Over the next few days, the college football world is about to become immersed in a great debate that has no easy answer. It began in the seconds following Alabama’s wild, heart-pounding, triumphant 45-40 win over Clemson on Monday night, and will undoubtedly continue through the following days and weeks, into the off-season and years beyond.
That debate centers around this simple question: After picking up his fifth title overall, including his fourth at Alabama, is Nick Saban the greatest coach in the history of college football? From the moment the whistle went final it’s all anyone has seemed to talk about. My boss here at Outkick, Clay Travis, discussed it on our FS1 postgame coverage Monday night, and Paul Finebaum did the same later on ESPN. Just about every column I’m seeing Tuesday morning is centered around the same question.
Frankly, it’s a great debate and one that I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to. But while I’m not quite sure of how Saban’s accomplishments stack up against the greats in the game, what I can tell you is this: In a career filled with way more wins than losses, and more title game victories than anyone not named Bear Bryant, Monday night will go down as the single greatest victory of Nick Saban’s career. It was also his greatest moment as a coach.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s start with that game Monday night, and you don’t need me to tell you that it was an instant classic. I mean it really was one of the greatest college football games ever played, and following a bowl season that was relatively disappointing, it exceeded every expectation any of us could have had for a title game.
That game honestly had it all.
It had one team which entered the game as a clear favorite, and the plucky underdog that we quickly realized wasn’t plucky, and wasn’t an underdog at all. It followed the expected script for a few minutes after Derrick Henry burst through the Clemson defense for a long touchdown run, and then went completely off-script for the next 50+ minutes of game action. Entering the game we all wondered if Clemson could hang, yet Monday night not only did they hang, but for big chunks of the game the Tigers were the better team. In an era where Alabama has absolutely obliterated its competition in title games, Clemson was every bit as good as the Tide all the way down to the final few minutes. DeShaun Watson had one of the best individual title game performances we’ve ever seen.
More important than any of that though, this game also had a seminal moment. One that, even 50 years from now, when someone mentions “Clemson-Alabama title game” we’ll all immediately remember. I am of course talking about that wild onside kick with two minutes to go in the third quarter. It was one of the single gutsiest plays in the history of sports. And incredibly, in a world where we overanalyze everything in sports, I don’t feel like we’re talking about it enough.
Sure, everyone is discussing it, but they’re doing it in the small picture. Yes, in the small picture, it was a massive, momentum-swinging, title altering play. It was a play, that as I mentioned, we’ll remember forever.
But really, that’s just part of the story, and part of the legacy of that moment. Because it wasn’t just a play that altered a game, or altered a season, but ultimately altered an entire era of college football, and the Alabama dynasty as we know it.
Think about it. If Alabama recovers that kick, which they did, well, everything plays out exactly like it did Monday night. Alabama recovers the kick, gets the go-ahead score and wins the game. Now, we as fans get to spend the coming weeks, months and years debating Saban’s place amongst the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, and his dynasty amongst the best of all-time.
At the same time, what happens if Alabama doesn’t get the kick? The fact that no one is talking about it boggles my mind. The history of college football is completely different as we know it.
If Alabama doesn’t recover that onside kick, Clemson gets the ball back on the 50-yard line, probably scores, and Alabama probably loses the game. And from there, Nick Saban — a man with four National Championships entering the night — goes down as one of the biggest goats of all-time. No one is talking about him as the greatest coach in the history of college football, but instead, as making one of the single worst decisions in the history of sports. In the end, Saban’s ultimate legacy would be his four titles, plus the one that got away. Basically, this would have been Saban’s “Pete Carroll running LenDale White on 4th and 1 with Reggie Bush on the sidelines” moment. It’s the play we would have gone back 10 years from now, looked at, and said “Good lord, what was he thinking?”
Only Nick Saban — that sick, glorious bastard — did make the call, his team did pull it off, and he and his team did make history. Two plays, and 50 yards later, the Crimson Tide had a lead that they would never give up, punctuated by a Kenyan Drake kickoff return shortly thereafter.
So yeah, everyone will remember the kick, and everyone should. It was the single, defining play of Nick Saban’s career. He looked history in the eye, shit, he looked an entire college football world full of doubters in the eye and said “Man, I got this.” Then his team pulled it off, and he chuckled all the way down the sideline, in the sick, twisted way that only an evil genius like Nick Saban can.
That one kick was the signature moment of Saban’s career, but again, it’s important to note that Monday night was the signature win of Nick Saban’s career as well.
To take it one step further, I’d argue this: Forget winning the title. I think the fact that he simply got Alabama back to the title game, after all they’ve been through the last three years, is as impressive as actually winning it.
Think about it: When we talk about all the great dynasties in the history of college football, none has been able to climb the mountaintop, fall off, and climb back up again.
Take Miami for example. Sure, they won a National Championship with the greatest team in the history of college football in 2001. But they lost the title game the following year to Ohio State and have never really recovered as a program since. USC’s run in the middle part of last decade was as impressive a three-year stretch as anything we’ve ever seen. They also never again played for a title after losing to Texas in that 2006 Rose Bowl. Again, every other major dynasty of the last few decades had a clear end date.
But not Alabama.
Sure, we all thought they were headed that way, and all of us, myself included, thought that the dynasty is dead. We said that was the case after the “Kick Six” game against Auburn. And after they lost in the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma a few weeks later. We said it after they lost to Ohio State in the first college football playoff last year. And we said, (or more specifically I said it) after the Tide lost to Ole Miss earlier this year.
And for all the flack that everyone in the media has taken for saying it, let’s look at it a different way: Why wouldn’t we say it? What Alabama is doing completely defies everything that history tells us should happen to a college football program.
The history of the sport tells us that the arc of every major college football dynasty unfolds like this: They start as the plucky underdog. Next, they win a title and plant their flag atop the mountain. Then, they stay on top for another year or two, and maybe pick up an additional title during that stretch. And then fall off, like all great dynasties do.
And for a while, that’s where it looked like Nick Saban’s career was headed. It followed all the conventional steps. His first title over Texas was the one on the way to the top, where Alabama planted their flag and said “We’ve arrived.” The title against LSU was Saban’s masterpiece, the game where we were all like “There’s no doubt ‘Bama is the best.” The Notre Dame game was the statement, where Alabama obliterated their opponent, obliterated the entire sport, and basically said “There isn’t anybody who can hang with us.” And the last few years were the downswing, where everyone seemed to catch up, and where Alabama was just another really good team, but not a transcendently great one.
But then there was Monday night.
That title was different than them all, and frankly different than any other in recent college football history. It came on what was supposed to be on the down arc of Saban’s career, when everything was supposed to be over, and the rest of the sport was supposed to have passed him by. It came when, to quote Saban, everyone had determined that his program was dead and buried and gone.
As it turned out, not only is Saban’s dynasty not dead, but it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Is Nick Saban the greatest coach in the history of college football?
Probably, but I’ll let everyone else decide that.
But was Monday night his greatest victory as a head coach?