For the first few months of 2018, members of Alabama’s 2017 football team played nice about UCF claiming the national championship that Bama won in the Playoff.
Right before the title game against Georgia, Nick Saban said he was “fine” with UCF’s then-nascent claim on the title, even though it didn’t “mean anything to anyone but them.” A couple of Tide players later tweeted jabs at the Knights, but the overarching sentiment from the Alabama side was that UCF’s claim on the championship was no big deal.
The Tide’s temperature about this has gotten a lot hotter of late, though. In public, it started with Bama’s AD getting into a mini-Twitter fight with UCF’s AD over an NIT basketball game in March. It continued with Saban telling USA Today in mid-May that UCF’s claim wasn’t “fair” or “the same as actually earning it.”
Enter Scott Frost, the former UCF coach who helmed the 13-0 season.
Frost would like to make a point about Alabama and claimed titles:
“Alabama’s probably got one or two championships that they claim that weren’t necessarily recognized by everybody,” Frost told Omaha station KETV.
Frost, now at Nebraska, isn’t all that down with UCF’s title claim. He’s said he wishes his ring from the school “just said ‘Undefeated Season’ and ‘Peach Bowl Champion.’”
But he’s right that Alabama has a habit of staking claim on titles it didn’t really win. The Tide say they have 17 national championships, but four of them are up for at least some interpretation. The Tide’s claim on the 1941 title is one of the silliest in all of sports:
In a season with four undefeated teams before bowl games (when the final AP Poll came out at the time) and three afterward, the Tide got shut out by both Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
They finished third in the SEC and ranked No. 20 in the final AP Poll. The bowl win over Texas A&M was pretty nice, but wouldn’t have moved Bama into the final top 10 or anything.
No one thought about this team again until around 1983, when the athletic department’s information director went back and claimed a bunch of old titles, basing 1941’s off an old formula by statistician Deke Houlgate, who’d died in 1959.
The Houlgate System — don’t worry if you’d never heard of it before today — is one of many obscure rankings recognized by the NCAA as a title “selector,” which doesn’t mean the Houlgate (or any other system) was empowered to award official titles, just that the NCAA felt it was about as valid as anything else going on in a sport with no actual championship.
Alabama went 9-2 and finished 20th in the AP Poll that year. UCF’s 2017 title claim is miles more compelling, because UCF was the only team in the country that didn’t lose a game.
It’s fun and good for a team in UCF’s position to claim a championship. It’s fun and good because Alabama has set a standard that doing that is fine.
You might counter that Nick Saban wasn’t alive in 1941, nor was he in charge at Alabama when the Tide first laid claim to that title in the 1980s. True! I would counter that Saban’s program sells itself to recruits and fans as the 17-time national champion, drawing on that title in program literature year after year. Saban has an active part in continually claiming it.
If you want to clown on UCF for making a huge deal of a title claim in a year when it didn’t even make the Playoff, cool. But the Tide are not the best spokespeople here.