The prize is just out of reach.
Take one fluky second from the regular season, and Alabama likely would be in the BCS National Championship Game. If this were next season, the No. 4 Crimson Tide would have a shot at redemption in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Not now. Nick Saban brings a great team to the Sugar Bowl — but without a sliver of a chance of reaching its goal of being recognized as No. 1.
It has happened before. It has even happened to Alabama before. It has even happened to an Alabama team like this one, shooting for a third straight national championship.
All these years later, many — especially in Alabama — consider the 1966 season the greatest injustice in the history of college football. It even inspired a book: “The Missing Ring” by Keith Dunnavant.
The Tide went 11-0, finishing the season with a 34-7 thumping of No. 4 Nebraska. But the Tide finished third behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which played to a famous 10-10 tie, in the AP and UPI polls, which closed at the end of the regular season in those days. That made Alabama the only preseason No. 1 team to go undefeated and untied and not finish at the top.
After the bowl game, the National Football Foundation awarded the MacArthur Bowl jointly to the Irish and Spartans, although neither played in a bowl and they ended up with identical 9-0-1 records. The Tide could bolster their case by pointing to strength of schedule, playing more winning opponents (six) than the Irish (five) or Spartans (three).
But few paid attention. Dunnavant asserted it was not so much because Notre Dame and Michigan State were better, but a result of a negative perception the nation had of Alabama in those days.
The state was ground zero for the Civil Rights movement, Gov. George Wallace became a symbol of Southern intolerance and some national sportswriters sullied the Tide’s football achievements because of that issue — though it should be noted that although Bama had no black players, Notre Dame had just one.
Others just disagreed with the polls. Notre Dame and Michigan State may have had more size and talent, but some thought smaller but quicker Alabama had the best team.
After Bama spanked his team 24-0, South Carolina coach Paul Dietzel said, “No one can match Notre Dame or Michigan State in terms of personnel, but if either one of them played Alabama, I’d have to pick Alabama.’’
And after the Sugar Bowl, Nebraska coach Bob Devaney declared, “The Alabama team (I saw) today is the best football team I’ve ever seen. They’re No. 1, all right.’’
Those words fell on deaf ears. The Crimson Tide remained a distant No. 3 in all precincts.
“The hardest part about that whole season,” said Ray Perkins, then an Alabama receiver and later its coach, “is that we were never recognized. They gave us the national championship the year before, and we probably didn’t deserve it with a loss and a tie. But in 1966, with an 11-0-0 record and beating a good team soundly in a bowl game, I think we did deserve some recognition. It was disappointing.’’
Different circumstances and different eras played a role in other times when winning the Sugar Bowl wasn’t enough:
- In 1960, No. 2 Ole Miss’ 21-0 victory against No. 3 LSU, avenging the Tigers’ 7-3 victory in the regular season, made no difference because unbeaten Syracuse had already been voted No. 1.
- In 1984, at which point the polls made their final choices after the postseason, No. 3 Auburn beat No. 8 Michigan 9-7. On that same day, No. 1 Nebraska lost to No. 5 Miami in the Orange Bowl, and No. 2 Texas fell to Georgia in the Cotton. The voters vaulted Miami — 11-1, as was Auburn — to the top.
- In 2004, unbeaten Auburn finished third in the BCS standings behind Southern Cal and Oklahoma, which had been ranked 1-2 all season. The Tigers, who started No. 17, beat Virginia Tech 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl while USC thrashed the Sooners 55-19 in the Orange, a victory and title later vacated because of NCAA sanctions.
That did Auburn no good. The Tigers of 2004 will forever be ranked where they were when they left the Superdome field with a 13-0 record: No. 2.