Even by the seldom-threatened standards of Alabama’s dynasty, September is not traditionally a challenging month for the Crimson Tide. Since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Bama has averaged a 29-point margin of victory in the month of September and lost just three games in 61 tries.1 No Football Bowl Subdivision team has lost less often than Alabama in the first full month of the college football calendar over that stretch. For context, archrival Auburn, a program with a national championship and multiple double-digit-win seasons to its credit since Saban’s arrival, has lost five September games in the past seven seasons.
So it was a surprise, then, to see 21.5-point favorite Alabama on Saturday require a nine-play, 61-yard scoring drive in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter to eke out a 1-point win over the unranked Texas Longhorns. The bizarrely undisciplined effort, in which the Tide set a single-game record for total penalties under Saban, marked the first time in 15 years that Alabama had been pushed to a one-score outcome by an unranked non-conference opponent,2 and immediately fueled speculation that the Tide might not be quite as dominant as we all expected.
Is that fair, though?
Corners of the internet collectively shuddered at the thought of what Alabama’s next practice might entail as Saban, a man obsessed with the eradication of complacency, puts his team through its paces after an early season scare. But nail-biters in the opening weeks off a season haven’t been uncommon for playoff contenders in recent years. Twenty of the College Football Playoff’s 32 bids were secured by teams that won at least one of their first four games by 8 points or fewer.3 And three of the past four national champions — and both of last year’s national title participants — experienced a one-score outcome before the fourth week of the season.
|Season||Champion||Average PPG margin||Games decided by 1 poss.|
In other words, not all future champions sail through the early schedule without a care in the world. But does an early test signal that a given team is less likely to fulfill its championship aspirations? To find out, we looked at the first three games (essentially, the first quarter of the season) for each preseason top-five team in the AP Poll since 2005.4 We then broke them into two groups — ones who had early season scares and ones who didn’t — and compared the teams’ end-of-season win percentages and total efficiency ratings to see if those that experienced more early adversity performed worse over the rest of the season.
|Team Type||Win%||PPG Diff.||Total||Offense||Defense||Spec. Tms|
|Had early scare||79.0%||+14.9||79.3||72.9||75.3||54.1|
|No early scare||81.8||+18.0||85.3||80.9||77.7||54.5|
Admittedly, a lot of the exercise deals with the level of competition faced.5 But the data suggests that teams that experience early season nail-biters do fare worse than those that avoid them, as the average team that experiences a one-score outcome is worse off in winning percentage, points-per-game margin and total efficiency over the remainder of the season.
That doesn’t mean Alabama is doomed, however. While some era-defining teams from college football history went through entire seasons with nary a challenge — Tom Osborne’s 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers (38.7-point average margin of victory), Larry Coker’s 2001 Miami Hurricanes (32.9) and Ed Orgeron’s 2019 LSU Tigers (26.5) come to mind — those teams are few and far between. Many more championship-level teams went through a bump along the way to the national title game.
For Alabama, a near-loss at Texas might later be remembered as the spark of a dominant closing stretch to solidify Saban’s record-setting eighth national title. In fact, the Tide can take comfort in what happened the last time the team lost early on, in 2015 against then-No. 15 Mississippi. In a game that included two fumbled kickoff returns by Alabama and a slapstick 66-yard touchdown pass by Rebels QB Chad Kelly, a late Tide comeback wasn’t enough to avoid an eventual 43-37 defeat. A few months later, they rebounded to win the 16th national championship in program history. If that kind of ending is possible, maybe a close win at Texas isn’t really cause for concern at all.