Nick Saban is the king. No doubt about that. The Alabama head football coach has won six national titles, including two of the last three. Alabama is 71-9 in the SEC over the past decade. It is 41-3 over the past three seasons. Overall. Case closed.
The SEC may be the best conference in college football, but the idea that there is parity in the league is something of a joke. Saban has made it so. He’s easily the leader of the pack. The rest are chasing.
What’s interesting is the various ways the league has taken up the chase. We’re talking head coaches. We’re talking head coaching hires, the men conference administrators have placed in charge of their football programs with succeeding against Saban prominently listed in the job description.
Four of the current league coaches worked directly for Saban — Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt.
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops worked for the coach who worked for Saban, serving as Fisher’s defensive coordinator at Florida State before taking over UK in 2013. Upon his arrival in Lexington, Stoops talked about beliefs with regard to player and program development. I asked him where he had found those ideas. He pointed to Fisher and how Fisher had picked them up from Saban.
Six are former defensive coordinators, just as Saban was a defensive coordinator before his first head coaching job. Muschamp, Pruitt, Smart, Stoops, Missouri’s Barry Odom and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason all made their reputations on the defensive side of the football before being awarded the keys to the corner office. And all six are in the SEC East.
Given the belief that offense puts fans in the seats, it’s somewhat surprising that only five of the league coaches were former offensive coordinators. That group includes Fisher, Florida’s Dan Mullen, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead and Arkansas’ Chad Morris. Both Moorhead and Morris are new to the league. Moorhead was the offensive coordinator at Penn State. Morris, once the offensive coordinator at Clemson, was the head coach at SMU.
In fact, Arkansas tried to copy Saban not by tapping into his tree or his side of the ball, but opting for his style. The Razorbacks imported Bret Bielema from Wisconsin. Saban came south, first to LSU, from Michigan State. Bielema believed in hard-nosed football with a strong running game. So did Saban, at least before he brought the now-departed Lane Kiffin onto his staff in Tuscaloosa.
Alas, this time, imitation did not work so well. Bielema was shown the door after going 29-34 in his five seasons, including 4-8 last year. Soon after, Jeff Long, the man who hired Bielema was gone, too, though that might have also had something to do with the fact Long failed to lure Auburn’s Malzahn, who had once been the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.
LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Ole Miss’s Matt Luke are special cases. Both became head coaches after shedding interim tags. Orgeron took over LSU after Les Miles received a pink slip. Luke took over Ole Miss after Hugh Freeze’s firing and just as the Rebels were being put on NCAA probation. Both have inherited tough jobs, if for different reasons.
Those who have the best chance of taking on Saban are the ones who have forged their own previous success. Mullen did a terrific job at Mississippi State and should do even better with superior resources at Florida. Smart took Georgia to the national title game in just his second season, falling to Saban and Alabama in overtime.
Malzahn handed Saban his only loss last season. Before that, he took Auburn to the national title game at the end of the 2013 season where the Tigers lost to Florida State, snapping a streak of seven consecutive national titles for the SEC. Florida State’s coach that year? None other than Fisher, the man now in charge at Texas A&M.
Given A&M’s desire to be a big name, its resources and recruiting base, and now its coach, the Aggies should have the best chance at challenging the king.