What does the 2017 University of Alabama football team and the 1980 Oakland Raiders have in common?
They are the first teams in their respective leagues to win championships via the wildcard route.
Oakland beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10, in Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, and they did it the hard way. The Raiders finished 11-5 in the AFC East, which was good enough only for a second place finish in the division.
That meant the NFL squad had to win an extra game on its way to the Superdome – with two of those contests coming on the road.
As for Alabama, its 21-0 victory over LSU came after losing to the Tigers in the 2011 regular season but managing to get a do-over in the BCS National Championship Game.
Oh, you thought I was talking about Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship?
We’ll get to that shortly.
The Crimson Tide’s first wildcard success – like its second – came with a bit of controversy.
LSU earned a spot in the BCS title game by finishing 13-0, complete with a 9-6 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a 42-10 thrashing of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Thanks to some upsets during conference championship weekend, though, 11-1 Alabama ended the pre-bowl polling ranked No. 2 and got a shot at redemption in New Orleans.
There were many who thought one-loss Oklahoma State, which won the Big 12 title, deserved a berth in the championship game, but Alabama was voted in and made the most of its second chance.
Six seasons later, history kinda/sorta repeated itself.
The Crimson Tide’s 26-14 loss to Auburn back in November resulted in a second place finish in the SEC West and no chance at an SEC title.
But just like the 2011 “wildcard” season, that setback actually worked to the advantage of Nick Saban’s charges. In essence, it gave them an extra bye week to gear up for the College Football Playoff.
As expected, a debate raged over whether or not the Tide deserved to be in the four-team field. Again the point of contention was that it not only didn’t win its conference, it didn’t even finish atop its division.
But a 24-6 thumping of No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day was a “statement game,” setting up a winner-take-all showdown with Georgia in Atlanta.
And in a College Football Playoff Championship that was a dud until it suddenly wasn’t, Bama rose from the canvas in the second half behind freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and knocked out the SEC champs in overtime, 26-23.
When it was done the team that calls Bryant-Denny Stadium home had made its case in front of 28.4 million people, the second-highest cable audience in history.
It was the 17th national championship claimed by the program, fourth since 2011 and 12th as awarded by a wire service.
So while 13-0 Central Florida celebrates a self-proclaimed national title – and no law prevents the Knights from doing that – the 13-1 Crimson Tide is hoisting the CFP trophy. More importantly, at least as far as the record books are concerned, it finishes the 2017-18 campaign ranked No. 1 by every recognized poll.
It’s Saban’s sixth national championship and fifth at Alabama – and two of the countrywide crowns came without an SEC Championship trophy to go with them.
You can call that last tidbit of info a quirk in the system (or even a glitch), but it doesn’t change the fact that Alabama now has another piece of hardware for the trophy room.
Nor does it dismiss the weirdness of the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division 1A.
Unlike virtually every other sport (and every other level of NCAA football), it has spent most of its existence fighting like hell to avoid having a clear-cut champion.
The bowl system gave rise to a “mythical” national championship, one voted on by writers and/or coaches and often made next to impossible due to conference tie-ins to specific bowls.
Even the BCS and, before that, the Bowl Alliance, relied on polls and computers to manufacture the top two teams for its title clash.
And now we’re four years deep in the CFP, which is technically a playoff but one in which committee members determine who gets in and who gets left out.
So maybe attributing wildcard status to two of the Tide’s crowns is slightly misleading.
Oakland – and any other NFL team that makes the playoffs without winning its division – gets in based on won-loss records and, when needed, tiebreaker systems.
Those teams aren’t invited to the postseason, they simply play their way into the field.
In major college football, though, it’s what you do on the field and who you do it against – along with how impressive committee members think you look doing it.
You can love that system or hate it, but the team owning the two-foot tall, oblong trophy will tell you it works out just fine.
Wildcard or not, Alabama’s season still ended in a confetti shower.