Kirby? Jimbo? Muschamp? Pruitt? Sooner or later, one of Nick Saban's former assistants will beat him ... right?
There are certain stats that in the heat of the season, you don’t really get time to appreciate. I didn’t fully appreciate Drew Lock’s single-season SEC touchdown pass record or like how after the Troy debacle, LSU went 6-1 vs. the SEC and allowed just 18 points per contest. Stats like that just have a way of growing on me after the season.
There’s another one that grew on me this offseason. Lost in the hoopla of Alabama’s improbable national title comeback was the fact that Nick Saban improved to 12-0 against his former assistants.
It took a little reminder from my pal, Paul Finebaum, for me to remember that.
Nick Saban is 12-0 when facing his former assistant coaches. Who will be the first disciple to get a W against their mentor?
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) June 12, 2018
That’s probably what I’d expect given that Kirby Smart was a properly-executed Cover 2 from history. And by history, I’m not just talking about winning Georgia’s first national title in nearly 4 decades. I mean, of course, becoming the first former Saban disciple to dethrone the master.
My bad. I meant, dethrone the G.O.A.T.
As long as Saban continues to beat his assistants, no “passing of the torch” narrative will take shape. At least not yet. After Saban’s latest triumph over a former disciple, the question is now two-fold.
3-0 vs. Derek Dooley
3-0 vs. Jim McElwain
2-0 vs. Will Muschamp
2-0 vs. Mark Dantonio
1-0 vs. Jimbo Fisher
1-0 vs. Kirby Smart
Who will be the former assistant to finally take down Saban? And if it does eventually happen, how much longer will it take?
Those questions obviously can’t be proven definitively today. What we do know is that a few developments in the past 7 months could play a part in expediting that process.
Smart put together one of the top-rated recruiting classes of the 247sports era — he also ended Saban’s 7-year streak of No. 1 classes — while Jimbo Fisher got a Texas-sized paycheck to run the show in College Station. If you really want to get into the “what have Saban’s assistants done lately” thing, you’d probably also point out that Muschamp has the No. 4 recruiting class in the 2019 rankings.
Oh, and one other thing. Saban’s most recent defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, left to take over at Tennessee, where he’ll get an annual date with Alabama.
So yeah. That’s a ton of noteworthy developments in the “what have Saban’s assistants done lately” thing (that’s also with Lane Kiffin still enjoying life in Boca Raton). Those are the guys who will have the best chance at becoming the first former Saban assistant to hand the master an “L.”
With all due respect to the likes of Mark Dantonio, Derek Dooley, Major Applewhite, Mario Cristobal, Mike Haywood, Jim McElwain, Billy Napier and any other active college coach from Saban’s tree who I forgot to include, I’m not betting on any of them to break the streak (I don’t think I’d put down a dollar if you gave me 5,000-to-1 odds on McElwain).
As impressed as I am with what Muschamp accomplished the past year, I’d still put him last among the 4 SEC coaches who could knock off Saban. We’re talking about South Carolina taking down Georgia and Alabama in the same season. If Muschamp puts together several top-5 recruiting classes, maybe that’s possible. But even that feels like a stretch.
Pruitt is more intriguing than Muschamp. He’ll get to face Saban every year, and though that hasn’t gone well for Tennessee the past 11 years (Dooley was 0-3 vs. Saban and Tennessee was outscored 122-29), Pruitt is at least an unknown commodity. Having never been a head coach before, we really don’t know his ceiling, especially with all of those resources in Knoxville.
I mean, look at Smart. He was a former Saban defensive coordinator who walked into a big-time program without any head coaching experience, and in Year 2, we were already talking about whether he was ready to pass Saban. Obviously Pruitt wasn’t blessed with the roster that Smart was, but that speaks to how quickly things can change.
The thing that hasn’t changed is Saban’s ability to humble his former assistants. Even last year, Saban humbled Fisher in what was billed as “the biggest opener in college football history.” The offensive-minded Fisher had all offseason to try and figure out ways to score against Saban’s defense and the Seminoles cranked out a measly 7 points.
That’s what I’m curious to see. What will be the coaching DNA of the assistant who finally takes down Saban? Will it be a former defensive coordinator who beats Saban at his own game? Or will it be an offensive guru who schemes to beat Alabama like Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze did multiple times?
History suggests it’ll be the latter. Based on that 7-point dud that Fisher delivered in the 2017 opener with elite FSU athletes in his pro-style offense, I have a hard time believing his Aggies squad will take that step in the immediate future. Kevin Sumlin obviously beat Saban in Year 1 because the Aggies had Johnny Manziel, who was his own sort of exotic offensive scheme.
I want to see if Fisher, Pruitt or Smart can run some sort of up-tempo, stretch the field offense to beat Saban. I think Georgia tried to do things like that when Nick Chubb was completely stuffed in the title game (18 carries for 25 yards doesn’t suggest Alabama was fooled), but Jake Fromm wasn’t about to beat Mack Wilson to the edge when he kept it on run-pass options.
See, that’s part of the reason I think this streak reached 12-0. Saban always looks like he’s a step or two ahead of his assistants. Nobody is better at the in-game adjustments than Saban, and when you’re predictable against 5-star talents across the board, it’s a death sentence. Just ask LSU about that.
For all we know, Saban’s perfection vs. his coaching tree could continue for another decade. As ESPN’s Chris Low likes to remind us on a weekly basis, Saban plans on coaching well into his 70s (Low does outstanding work, but like, we get it). We could look back on that 2017 title game as the closest a Saban assistant ever came.
Maybe Alabama will devastate Georgia in a few more postseason games. Perhaps unlike what Kiffin suggested, it’ll take Pruitt closer to 5 years to get Tennessee to a championship level and not 2. Fisher’s first few SEC matchups with Saban might follow the same script as the 2017 opener.
Or maybe a Saban disciple will finally out-coach him in the next 2 years. The “Saban owns his former coaches” narrative will end and the “Saban’s passing of the torch” narrative will begin. That’ll obviously be easier said than done.
If it weren’t, it would’ve been done by now.