Alabama and Clemson have faced each other an unprecedented four bowls in a row, three in title games. No other programs have been as dominant over the last few years, and in the Playoff era, that means a perpetual crash course.
When you add in recent dominance by Oklahoma and Ohio State, it sure seems college football is suddenly top-heavy, huh? Two teams dominating everybody as two others nearly do the same?
While the same teams meeting in the Playoff is new, having a few teams pummel the hell out of everybody else isn’t. Despite having a ton of teams and a wide-open structure, college football’s top-level championship is exclusive.
In fact, having a handful of dominant powers at a time is normal. College football has always been top-heavy.
We’ll go decade by decade, and let’s ignore the 1800s, when it was usually just Yale or Princeton while the rest of the country figured out if it wanted to play rugby instead.
Generally, these are FBS-equivalent powers that racked up gaudy W-L records over consecutive seasons while also winning a national title, multiple conference titles, regular top AP appearances, etc. It’s not the same as the best teams of each decade, but you’ll notice overlap.
It’s not meant to be 100 percent exhaustive, since the criteria are a little loose. So if there’s a team I missed, let’s holler about it in the comments.
Look at how many times we might’ve had championship rivalries like Bama-Clemson over the previous century-plus.
- 1900-1907 Yale (83-3-4)
- 1901-1905 Michigan (55-1-1)
- 1903-1905 Minnesota (37-1-1)
- 1902-1907 Vanderbilt (38-4-1)
Yale had the most influence over the rules, had the backing of the press, and was objectively awesome, winning two national titles.
But Michigan under Fielding Yost was one of the most statistically dominant teams in history, winning four titles and coming just two points short of another.
Minnesota was less noticed because it played in the same region as Michigan, and Vanderbilt flew even more under the radar, playing far from the elites of the Northeast and Great Lakes. Fortunately, no program was ever penalized for its geography ever again.
If we had a Playoff: You’d probably see two Eastern powers (Yale, Harvard, maybe Penn) and two Midwestern powers (Michigan, Minnesota, or Chicago) each year, with MAYBE a Southern team or two, depending on how #ReverseSECbias our committee was.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Just guessing Michigan-Yale.
- 1910-1919 Harvard, (91-14-3)
- 1915-1919 Georgia Tech (30-1-1)
Bit of a weird decade, what with World War I disrupting recruiting and all. Harvard picked up four titles and was constantly near the elite, but Georgia Tech might have been better, with a national title and beating a team by two hundred twenty two goddamn points.
If we had a Playoff: Those two would have been stalwarts, although with Minnesota, Notre Dame, or Auburn.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Either Harvard-Georgia Tech or Harvard-Minnesota.
- 1922-1929 USC (71-12-2)
- 1920-1927 Notre Dame (69-7-3)
- 1920-1923 Cornell (24-0)
- 1924-1926 Alabama (27-1-1)
The rise of several regional bluebloods. Those came on the heels of the best Cornell teams ever, ones that didn’t lose for three years, though you could consider the Big Red a mid-major. Army, Nebraska, and Pitt fielded some excellent teams.
If we had a Playoff: Good decade for geographic diversity! TV executives would have been thrilled, had TV existed. Still, we likely would’ve had some repeat Playoff matchups.
Title matchup we would have gotten the most sick of: USC and Notre Dame were near the top just about every year.
- 1936-1937 Santa Clara (17-1, back to back Sugar Bowl wins)
- 1936-1938 Alabama (24-2-2)
- 1931-1938 Pitt (64-8-6)
I’ll brag about Santa Clara every chance I get. It was perhaps the first semi-modern “non-power” that deserved better than it got, but national sportswriters weren’t impressed by anyone pounding mid-major west coast teams. I blame the Pac-12 network.
If we had a Playoff: Your fields often involve Bama, Pitt, Notre Dame, and Tennessee. That’s right, America could be sick of Alabama in the Playoff by like 1938. We’ve got bad news for the future, folks.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: It seems reasonable to guess we’d get at least three Alabama-Pitt championships.
- 1944-1949 Army (49-2-3)
- 1943-1948 Michigan (48-1-1)
- 1943-1949 Notre Dame (60-5-2)
- 1945-1947 Texas (28-4)
Sure, World War II helped Army stockpile crazy talent, but those squads can claim to be some of the best in history. These schools owned the most turbulent decade, when many schools shut down teams or played abbreviated schedules to focus on the war effort.
If we had a Playoff: It would have constantly included Army, Michigan, and Notre Dame. The question is often if the last spots go to Texas, Duke, another military-type team (Iowa Pre-Flight?) or ... you guessed it: Alabama.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Folks, you’re probably getting at least three Army-Notre Dame championships, in addition to their regular season meetings.
