Nick Saban's perfect record vs. his disciples is dead, so who's next? 1 of these 4 coaches
Down went Nick Saban. Twice.
Specifically, down went Saban to one of his former assistants. Twice.
Both of Alabama’s losses in 2021 came against Saban disciples. Jimbo Fisher and Kirby Smart are the lone members of that exclusive club. After starting off a dominant 24-0, Saban is now a lowly 25-2 against his former assistants.
Saban is set to face 3 former assistants in 2022, not including any potential conference championship/bowl matchups. Will anyone join the winners’ club? Maybe, maybe not. Alabama is expected to be an overwhelming preseason No. 1. Shoot, it’s possible that Saban finishes the year with 5 wins against his former assistants to reach 30 such victories.
But that conversation is a bit more cut and dry. The more interesting question is who is the most likely former Saban disciple to join Fisher and Smart.
These are the top 4 candidates:
4. Mario Cristobal, Miami
Yes, moving from Oregon to Miami changed that. Cristobal is going to have a better chance at recruiting the top-level talent needed to at least have a chance to stay on the field with Alabama. The more immediate issue for Cristobal is putting the kibosh on Saban coming into Florida and signing elite receivers like Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy (stay tuned for Ja’Corey Brooks and Christian Leary). Even though the teams have only met once in the 21st century, that has to change in order for Cristobal to remain on this shortlist.
To Cristobal’s credit, he was extremely aggressive in the transfer portal and he put together a formidable staff with fellow former Saban assistants Josh Gattis and Kevin Steele. If there’s ever someone who can actually be a modern-day threat at Miami, it’s Cristobal. Threatening Alabama might be a different beast entirely, though.
The teams don’t have any scheduled matchups, but that’s not to say that they couldn’t meet in the postseason. For now, the best bet for Cristobal to join this club is facing Alabama in a non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl in which the Tide have opt-outs galore.
3. Billy Napier, Florida
Wait, what? A first-year coach beating Saban?!? Easy. Not this year. Probably not next year, either. The only way that’s happening is if Florida somehow gets past Georgia and earns a trip to Atlanta. If that happens, well, they’ll start working on putting Napier’s statue next to Steve Spurrier.
Florida isn’t scheduled to play Alabama until 2027 under the current model. Who knows how the Oklahoma/Texas addition might change that, but it’s worth noting that 3 different Florida coaches won a division title and faced a Saban-coached Alabama team. Of course, Urban Meyer was the only one who had any success, and that was 14 years ago.
It’s interesting, though. Of all the Saban disciples, Napier seems to have the most in common with how regimented and detail-oriented he is. Napier isn’t wired like Dan Mullen. There’s also a better understanding of talent acquisition with the new Florida coach. It’s easy to forget that Napier spent 5 years with Saban at Alabama. He was one of the early members of Saban’s analyst program in 2011 after he got fired as Dabo Swinney’s 20-something offensive coordinator at Clemson, and then he spent another 4 years developing receivers like Cooper and Ridley.
Napier (eventually) taking down Saban would be the culmination of a remarkable journey to the top of the college football mountain.
2. Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Yep. You knew it was coming. Whether Texas is back or not, it’s strange to think that Sarkisian could have more cracks at Saban than Smart in the 2020s. We know that Alabama and Texas are set to face off in a home-and-home the next 2 seasons. We also know that Texas is coming to the SEC in 2025, and possibly earlier.
Sarkisian led the 2 most prolific offenses in Alabama history. If you’re assuming he’s doomed to be another bust in Austin, well, I’d say at least wait and see Year 2 or Year 3 with Quinn Ewers before making any sweeping declarations. Shoot, maybe even wait to see Arch Manning in burnt orange?
(Sorry, Alabama fans. Someone has to keep y’all humble every once in a while.)
Sarkisian and Smart were, in my opinion, the best coordinators that Alabama ever had. The latter needed 5 matchups against Saban to finally take him down. Sarkisian does have the benefit of welcoming the Tide to Austin this year in what’ll be the program’s first nonconference road game since traveling to Penn State in 2011. Would I bank on an upset? No, but that atmosphere will be second to none. Perhaps it’ll be a 2020 Alabama-Ole Miss shootout and at the very least, it’ll show that Sarkisian can score against Saban’s defense and the 2023 matchup will feel like a more fair fight.
But whether that happens or not, my fingers are crossed that Texas and Alabama somehow find themselves playing regularly either in the same division or with an annual crossover. Sarkisian should get plenty of chances … as long as he can stick around longer than his predecessor.
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
I hope you had your popcorn ready.
Kiffin came up short after somewhat infamously calling his shot against the G.O.A.T. — I’d argue he avoided the “L” by making fun of himself and having a promotion for free popcorn at Ole Miss the following weekend — but he’s the most likely person to join the Saban Slayer club. Keep in mind that we still haven’t seen a roster that was truly Kiffin’s. As we saw this offseason, he’s also far from shy with the transfer portal.
If Kiffin were to beat Saban, it wouldn’t necessarily be some “passing of the torch” deal. It could be reminiscent of Hugh Freeze having the right offensive identity and personnel to catch Alabama in the right year. The portal might make that scenario at least possible on an annual basis.
Go figure that the bigger obstacle standing in Kiffin’s way is if he can put together the right defensive staff and personnel in place to ever stop Alabama’s offense. So far, no good. The Tide averaged 52.5 points in 2 meetings against Kiffin’s Ole Miss squad. The last time Ole Miss held Alabama to fewer than 40 points in a game was 2015 … when Kiffin was the Tide’s offensive coordinator in a 43-37 loss.
Still, though. You have to have some swagger to beat Saban. We know Smart has that in spades and after Fisher said he’d beat Alabama’s “you know what” while Saban was at Alabama, it’s safe to say he didn’t lack confidence, either. Kiffin will have that, win or lose. He just might need another year or 2 to deliver on his popcorn promise.
And one to put a pin in … Bill O’Brien (Alabama)
Make your jokes, Alabama fans. Put them all in the comments.
I’ll continue to die on the hill that O’Brien worked wonders as a college head coach at Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky mess. I’ll also continue to believe that O’Brien is going to get another Power 5 head coaching gig. He’s only 52 years old. In case you forgot, he was the offensive coordinator behind Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. If and when he dials up another top-5 offense for the overwhelming SEC favorites, those opportunities should be there for O’Brien.
I could see O’Brien getting another opportunity in the ACC (Georgia Tech and Louisville could be interesting) and perhaps following a path similar to the one outlined with the aforementioned Cristobal. That is, face Saban in a non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl and pull a 2008 Utah or a 2013 Oklahoma on Alabama.
Hey, I’m not saying it’ll happen. I just want all the credit if it does.