It’s unavoidable — discussion of Nick Saban as the greatest head coach in college football’s 147-year history has already become a feature of 2016. It will become an even bigger talking point if, 11 months from now, Alabama returns to the College Football Playoff in search of a repeat title it will be favored to win on Opening Day.
There’s no problem with raising this discussion. In fact, it’s good to make the case for Saban and his achievements at Alabama, putting them in the best possible light.
However, let’s not let one reading of history go unopposed. Healthy discussions emerge from one argument going against another. In this pro-and-con package called “Alabama Arguments,” we offer the case that for all of Nick Saban’s rightly unquestioned excellence as a coach — he is remarkably great at what he does, full stop — he has been the beneficiary of a remarkable run of luck.
Even when one allows for the realization that luck is a NECESSITY, not a luxury, in college football, Saban’s had a disproportionate share of it during this dynastic procession in Tuscaloosa.
Clemson earned its way into the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, but the Tigers certainly got a forward nudge in the Orange Bowl semifinal game against Oklahoma when the Sooners lost defensive tackle Charles Walker before the game and linebacker Jordan Evans during it. The Tigers mauled the Sooners up front in the second half to run away with a 37-17 win.
In Monday’s national championship game, the injury bug bit the Tigers. Shaq Lawson played through pain and gained a few tackles for loss, including a sack of Jacob Coker, but he was on his heels in the first quarter and made only a fraction of the impact he could have delivered if he had been close to 100 percent. Later, Mackensie Alexander, the superb defensive back who contained Alabama’s Calvin Ridley while he was in the Clemson lineup, suffered an injury which depleted the Tigers’ secondary. Backups got caught making basic errors, enabling O.J. Howard to rack up multiple home-run pass plays which carried Alabama across the finish line in Arizona.
That’s been the pattern for the Alabama Crimson Tide in a majority of their national title game wins under Nick Saban. Something really crazy happens to put Bama in an inordinately favorable position. The Tide take advantage of it, but the stroke of good fortune is conspicuously large.
Breaks of the game and all that, but man, have the Tide rolled and reveled in the pots of gold they’ve been given.
In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Texas, Alabama watched Colt McCoy get injured five snaps into the game for the Longhorns’ offense. Backup Garrett Gilbert scored 21 against Alabama’s defense. Imagine what McCoy, an elite college quarterback with a full boat of experience, could have done.
Keep in mind that in 2009, Alabama was one Tennessee field goal away from losing at home to Lane Kiffin, then the coach of the Vols. The kick was blocked. Some skill is involved there, but the trajectory of the kick was low as well.
In the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, the remarkable piece of good luck for Alabama is that it was simply there in the Superdome to face LSU. The Bayou Bengals had beaten Alabama on the road in early November in the 9-6 game which continues to linger in the public memory. The Tigers thought they were done with Bama for good in the 2011-2012 season, but they weren’t. Oklahoma State — playing just hours after a plane crash took the lives of multiple OSU women’s basketball coaches — certainly looked like a distracted team at Iowa State and lost a nail-biter to the Cyclones, hurt by a missed field goal late in the proceedings. The red carpet — more like the Crimson carpet — was rolled out for the Tide.
Then came the 2012 SEC Championship Game against Georgia, and THIS play:
Rewind the hands of time before that escape against Georgia.
Oregon AND Kansas State both had to lose in previous weeks in order for Alabama to even be in position to earn a date with Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS title game. Moreover, Ohio State went unbeaten in 2012, but because Buckeye athletic director Gene Smith didn’t refuse a bowl bid in the 2011 season, he (at the very least) lowered his program’s chances of being eligible for the postseason in 2012. OSU did indeed get slapped with that sanction. Alabama stepped into the No. 2 slot Ohio State might have occupied.
How did a Michigan State team without Connor Cook beat Ohio State in Columbus? You know Urban Meyer would have been there waiting for Saban in the title game. That’s a matchup Saban probably would not have won.
Then, as mentioned above, consider the way the injury bug helped Alabama.
Yes, luck is a prerequisite for winning national titles, with very, very few exceptions (see Nebraska 1995, maybe Miami 2001 as well).
Alabama in the Saban era can’t get enough of it… in more ways than one.