A few weeks ago I was doing a segment with a radio show in Nashville, when I got dragged into a conversation the host and his callers were having: Who would benefit most if Nick Saban were to retire tomorrow? Yes, it’s a totally hypothetical conversation (spurred on by a conversation that happened on FS1 earlier in the day) but it remained fascinating nonetheless. After all, whenever Saban does leave Tuscaloosa, it will impact college football in a way that I’m not sure people totally understand, restructuring the entire pecking order of the SEC (and the sport as a whole), while saving coaches their jobs, and giving schools an opportunity to compete in ways they haven’t before. In the decade prior to Saban’s arrival, six different teams won at least one SEC crown, and five different schools won the West (at a time when there were only six teams in the division). In recent years, though, Saban has dominated, winning the SEC in three of the last four years, with four SEC titles (and four national championships) since 2009. So yeah, if Saban left it’d be huge, but who would benefit the most? Here’s my list.
Getty ImagesDon Juan Moore
As a byproduct of Saban crushing the competition on the field, he has been able to do just about whatever he wants in recruiting. And that includes cherry-picking some of the very best players from Texas over the last few years, guys that either the Aggies, Longhorns or both wanted. Current Alabama corner Tony Brown (who is suspended the first four games of the season) is from Texas, and chose the Crimson Tide over the Longhorns. Texas actually had A’Shawn Robinson committed before he went to Alabama and became an All-American. Think Charlie Strong could have found some way to use him last year? Then there’s Kendall Sheffield, a former five-star cornerback who committed to Alabama over Texas A&M. Ironically, Sheffield recently announced a transfer from ‘Bama, but with the Aggies breaking in two new starters at corner this year, you think Kevin Sumlin and John Chavis couldn’t have found a role for him? Alabama also has three verbal commitments in the class of 2017 from Texas kids (two who hold offers from both Texas and Texas A&M, according to Rivals) meaning that the Texas-to-Alabama pipeline is only growing stronger through time.
Getty ImagesCooper Neill
The Vols have bigger fish to fry than Alabama. It’s been nine years since the Vols won 10 games, and you have to go all the way back to 1998 since they won the SEC. Point being, Butch Jones has to worry about his team, and making sure they meet lofty expectations this year, rather than just worry about the rival that they play the third weekend in October every year. At the same time, it probably isn’t a total coincidence that the last time the Vols beat their most hated rival was in 2006, the year before Saban arrived, or that the Tennessee program has basically bottomed out during Saban’s reign. Since Saban took over at Alabama, the Vols are 0-9 against the Crimson Tide, a streak which includes four different head coaches, with five sub-.500 seasons mixed in. So while Saban leaving wouldn’t solve all the Vols’ problems, it would alleviate a pretty big one. It’d also give Tennessee a chance to beat their biggest rival for the first time in a decade, something they’re hoping to accomplish this year.
Getty ImagesMichael Chang
This is basically the Texas/Texas A&M recruiting argument, only more regonalized. That’s because while Georgia continues to get most of the in-state kids they want, they have missed out on a decent amount who have ended up in the Crimson and White (and that doesn’t include Heisman winner Derrick Henry, a Florida native who was committed to Georgia before flipping to ‘Bama). Those in-state misses include potential All-American Dalvin Tomlinson off this year’s roster, as well as Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson, who were part of a couple Tide championship teams in the early part of this decade. Same with Dillon Lee and Kenyan Drake who were contributors on last year’s squad. By the way, know the one thing all five of those guys have in common? They all held Georgia offers in high school, and ended up at Alabama instead. What will be interesting to see is whether the Crimson Tide can continue to recruit Georgia well, now that their primary recruiter in the state, Kirby Smart, is head coach in Athens.
Part of it is that, like everyone else, Miles has lost a couple of recruits to Saban through the years. Guys like Cam Robinson, Tim Williams and Landon Collins were all recruited to LSU, and all could have played very valuable roles for the Tigers. But when it comes to Les Miles’ case specifically, it’s much deeper than that. You see, Miles is of course the man who replaced Nick Saban in Baton Rouge and forever will be compared to him. Miles — with 112 wins in 11 years, which includes a national championship, two title game appearances and two SEC crowns — is one of the best coaches of his generation, yet in this exact era, he isn’t even the best coach in the division. To make matters worse, the best coach in his division is arguably the best coach of all-time, who also happened to have his job before he had it. For all his success, Miles will forever be held to the standard of Saban, not just for what he accomplished in Baton Rouge, but for what he has done since at Alabama. As an LSU fan told me last year, “Saban was our Bear Bryant” and LSU has got to face that guy every year. How different would Miles’ life be if Saban never came along? Or if he retired tomorrow?
Whoever is the coach at Auburn
So as I’ve had many friends who work in the media in the state of Alabama tell me, the reason Auburn-Alabama is the biggest game in college football each and every season is this: For the winning team in the Iron Bowl, it isn’t so much about enjoying the victory. It’s about the relief that comes with not having to deal with the other side for a full year if you lose. That’s intense, and that’s also why you can imagine the angst in the Auburn fan-base, since the Tigers are just 3-6 against Alabama since Saban arrived, and all three of those wins were also in the flukiest way possible (the first came in Saban’s first year, the second with Cam Newton, the third in the “Kick Six Game”). That angst has also, at least in part, cost two Auburn coaches (Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik) their jobs, and could well cost Gus Malzahn his this year. It also raises the question: If the Tigers were, in general, a bit more competitive with the Tide, how much easier would it be for Auburn’s coach — whoever it is at that particular moment — to keep his job?
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The entire SEC West
There are a whole bunch of schools in the West paying their coaches a whole bunch of money, who ultimately have no shot at even winning their division, let alone the conference, while Saban is the coach in T-Town. After all, isn’t part of the reason Miles, Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin are on the hot seat this year because they all make over $4 million a year yet aren’t sniffing a division title? If Saban were to retire, it feels like there’d be a land-grab in the SEC West, one where in the right year, any team could jump up and take home the division title (kind of like in the SEC East right now), and possibly a conference crown as well. A lot would change in college football if Nick Saban retired, but nowhere would the change be felt quite like it would be in the SEC West.