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Nick Saban: The Game's Best Head Coach



With the big showdown coming up in Tuscaloosa this weekend, it is only appropriate we write a piece on Nick Saban.

Though this game is being hyped by the media as one of the biggest college football games of all time, big games such as these are nothing new to Nick Saban. A true journeyman over the last 15 years, Saban has made stops at Michigan State, LSU, the Miami Dolphins, and Alabama. The interesting aspect of this game is that Nick Saban played a prominent role in elevating both schools to where they are today. It could be argued that if it weren’t for Nick Saban’s work over the last decade, this game might not carry any relevance whatsoever.

While Les Miles has taken what Saban left him at LSU and improved on it, the real story here is Nick Saban and his legacy as a college football coach.

So let’s take a trip down memory and look at the impact Saban has had at LSU and Alabama and how he has shaped what this game on Saturday means to college football. The revisionist historian would tell you that anyone can win at LSU and Alabama with the resources and talent at the disposal of the head coach. However, winning big hasn't always been the norm at either school. Take a quick look at the record books and you will find the following:

  • Prior to Nick Saban taking over at LSU in 2000, the Tigers had won only 55% of their games from 1980-1999.  During this twenty year period, LSU had 10 losing seasons.
  • Prior to Nick Saban taking over at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide had won 57% of their games in the five preceding years his arrival. During this period, the Crimson Tide went 19-21 in conference play.

What this tells us is that, contrary to popular belief, not just anyone can walk into these programs and start winning. Often these so-called “football factories” don’t actually become “football factories” until a good coach comes in, implements a system, and sets the tone for winning. This was certainly the case for Saban at LSU and Alabama.

  • From 2000-2004, Saban's LSU Tigers won 75% of their overall games and 71.43% of SEC games before leaving to try his luck in the NFL.
  • From 2007-Present, Saban's Crimson Tide have won a remarkable 82% of their overall games and 79.49% of SEC games. Also keep in mind that 54.55% of Saban's 11 losses at Alabama came in his first season.

To go along with his exceptional turnarounds of LSU and Alabama, Saban has also won three SEC Championships and two BCS National Championships, all while competing in the toughest conference in college football. Through all of this success, Saban has been the only common denominator amongst his coaching staffs. While assistant coaches like Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley, and Jimbo Fisher leaving to take head coaching positions might have a negative impact on a coach, Saban just reloads his staff and continues his dominance. One of the core tenets we believe in at CBTN is that many of the great Head Coaches are masters of a particular craft and control a particular aspect of the game. For Nick Saban that craft is defense and that has been the staple of his teams for the last decade.

  • From 2001-2004, LSU’s defense gave up an average of 17 pts/game and under 300 yds/game (298). Pretty amazing considering the program Saban took over.
  • From 2007-Present, Alabama has averaged giving up 12 pts/game and only 244 yds/game in total defense.

This truly is a “lockdown” defense. Combine Saban's defense with a competent offense and you have a nearly unstoppable force. For comparison, John Chavis, the Five Star defensive coordinator at LSU, has averaged giving up 18 pts/game and 311 yds/game in total defense in the same time frame. We bring this up because “By The Numbers” Chavis is the second best defensive coordinator in the SEC, and he's giving up almost a TD/game more than Saban and 67 more yds/game…and that is the closest anyone is in the conference to Saban's defense.

So it is clear to us that Saban is a defensive mastermind who has a knack for consistently locking down his opponents. Combine this with Saban’s attention to detail and the fact that all he seems to care about in life is winning football games and you have yourself quite the formidable opponent. All of this brings us to this weekend's matchup, a prime time game featuring two of the programs that Saban revived from the depths of mediocrity.

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So what should we be looking for this weekend in Tuscaloosa?

First off, the game is in Tuscaloosa. What does this mean for Alabama? Well, Saban is 29-4 in home games at Alabama. If you take out his first season coaching the Tide, he is 26-1 at home. Say all you want, but home games matter in today’s high pressure televised world of college football.

Second, while we know Alabama’s defense is stingy, their offense isn’t too shabby either. In SEC games so far in 2011, Alabama ranks first in Rushing Offense, Scoring Offense, and Total Offense, to go along with their #1 rank in conference games in Rushing Defense, Total Defense, and Scoring Defense.

Third, a somewhat low scoring affair should favor Alabama. The average score for Alabama-LSU game from 2007-Present is 27-25. At Alabama, Saban's defenses are near the very top in giving up less than 30 pts. In fact, they give up 30+ pts only 10% of the time compared to LSU giving up 30+ pts 18% of the time from 2007-Present (see detailed numbers here). Also, from 2007-Present, Alabama wins 89% (49-6) of the time when they score 20+ pts in a game . LSU wins 85% (46-8) of the time when scoring 20+ pts in the same time frame (details here).

Finally, from 2001-Present, Nick Saban is 6-5 (55%) in games vs. Top 5 teams (time of game), and Les Miles is 6-9 (40%) vs. Top 5 teams (time of game). As you can see, Nick Saban has played a prominent role in elevating both LSU and Alabama to elite status. Without his influence, there is no telling the direction both of these programs would’ve taken.

As an overall body of work (2001-Present), we have Saban ranked as our #2 coach. However, if you customize our ranking to just include his time at Alabama (2007-Present), he quickly becomes #1. Put simply, since taking the reigns at Alabama, Nick Saban is the best college football coach in the country and will probably go down as one of the best of all-time.

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If you go to our Gamblers Corner and enter Nick Saban, you will find the following interesting tidbit for Saban:

  • From 2007-Present: In Home Games vs. SEC opponents with an O/U between 40 and 50, the “under” hits 77% (10 out of 13) of the time.