by Keith Aksel
As a sports fan and historian, I sometimes wonder whether any of the trends in sports occurring now really have any historical significance. Sure, the media likes to act like nothing is more important than the right now- “Look! LOOK! The Dodgers are the greatest team ever. So are the Alabama Crimson Tide. And the Golden State Warriors.” Yet, anyone who pays close attention to sports knows that such superlatives get recycled every year to some extent. Outside of very specific instances, I’m usually not a supporter of employing that kind of hyperbole to our current sports environment, especially when it has to do with my favorite sport, college football.
But, are there ANY truly historic trends at work in sports today? Will we actually look back on the mid-2010s in college football wistfully, wishing our sons and daughters were alive to watch the teams and athletes we were privileged to witness on a regular basis?
I believe the answer is a restrained “yes.” Although not everything is historically significant, I’m inclined to think that college football fans are witnessing at least some historically significant developments come to bear in our present moment in time. There are two that stand out to me.
First, Nick Saban is the best college coach of all time, and this moment needs to be appreciated for what it is. Just as we remember the 1960s and 1970s as decades dominated by figures like Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, John McKay, and Ara Parseghian, the 2010s will be remembered as the era of the inescapable Saban. Saban has become the college equivalent of Bill Belichick, as his teams are always in contention for national championships, regardless of the coaching staff and player losses from the season before. In all, he’s harvested five national championships and seven SEC titles, which alone puts him alongside the aforementioned greats. Not only did he turn two programs (LSU and Alabama) aimlessly wandering in the woods into behemoths, but he has done so at a time in which teams must run a longer than ever gauntlet to reach the national title game. Despite the obstacles, Nick Saban remains the most immovable presence in college football. Unless he gets rocked by a scandal (which is entirely possible), Saban’s command of the sidelines will be the most memorable marker of the 2010s.
The other reason college football today is historically important is the College Football Playoff. As fans, we should all appreciate what the playoff has done for the sport- it has allowed a national champ to be decided based off their on field performance. In the three years since it was instituted, none of the hand wringing that so often came after BCS or Bowl Alliance structures followed. The results of the CFP have been largely satisfying to most fans, achieving something that six decades of previous attempts to crown a national champion failed to do. Although there is still some debate about increasing the size of the playoff, the system has produced a convincing champion each season.
But even more than that, the CFP carries a dignity about it which we will look back fondly on. Think about it; there is no over-the-top corporate sponsorship of the gleaming gold CFP trophy (other than Larry Culpepper’s rather tame Dr.Pepper logo), and the CFP committee itself is filled by well-respected elites that really know something about the game they evaluate. Furthermore, the CFP championship game remains a relatively respectful festivity. Rather than the overdone spectacle of the Super Bowl, the stars of the show in the CFP are the colleges, their marching bands, and their fans. None of these elements were a sure thing when the CFP got off the ground. Anyone who looks back with pleasure on pre-corporate sponsorship bowl games should realize that this moment in time is worth appreciating.
The clichéd claims to historical significance will continue to roll in as long as college football is played. By the end of 2017, we’ll probably start hearing voices claiming that Alabama is the greatest team of all time (heard this last year and the year before). Those same voices may also start arguing that Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is a once-in-a-lifetime halfback talent (that may be true, if your lifetime began after Adrian Peterson played, or Ezekiel Elliott for that matter). To identify historical significance in the moment as I am attempting here is certainly still an exercise in conjecture. At least in the case of Nick Saban and the CFP, fans should rest assured that some things in front of them are indeed going to stand the test of time.
 Using national championships as the comparison with coaches of the earlier eras is really tricky business. Many teams claim national championships that came as a result of inherent biases in the media and coaching ranks, and the split titles of the 1960s and 1970s have no modern-day equivalent.