College football preseason is also list season, if there is such a thing as list season since Americans love lists of all kinds — best left-handed quarterback, best song, best hot dog stand, anything that can be listed, ranked and — here’s the key — debated.
Sports lends itself especially to such disputes (what is the weekly Associated Press Poll, after all, except a list?) and college football always sees its share. There might be some additional lists this year as college football celebrates its 150th season and most should be taken as fun but not definitive.
On the other hand, Sports Illustrated released a long list of, well, lists this week, hitting on most of the popular college themes: best fight song, best college town, best uniform and so on. There were also the major topics — best coach and best program — and whatever else you can say about the list, they were certainly Tuscaloosa-friendly.
Things have reached a point, though, where it’s hard to see those selections — Alabama as the best program of all time, and Paul “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban, in that order, as the two greatest coaches. Not everyone is going to agree. All programs have their loyalists.
But what, really, are the alternatives at this point if your criteria (and SI’s Ross Dellenger indicated it was primarily a consensus of their college football writers, a group that probably skews young, or at least a lot younger than Tuscaloosa News Sports Editors) is weighted to the modern day with a smattering of history and some statistics (winning percentage, national championship and so forth)?
The next coach on the list after Bryant and Saban is Knute Rockne, and you are already evaluating someone from a very different era. The rest of the list (Osborne, Warner, Wilkinson, Woody Hayes, Eddie Robinson, Stagg and Bobby Bowden) were all great but lack the rings Bryant and Saban accumulated.
Evaluating programs is a bit different. For most of my football-watching life, I’ve thought there was a basic list of nine teams that quite possibly would have been the same nine if you had made the same list in 1980: Alabama and Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas, and a trio of Penn State, Nebraska and USC, in some order. All have had their ups and downs. For much of college football history, rankings generally had Notre Dame No. 1 and Alabama at either No. 2 or No. 3 (usually with Michigan at the No. 2 spot.)
The last decade has changed all that. Notre Dame and Michigan have been good, but Alabama has been generationally good, for at least the second time and arguably for the fourth. That depends in where you rank the 1930s Rose Bowl teams and whether you consider Bryant’s career as one continuum or two distinct decade-long eras.
Following Alabama, SI ranks Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, USC, Notre Dame (a bit lower than expected), Nebraska, Penn State, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The only big quibble I’d have with that list, and all due respect to the Big Orange, is ranking Tennessee over OU when the two, from my perspective, aren’t even close. One could argue the three major programs in Florida have all surpassed UT as well, although that depends on where you start the historical clock.
There are other schools that could have an argument for top 10 inclusion as well. But it’s hard to think of any logical argument at the top any more.