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Process and Luck

The Football Apocalypse is almost upon us. My two least favorite teams are facing off for the national title and there’s not a meteor in sight. One of these teams is going to win the title, and let’s be honest, it’s likely going to be Alabama.

This getting ridiculous. He uses these things as paperweights.
This getting ridiculous. He uses these things as paperweights.
Andy Lyons

If Alabama wins the national title tonight, it will cap one of the most impressive runs in recent college football history. We live in an era of parity, in which more teams than ever have access to the title making machinery, not to mention the money making machinery of TV. No longer do the Notre Dames and Alabamas of the world hog all of the resources and exposure to themselves. Scholarship limits, the proliferation of cable networks, and the internet have all made it easier for the little guys to get exposure and compete with the blue bloods.

Only this year, the blue bloods held the upstarts off and we have a title game straight out of 1972. Even more amazing, with all of the factors favoring more and more teams competing and winning titles, Alabama is one game away from winning three titles in four years. It's not unprecedented, Nebraska turned the trick from 1994-97. Before that, the last team to win three titles in four years was Notre Dame. In 1946-49.

I'm just saying, it's rare. And only the greatest of great teams have pulled it off. With a win tonight, Alabama enters the pantheon of the very best teams in the entire history of college football. You don't get there by accident, as Saban has had his team in position each year, and the chips have fallen just right. The impressive thing is not the titles per se, but the fact he has had his team in the title discussion every year. He's Florida State of the 90s, had the Noles gotten the breaks.

And that's the razor's edge between being a perpetual bridesmaid and being the Best Team to Ever Play. Alabama has been extraordinarily good these past four seasons, but they've also been extraordinarily lucky the last two.

This is not a criticism. Every title requires luck. But Saban's success at Alabama is being used as a jackhammer to criticize Miles, asking why he can't duplicate the success while our rival keeps collecting the hardware. If only Miles could emulate Saban, LSU would be celebrating its third title in four years instead of those bastards in Tuscaloosa.

Well, not really. The biggest factor in winning titles is being very very good, and Saban has done that. But so has Miles. So has Chip Kelly, and he doesn't have a title at all to show for it. The difference between these programs has been that Fate has smiled on Bama these past two seasons in a way it hasn't on anyone else. That doesn't delegitimize what Saban has accomplished, because Alabama's success is primarily derived from being very very good. But the titles? An insane amount of good fortune.

Most importantly, Alabama has benefited from its schedule. Twice it has scheduled a big name Big Ten school to start the season, and kicked off its year with a big marquee win that made an impact on voters. And for two straight years, long after the win had faded from memory, the Big Ten school turned out to not be very good that season. Alabama got credit for a marquee win without having to play a marquee team. By the time anyone realized it, the narrative was already established, and you can't fight the narrative.

Alabama has now benefited two straight seasons from the easiest possible SEC schedule. Last year, they only beat three SEC teams with a winning record in the regular season. This year, with five other 10-win teams in the conference, Alabama managed to only play two of them in the regular season, the absolute minimum possible until the SEC title game. Alabama has played a much easier schedule than its SEC rivals, and it has, to its credit, taken advantage.

It doesn't mean that the titles don't count or that their season is any less, but it's hard for another program to emulate that model. STEP ONE: Play an easier SEC schedule. Well, we can't. There's no way for LSU to follow Bama's formula here. It's just a fact of life, and hopefully, the schedule pendulum will swing the other way one day.

But Alabama's biggest stroke of good fortune has been with the pollsters. We can dress up the BCS formula all we want, but it's essentially the human polls with a check to make sure they don't do anything radically stupid. People think it's some objective math formula when it's really rigged to duplicate the results of the human polls. The one time it didn't, in 2003, the BCS changed the formula to make sure it didn't happen again.

No team has ever won back-to-back titles while having a loss in each season. Alabama is on the cusp on being the first. No team has ever won a national title while losing its conference title since World War II. Alabama pulled that trick last year. These are unprecedented events, but more importantly, they are entirely outside the hands of Alabama.

The pollsters very easily could have voted Oklahoma St into the title game last year and either Oregon or Kansas St. into the game this year. Without changing a single result on the field, had the pollsters simply voted a different way, Alabama would be like Oregon: a really great program that is always in the conversation, but has fallen just short of the national title. They would be just as great as they have been over the past two years and played exactly the same with the same results, but with different fortune, they could have zero national titles to show for it.

The point here is not that Alabama does not deserve the title game, just that we need to recognize they have been the beneficiaries of incredible good fortune the past two seasons to get those shots. Two times, the pollsters have selected Alabama when they just as easily could have selected someone else. Alabama has won the War of the Narrative, but ultimately, their selection for the title game both times has been entirely out of the hands.

Being one of the top five teams in consecutive years is the Process. Being the one of those one-loss teams plucked to play the title game? That has been Luck.

Alabama is a great team. They are one of the greatest teams of all time. They have also been lucky. Factors beyond their control have placed them in the title game again. Of course, being a great team, they will likely take advantage of the situation. Luck is the residue of design, and the design has paid off for them.