual-threat playmaker to stand a chance vs. Alabama.

Swinney replaces the two-time Heisman finalist Watson with one of either Hunter Johnson, Kelly Bryant or Zerrick Cooper. Spring performances offered little insight as to which player has an inside track.

Watson’s loss is the most prominent, but the defending national champion Tigers begin 2017 as one of the more inexperienced starting rosters in the ACC.

Clemson isn’t viewed as the same caliber of title contender ahead of 2017. Such distinction’s reserved for USC and Ohio State, two teams loaded with talent and heavy on experience — and both with some recent Alabama history.

As mentioned above, USC was decimated when it faced the Tide in last September’s Cowboys Classic. The Trojans who lined up at AT&T Stadium were vastly different from the squad that won January’s Rose Bowl, and a central figure in the turnaround was quarterback Sam Darnold.

Another dual-threat playmaker, Darnold’s late-season heroics against Pac-12 and Big Ten champions Washington and Penn State positioned the redshirt sophomore for preseason Heisman hype.

Darnold will play behind an excellent offensive line, and opposite a defense with stars in the front seven. USC’s challenge, should it reach the Playoff, will be matching the physicality Alabama brings every time out. Such is the overall mystery in facing Saban’s team; balancing power with speed in such a way as to not be reliant on one more than the other.

Ohio State’s managed to do it once before.

Whereas the USC team that last saw Alabama is vastly different, 2017 Ohio State is reminiscent of the 2014 Buckeyes that beat the Crimson Tide. But like SC, the difference is the quarterback — and that might be a good thing.

Although Ohio State returned to the Playoff in 2016, the Buckeyes’ goose-egg loss to Clemson exposed Meyer’s bunch as perhaps a year premature. This season, the Buckeyes have a veteran-laden roster on both sides of the ball, with quarterback J.T. Barrett in the saddle for one more run.

Barrett put up Heisman-caliber numbers in 2014 before a season-ending injury. Cardale Jones was excellent in relief, and integral to Ohio State’s win over Alabama. However, Barrett proved to be the more reliable option on a week-to-week basis in the 2015 season. In order to best the Crimson Tide in a theoretical Playoff rematch, however, he’d have to be at his absolute best.