How many NCAA titles would Bear Bryant have won if he had the college football playoff?

Is it easier or harder for a head coach to win a national championship in college football now than it was years ago? This topic of discussion came up when Nick Saban tied Bear Bryant winning his sixth national championship after the 2017 college football season. College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit stated he believe it was easier today for a head coach to win a national championship because of the college football playoff which gives more teams an opportunity to win the national championship.

If we were still using the old poll system when Bryant was coaching, Alabama would not have played for the national championship in January of 2018 and Saban would not had the opportunity to win his sixth title. Think about that. Alabama would have been on the outside looking in on the national championship picture and would not have played for a national championship that year but instead just played in a bowl game.

Alabama didn’t even win its division, let alone play for a conference title, and won the national championship. That would have never happened in the pre-BCS, pre-playoff era. Before one automatically anoints Nick Saban as the greatest college football coach of all-time because of his six national titles, Bryant’s six were harder to come by because of reduced opportunities, poll politics and bowl affiliations.

In today’s current format, all you need to do is finish in the top four and you have a shot at a national championship. In the past, before the playoff system and the BCS, a team could be ranked #2 and not had a shot at a national title if the #1-ranked team had a conference-affiliated tie-in to a bowl game or for that matter, if the #2-ranked team did as well. The #2-ranked team had to hope the #1-ranked team lost as they seldom met in a bowl game to decide the national championship.

For example, years ago, if Alabama was #2 and USC was #1, USC would have faced the Big 10 Conference representative in the Rose Bowl as the Rose Bowl had automatic tie-ins to the PAC-8, 10 or 12 and the Big 10 conferences. Therefore, if USC won, Alabama could not prove on the field head-to-head versus USC who the real national champion was.

A counter argument is teams now play more games and therefore have additional opportunity to lose those games, but you can win a national championship today without winning your division or even playing in your conference championship game. Alabama did it in 2017. Ohio State made the four-team playoff in 2016 without winning the Eastern division of the Big 10 conference.

It makes one wonder, how many final fours would Alabama been in under Bear Bryant? Alabama’s 1966 team was a two-time defending national champion and was the only undefeated and untied team that season demolishing Nebraska 34-7 in the Orange Bowl yet finished third in the polls behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, neither of which played in a bowl game.

Alabama surrendered only 44 points in 11 games that season. In 1966, a four-team playoff didn’t exist and the BCS was decades away from matching the top two teams to decide the national championship on the field. Good luck convincing a Crimson Tide fan that Alabama would not have won the 1966 national championship had there been a playoff system.

1975 is another season that Alabama finished in the top four in the country after the final regular season poll and would have been selected to play in the college football playoff. Ohio State was #1 with an 11-0 record before losing to UCLA 23-10 in the Rose Bowl. Third-ranked Oklahoma defeated Michigan 14-6 in the Orange Bowl and was voted national champion. Alabama, ranked #4, defeated #8 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl 13-6 and finished third in the final poll.

1977 is another example where Alabama would have been in the college football playoff and would have been a strong contender to win a national championship. Once again, the Fighting Irish got a national championship that Alabama thought they deserved. At the end of the regular season, the Crimson Tide were ranked #3 with a 10-1 record behind only #1 Texas at 11-0 and #2 Oklahoma with a 10-1 record.

Fifth-ranked Notre Dame upset top-ranked Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl and leap frogged Alabama in the AP Poll and were named national champions despite Alabama beating #9 Ohio State 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl and #2-ranked Oklahoma losing 31-6 to Arkansas in the Orange Bowl.

Alabama certainly would have made the college football playoff in those years. Bryant could have won more than the six national titles he did under the old poll system.

To be fair, we should not count the 1973 national title that Alabama claims as the Crimson Tide lost in the Sugar Bowl in a great game 24-23 to Notre Dame in a game that saw six lead changes. The UPI Coaches Poll selected Alabama as the national champions at the end of the regular season before the bowl games were played. The Associated Press selected Notre Dame as national champion after all the bowl games were concluded.

In 1964, both the AP and UPI polls named the Crimson Tide as national champion before the bowl games took place. Alabama would go on to lose to #5 Texas 21-17 in the Orange Bowl. One could make the case that with both polls naming Alabama as national champion after the regular season and no longer in doubt, the goal to win the national championship for Bryant’s squad was already accomplished.

What Nick Saban has done in an era of scholarship limitations is truly remarkable. He may well be the greatest college football coach ever but because four teams all have an equal opportunity to win the playoff and national championship, that increases the chances for every college football team and coach out there, including Alabama and Saban.

One could argue that Bryant’s contemporaries that he competed against (Bob Devaney, Woody Hayes, John McKay, Tom Osborne, Ara Parseghian, Joe Paterno, Darryl Royal, and Barry Switzer) were greater than what Saban faces collectively in Jimbo Fisher, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, and Dabo Swinney.

One could also state that Bryant’s 15-12-2 record in bowl games is not great and his overall record against the coaches listed above was only 9-8-1.

The number of national championships won is just one factor to consider when talking about who is the greatest college football coach of all-time.

It is difficult to compare coaches from different eras yet it is safe to say that Bear Bryant was the best in his era and Nick Saban the best in his, and Alabama fans should be very happy about that.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:

Photo courtesy of:  Adam Baranowski