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Column: Best ever? Alabama, Saban closing in on title

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Alabama has already established itself as one of college football's greatest dynasties under Nick Saban. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Alabama has already established itself as one of college football's greatest dynasties under Nick Saban. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
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(AP) -- Alabama has already established itself as one of college football's greatest dynasties under Nick Saban.

Bu they're not the best ever. Not quite.

Let's not forget some powerhouses that came before — most notably the Oklahoma teams of Bud Wilkinson.

For more than a decade, a period stretching from the last five games of the 1947 season through 1958, the Sooners went 112-8-2, captured three national titles, and won 12 straight conference championships.

"Pretty good, huh?" quipped Jay O'Neal, who didn't lose a game while serving as Oklahoma's backup quarterback from 1954-56.

Indeed, no one has ever played the game at such a high level for such a long period.

At the moment, that remains the greatest dynasty in college football history, ranking right up there with any sport.

But Alabama will have a pretty good argument if — and this is a big if — it can win the final three games of the season, locking up an unprecedented third straight national title and fourth in five years.

"We all know how hard it is to win any game, much less win as consistently as they have," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who played at Alabama in the early 1990s. "If they are able to go on and finish, win out and make it three national championships in a row, they'll certainly deserve to be in the conversation with whatever dynasties there are from years past."

During Oklahoma's amazing run, the Sooners had four undefeated seasons and set a record that still stands by winning 47 games in a row. They were in every game, never losing by more than seven points.

O'Neal gives much of the credit to Wilkinson, whose methods sound awfully familiar to the guy in Tuscaloosa.

"The preparation was unbelievable," O'Neal said of his former boss, who died in 1994. "We didn't go out there for the first day of practice and say, 'You stand right here, we'll snap the ball, and then you run that way.' No, it was, 'Stand at exactly this angle, put your feet this way, exactly this far back, then you'll make your first step with your left foot, and then your right foot will cross over.'"

O'Neal takes nothing away from what Alabama has accomplished under Saban over the last five years, going 60-5 and standing at the cusp of a historic three-peat.

In a sense, it's comforting to know that some things never change, even though it's a much different game than the one O'Neal played in the 1950s, when substitution rules were much stricter and two-way players common. Wilkinson came up with a revolutionary concept at the time, having two different 11-man units that he swapped out midway through each quarter.

"They're doing a lot of the same things we did," O'Neal said, chatting about Alabama from his home in Colorado. "They're well-organized, well-coached and they eliminate mistakes. Most teams today beat themselves."

The top-ranked Crimson Tide still has a lot of work to do, beginning with Saturday's Iron Bowl showdown — the biggest game of the year — against No. 4 Auburn. If Alabama gets past the Tigers, they'll meet either No. 5 Missouri or No. 10 South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Should the Tide clear that hurdle, No. 2 Florida State would likely be waiting in the BCS title game in Pasadena.

Alabama could steal away Oklahoma's title as the best ever by getting through this season-ending gauntlet.

"I'm subject to my own history, my own age," said LSU coach Les Miles, whose team lost to the Tide 38-17 in early November. "But I would have to say that in my time, it would certainly be defendable as maybe the most productive time in football history that there is."

Along with Oklahoma, here are some others to consider:

— Nebraska (1993-97). Tom Osborne closed his coaching career in style, going 60-3 over his last five years, taking two national titles outright and sharing another. If the Cornhuskers had made a 45-yard field goal on the final play of the 1994 Orange Bowl, they would've taken four titles in five years, beating Alabama to the punch.

— Florida State (1987-2000). Along with Oklahoma, the most long-standing run of sustained excellence. Bobby Bowden's Seminoles went 152-19-1 over 14 seasons, won two national titles and never finished lower than fifth in the final AP poll. If only they had made a few more clutch field goals.

— Miami (1983-92). The Hurricanes might've been renegades, but there was no denying their success on the field. They went 107-14 and took four national titles in a decade under three different head coaches.

— Southern Cal (2002-08). The Trojans went 82-9 and were less than a minute from winning their third straight national title before Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 victory in the 2006 Rose Bowl, one of college football's greatest games. Of course, USC's accomplishments were tarnished by NCAA violations.

— Notre Dame (1943-49). The Fighting Irish posted a 60-5-3 record and won four national championships in seven years, all while dueling with the team we'll mention next.

— Army (1944-1950). Red Blaik's Cadets captured a pair of national titles and finished second in the AP poll two other times while going 57-3-4.

— Michigan (1901-05). It was a totally different game at the turn of the last century, but college football's first dynasty is worth noting. The Wolverines went 55-1-1 and outscored opponents 2,821-42.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sees no end in sight to Alabama's dominance.

"When you have the No. 1 recruiting class almost every year, there's no letup," Spurrier said. "As long as Nick Saban is there and they keep recruiting like they're doing, they'll keep on keeping on."

And maybe go down as the best ever.

___

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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