- 1950-1958 Oklahoma (86-7-2)
- 1950-1953 Michigan State (35-2)
- 1952-1955 UCLA (34-5)
- 1951-1956 Georgia Tech (59-7-3)
Oklahoma won 47 games in a row, something even the Alabama juggernaut can’t come close to. The others built impressive runs, but also didn’t have to face Oklahoma regularly.
If we had a Playoff: The Sooners are regulars. Ohio State and Michigan State slug out spots. Georgia Tech and Ole Miss battle. And while UCLA would threaten, so would Notre Dame.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Two Oklahoma title games with Alabama and two with Tennessee were both possible.
- 1961-1967 Alabama (68-7-2)
- 1961-1964 Texas (40-3-1)
- 1959-1962 Ole Miss (39-3-1)
College football got a bit more chalky, and while programs outside the South had excellent teams — like Penn State, Purdue, Ohio State and Notre Dame — consecutive excellence belonged to one general region. College football Twitter would have sucked.
If we had a Playoff: We’d get multiple Southern teams in contention, including Arkansas, LSU, and Tennessee. We wouldn’t have many Western bids, as spots could go to Ohio State, Purdue, or suddenly surging Penn State.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Could get at least two Alabama-Notre Dame championships.
- 1971-1979 Alabama (97-11)
- 1971-1979 Oklahoma (95-9-2)
- 1970-1975 Nebraska (61-9-3)
- 1972-1979 USC (81-13-3)
Toledo went undefeated from 1969 to 1971 and didn’t even crack the AP top 10. They were our UCF.
If we had a Playoff: This primary foursome loads up on bids. Ohio State and Notre Dame grab a few.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: We could have gotten five different Alabama-Oklahoma title games, and if either got upset, they’d probably face USC or Nebraska.
- 1980-1984 BYU (55-8)
- 1982-1989 Nebraska (84-15)
- 1985-1989 Miami (55-5)
This was a decade of more unlikely dynasties. BYU was the last non-power to win a national title, showing the country that throwing the football a lot can actually be good. Miami became an instant power, and Nebraska was still awesome, although not quite enough to win a title (although boy howdy did they get close).
If we had a Playoff: BYU probably only gets one bid thanks to ain’t played nobody calls, so expect Nebraska, Miami, Florida State, and Notre Dame to dominate the latter half, although we’d see some new blood (Georgia, SMU, Penn State, Clemson) in the early ‘80s.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: We could easily get three Miami-Oklahoma championships in the back half.
- 1990-1999 Florida State (109-13)
- 1993-1997 Nebraska (60-3)
- 1993-1998 Florida (65-10-1)
- 1990-1994 Miami (52-8)
Florida State had about as dominant a decade as anybody ever, taking permanent residence in the AP top five. Nebraska produced perhaps the best single team ever, while Florida won a title and gave us some of the best rivalry games in memory.
If we had a Playoff: FSU is in basically every year, and with Florida and Miami also often in, you’re getting (unjustified) complaints from fans outside the Sunshine State. Some names would’ve resurfaced (Georgia Tech? Colorado? Washington?), but usual suspects Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame would have gotten bids.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: Seems we’d get at least three FSU-Nebraska Playoff matchups.
- 2006-2009 Florida (48-7)
- 2002-2009 Ohio State (87-16)
- 2002-2008 USC (82-9)
- 2000-2008 Oklahoma (102-19)
The Buckeyes won a national title, played in two other title games, and owned the Big Ten under Jim Tressel. Urban Meyer’s Florida and Pete Carrol’s USC alternated as the most dominant-looking programs, and Bob Stoop’s Oklahoma remained consistently excellent, winning a title of its own.
If we had a Playoff: Ohio State and USC would have been regulars. Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, Tennessee, and Virginia Tech probably would have been in frequent contention.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: LSU-Oklahoma could have happened at least three times, and any combination of Florida/Ohio State/USC/OU could have happened at least twice.
- 2009-2018 Alabama (127-12)
- 2011-2018 Clemson (96-15)
- 2012-2018 Ohio State (86-9)
- 2015-2018 Oklahoma (46-8)
So yeah, having four-ish teams dominate their regions isn’t unheard of.
If we had a Playoff: Bama might’ve gained a title shot in the last year of the BCS, drawing a rematch with the Auburn “Kick Six” Tigers.
Title matchup we would’ve gotten the most sick of: If the Playoff had always been around, Bama-Clemson would be one of several title game rivalries in FBS history, and it’d probably be topped by at least one or two older examples.
As you can see, having a couple teams dominate at a time is not new at all. The Playoff, which funnels the top teams toward each other at the end of the season, is the only thing that’s new.
If we’d had this same system for the last hundred-ish years, folks would still get sick of the same teams. True underdogs do happen, but they would’ve been pretty rare!
It’s more proof that virtually anything we complain about in our wonderful, stupid sport has been there for decades.
Personally, I blame Yale.