Take a quick look at the college football standings. Encoded there, in the Top 10, are two of college football’s most intriguing and mutually exclusive possibilities.
1. Is Nick Saban on the cusp of becoming the greatest football coach of all time?
2. Is Bill Snyder, with exactly zero national championships and yet another overachieving squad unlikely to change that this season, already the best coach of his generation?
Both can’t be true. Can they?
In Snyder and Saban — the faithful versus the wanderer, the good guy versus the villain, the quiet grandpa versus the too-slick firebrand — we have two of the greatest coaching minds ever to grace the game, two distinctly different avenues to excellence and two competitors fighting to be the best of their time.
Or perhaps any time.
Much of this has to do with philosophy. If you believe national titles are the way to judge greatness, then Saban’s your guy. He has three now, an Alabama team that is the AP Top 25 poll’s unanimous No. 1, and a very real chance at his fourth national championship. He is at the top of his game and ambitious and still stockpiling incredible talent in Tuscaloosa, so there’s every reason to think he can at least threaten Bear Bryant’s six national championships.
It’s also worth noting that Bryant forged his legend at a time when fewer football programs were so obsessively committed to winning at all costs. Becoming a multimillion-dollar business has made college football a much more difficult place to win, let alone dominate. Saban has won and dominated.
Snyder requires a more subtle reading of excellence, and a great leap from knowing he is great to arguing he is the greatest. His accomplishments are marked not by the shiny trophies of national titles (which are usually powered by the advantage of national powerhouses) but by the down-and-dirty brilliance of taking the worst program in college football and making it his own personal miracle.
Don’t underestimate Snyder’s football coaching acumen because he doesn’t compete in the brutally difficult SEC. When he arrived in Manhattan, Kan., in 1989, the program he inherited had been dubbed the worst football team in America. No problem. Snyder made one of the most difficult places for recruiting and winning a bastion of success. His Manhattan Miracle still stands as one of college football’s most remarkable, surprising and consistent success stories.
Then, after the 2005 season and a career that put his family’s name on the stadium, he stepped down. Ron Prince replaced him and quickly showcased what you get in Manhattan minus Snyder: a mediocre coach, a ho-hum 17-20 in three seasons, a dull and unimpressive brand of football. This was Kansas State sliding slowly but surely back where it belonged, to obscurity and mediocrity.
So Snyder returned, and nearly all of us — media, and fans outside the reaches of Wildcat Nation — shook our heads. There was no way the old man could do it twice. The game had changed. He’d changed. The task was too tall, the past too far removed from K-State’s present, the suddenly competitive Big 12 North not easy picking any longer.
Snyder went 6-6 that first year with a motley crew of talent. He went 7-6 the following season, and we kept trying to figure out how. He finished a stunning 10-3 last season, losing to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and finishing eighth in the BCS and somehow again lifting Kansas State toward the top of national respectability.
The second Miracle in Manhattan was complete, and Snyder’s miraculous ways are even more pronounced this season. Kansas State is 4-0 and situated at No. 7 in the AP Poll and No. 8 in the Coaches Poll after heading to Norman two weekends ago and taking care of Oklahoma.
So we have two kinds of brilliance here, represented by two very different men.
Saban has the best team in America, again. Snyder has done the most improbable coaching job with what he has where he is, again.
Snyder’s career coaching record stands at 163-83-1.
Saban’s college coaching record — were it not for the wins vacated from 2007 after textbook-related infractions that began under his predecessor — would stand at 151-54-1. Instead, it’s 146-54-1.
Saban has had five jobs as a head coach, his ambition moving him from Toledo to Michigan State to LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama.
Snyder has had only one head-coaching job.
So who’s better?
It’s a fascinating football thought experiment, and it hinges largely on this:
What would Snyder do at a place like Michigan State or LSU or Alabama, and what could Saban accomplish had he chosen a place like Kansas State for most of his career?
I don’t know the answer. I just know the next few seasons — and perhaps this one — will give it to us. If Saban continues to steamroll his way toward titles in such a crowded field and challenging SEC, he can make the case.
If not, and if Snyder somehow continues to coach his teams up to the tune of BCS bowls and even national-title chatter, it might be time to wonder if his miracles are the work of our generation’s preeminent football mind.