A prominent head coach was speaking on the booster club circuit in the winter when the subject of going undefeated came up. "The time has gone when you will see undefeated football teams in the Southeastern Conference," the coach predicted. "The SEC is too tough all around to expect perfect seasons."
That coach was Paul "Bear" Bryant. The year? 1948.
It's worth relating that story to illustrate how coaches have always sounded pessimistic at the prospect of winning every game during a particular season. To some, it seems like a Herculean task -- though even Hercules himself incurred a loss when he battled Apollo for a sacred tripod (Zeus, as usual, finished No. 1 that year).
"It might be one of the hardest things to do in sports, because it's kind of like you're in a playoff every week," said first-year Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, who led Auburn to a 13-0 record in 2004. So, yeah, going undefeated is never easy. But lately, it seems to be getting harder than ever to run the table and win a national championship. And the degree of difficulty is likely only going to keep rising. Consider that five of the last seven BCS national champions have had at least one loss. Since the 2003 season, we've had more champs with at least one blemish on their record (six) than undefeated ones. Teams that lifted a crystal football in that span include one that suffered two losses (LSU in the 2007 season) and one that didn't even win its own division (Alabama, two seasons ago). Only one team finished with a goose egg in the loss column last season, and that was an Ohio State club that didn't play a conference championship game or a bowl because of probation.
"When I hear that word undefeated, I kind of cringe, because it normally doesn't happen," said Ohio State Urban Meyer, who also led Utah to a perfect mark in 2004. "Last year, there was one [team], and we were very fortunate. I don't want our players thinking about that."
Undefeated title seasons used to arrive with more frequency. From 1994-2002, only one national champion suffered a loss. And those 1996 Florida Gators avenged their lone setback by beating Florida State in a rematch at the Sugar Bowl. Greater parity throughout the sport has made it tougher to go through a season unscathed, especially in the power conferences.
Now think about what's on the horizon with the College Football Playoff beginning next season. Several leagues have already gone to or are considering nine-game conference schedules, while the Big Ten is leading a push to upgrade nonconference schedules and eliminate paycheck games against FCS schools. Imagine having to survive a marquee out-of-league game, nine in-conference brawls, a conference title tilt and then two playoff games. How many teams can actually go 15-0?
"It's going to be really, really hard -- almost impossible," said Akron coach Terry Bowden, who led the probation-saddled 1993 Auburn team to an 11-0 season. "Most championship teams are going to lose somewhere along the way, and it's all about how you respond to that loss. To go undefeated, everything has to go right. The ball has to bounce your way a bunch of times."
Tuberville's 2004 Tigers had to survive a scare early in the season against LSU. They trailed 9-3 until Jason Campbell threw a touchdown pass with 1:14 left, and then they caught a huge break when LSU was whistled for a personal foul during the missed ensuing extra point, giving Auburn extra life.
Simply getting through the SEC West now is like a playoff in itself. Alabama might have won the past two national titles, but the Crimson Tide did not survive their own division race without a defeat either time, including last year's home loss to Texas A&M. Coach Nick Saban said before last year's SEC title game that getting players to play at the same high level each week is the hardest thing a coach has to do. "There's no time to just, you know, sort of play a bad game and still have a chance to be successful," he said in December. "So I think that's one of the difficulties of going undefeated. I think that you see it in players late in the season. I saw it in our players when we played Texas A&M that their personality sort of changes from a competitive standpoint and maybe it's feeling the pressure. I don't know."
The SEC has proved that going undefeated is not a requirement for winning a national title. But it will likely become an absolute necessity for teams outside the "power five" conferences just to have a shot at a championship. A one-loss team from the Mountain West or the American Athletic stands little chance at grabbing one of those four playoff spots. Recent undefeated teams like Boise State and Utah were already viewed suspiciously because of their schedules and conferences. Starting next year, that scrutiny will become even more intense as selection committee members break down strength-of-schedule data and compare conference champions who played vastly different opponents.
"It's always hard to go undefeated in football," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said, "[but] it's easier in some conferences than others. ... I think it could evolve in a way because the committee will be critical in separating the wheat from the chaff based on strength of schedule. If they don't, I think everyone will go back to loading up with teams from other divisions with fewer scholarships."
Non-power league teams face an uphill battle. Cincinnati finished the 2009 regular season at 12-0 but couldn't crack the BCS title game because three other teams also went unbeaten. And that was when the former Big East still had automatic qualifier status. The Bearcats are staring at life in a weakened conference that's going to further diminish next season.
But Tuberville -- who lobbied publicly for a plus-one playoff after his 2004 Auburn team got left out of the title game -- believes that going undefeated should still be enough for a playoff berth. "If we go undefeated here, I don't want to be left out," he said. "Don't give me this stuff about toughness of schedules and all that. There are differences in everybody's schedules, everybody facilities, recruiting, whatever. But if you go undefeated, that means you did everything you were supposed to do. And I don't care what conference you're in, you'd better be in that top four."
For that debate to happen, teams will still have to put together perfect seasons, which remains a rare accomplishment. ESPN Stats & Info calculated that an average FBS team had a 1-in-26-billion chance at going 14-0 against Alabama's schedule in 2009, as the Crimson Tide ultimately did on their way to the title. Despite not playing in the postseason, both 1993 Auburn and 2012 Ohio State handed out rings to players and coaches, with the Buckeyes' bling displaying a giant 12-0 on top.
Bowden's father, the legendary Bobby Bowden, finished only one of his 44 seasons as head coach with an undefeated record (1999).
"I've got some 9-1s and some 12-2s, but I've only got one season with a zero on the end," Terry Bowden said. "You don't get many of those. Running the table is still something that's very, very special."
And it could be about to get much, much harder.
AGAINST THE ODDS
Not all undefeated seasons carry the same value. ESPN Stats & Info took a look at the 16 teams that either finished their entire season undefeated or won the BCS title since 2004 and ranked them according to a formula that calculated how an average FBS team would have fared against their schedule. Here's how that ranking shaped up: