How Nick Saban-coached teams fare against higher-ranked competition
The numbers are staggering at face value.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is 83-41 (.669) against teams in the AP Top 25 (including his tenures at Michigan State and LSU). His Crimson Tide teams are 59-15 (.797) against the AP Top 25 and 32-9 (.781) mark against AP top-10 teams since the start of 2008.
But how are Saban-coached teams when they play higher-ranked teams?
The short answer: pretty good.
When No. 1 LSU meets No. 2 Alabama (or No. 2 vs. No. 3, if you like the College Football Playoff rankings better …) Saturday afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Saban will be lining up for the 55th time as a head coach against a team ranked higher than his.
Saban’s record in those previous 54 games against teams with a higher ranking: 30-24!
The Sparty years
It all began for Saban back in 1995, his first season in East Lansing with Michigan State. The 1995 Spartans’ first game that season was at home against No. 2 Nebraska. It didn’t go well. Saban’s Spartans lost 50-10. Saban’s Spartans rebounded 8 weeks later by edging No. 7 Michigan at home 28-25.
Returning the favor the following season, Saban’s 1996 Michigan State team went to Lincoln to play No. 1 Nebraska — and were demolished 55-14 in Saban’s first taste of a top-ranked team.
Saban finally got the Spartans ranked in the Top 25 in 1997, but lost to No. 5 Michigan as the 15th-ranked team by a 23-7 score. The 1997 Spartans played 5 games against ranked teams, and only won 1 game — beating No. 4 Penn State 49-14 in Saban’s 8th overall game against a higher-ranked team.
It only took one more season — Saban’s 14th game overall against a ranked team — for the Spartans to knock off their first No. 1 team, going to Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 1998, and knocking off the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 28-24.
The 1999 Spartans played 7 games against ranked teams, the final 6 themselves a ranked ballclub. Michigan State went 5-2 in those games, including downing No. 3 Michigan 34-31 as the 11th-ranked team. Saban departed for LSU before Michigan State’s bowl victory against Florida, so that one counts toward Bobby Williams’ career record.
Saban’s final Michigan State record against Top 25 teams: 8-13. And against higher-ranked teams: 7-11.
Off to Cajun country
Saban moved from East Lansing to Baton Rouge after the 1999 season to take over LSU, and immediately got 5 games against Top 25 teams — going 3-2 in those games with wins against No. 11 Tennessee and No. 13 Mississippi State.
The 2001 LSU Tigers played 6 games against ranked teams, the most memorable being a 31-20 upset victory by the No. 21 Tigers over No. 2 Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. LSU finished the season on a 6-game overall winning streak, as the No. 12 Tigers downed N0. 7 Illinois 34-10 in the Sugar Bowl.
Saban’s 2002 LSU team played 4 times against ranked teams and won just once — a 36-7 win against No. 16 Florida by the 18th-ranked Tigers. It was 2002 that Saban got his first taste of a game against a ranked Alabama team, as No. 14 LSU lost to the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide 31-0 in Baton Rouge.
The 2003 Tigers, of course, won the national title — going 13-1 and beating all 5 ranked teams they played in the process. The only game LSU played against a higher-ranked team in 2004? No. 7 Georgia, which No. 11 LSU downed 17-10.
Saban’s final LSU season was 2004, in which the Tigers went 1-3 against ranked teams — falling to No. 14 Auburn, No. 3 Georgia and No. 11 Iowa, and defeating No. 12 Florida.
Saban’s final LSU record against Top 25 teams: 14-10. And against higher-ranked teams: 9-8.
Following a 2-year stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Saban was famously recruited back to college football and the Southeastern Conference by Alabama athletic director Mal Moore. Bringing his “Process” with him to Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide started slow — going 2-3 against ranked teams (all ranked higher than the Tide) in 2007 with wins against No. 16 Arkansas and No. 20 Tennessee.
Since 2008, Saban-coached Alabama games against teams ranked higher than the Crimson Tide are few and far between.
No. 2 Alabama defeated No. 1 Florida 32-13 in the 2009 SEC Championship Game — a game that moved Tim Tebow to tears and the first of many Urban Meyer retirements.
The next season — 2010 — saw a pair of matchups, as No. 9 Alabama lost to N0. 2 Auburn 28-27 in Cam Newton’s Iron Bowl and No. 15 Alabama whacked No. 7 Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.
LSU was the nemesis in 2 timeless matchups the following season in 2011, as No. 2 Alabama fell to the top-ranked Tigers at home 9-6 in overtime, and then avenged the defeat again as the No. 2 team against No. 1 LSU 21-0 in the BCS title game.
The 2012 BCS National Championship Game pitted No. 2 Alabama against No. 1 Notre Dame — with the Crimson Tide beating Manti T’eo, his imaginary girlfriend and the Fighting Irish 42-14 for a 15th national title.
It would be 2 more years before Alabama again faced a team ranked higher, as No. 1 Mississippi State visited Tuscaloosa to play No. 4 Alabama in 2014 — and went back to Oxford a 25-20 loser.
The Tide played twice in 2015 as a lower-ranked team, as 10th-ranked Alabama beat No. 9 Texas A&M 41-23 and later as the 7th-ranked team smacked 4th-ranked LSU 30-16.
The first of the 3 classic Alabama-Clemson games was in the 2015 College Football Championship, as No. 2 Alabama downed No. 1 Clemson 45-40 in an instant classic. Round 3, on New Year’s Day 2018 in the CFP semifinals, saw No. 4 Alabama down the top-ranked Tigers 24-6 in Atlanta.
And the final game of the Saban-Alabama dynasty that saw the Tide play as a higher-ranked team? Just one week afterward, as No. 4 Alabama downed No. 3 Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
Saban’s current Alabama record against higher-ranked teams: an astounding 14-5.
The ranked team Alabama has faced the most? LSU, 12 times, going 10-2 overall, but 2-2 when the Tiger are ranked higher than the Tide.
Can he do it again Saturday?