Proving Alabama's Nick Saban Is Still College Football's Best Big-Game Coach

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Proving Alabama's Nick Saban Is Still College Football's Best Big-Game Coach
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It’s one of those statistics that now just seems preposterous, but single-handedly demonstrates the University of Alabama’s turnaround under Nick Saban.

In 2008, when Alabama was 8-0 and en route to playing in the Southeastern Conference’s title game, it also had a losing streak in games played during the month of November spanning three seasons and nine games.

From 2003 to 2007, its record during the month was an abysmal 3-14 (17.6 winning percentage). It had lost six straight to rival Auburn and five to LSU, both series records. As a starting quarterback, senior John Parker Wilson was 0-2 against Mississippi State.

"We have a point to prove that we can finish," senior safety and co-captain Rashad Johnson said at the time.

Obviously, the Crimson Tide figured it out. Even though Alabama’s now seemingly annual national title chase came up short last year, losing at Auburn on a 100-yard return off a missed field goal as time expired, Nick Saban still has to be considered the best big-game coach in college football.

Yes, flat Alabama was beat by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and, yes, Saban is just 8-7 in bowl games (0-3 at Michigan State and 8-4 with SEC teams).

Consider the bigger picture:

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He’s 4-0 when the national title is on the line.

Saban’s 4-1 in conference championships, the lone loss in 2008 to Florida when Tim Tebow was running Urban Meyer’s offense and Saban had just one full recruiting class at Alabama. 

Over his 18-year career as a head coach, including stops at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU, Saban’s teams are 51-35 against ranked opponents (59.3 winning percentage), and 27-17 (61.6 percent) against top-10 teams. Among coaches who have faced at least 20 opponents ranked in the Top 10, only one has had a better career winning percentage: Frank Leahy. (Note: Among active coaches, Meyer is 12-5, or 70.6 percent).

Saban’s four wins against opponents ranked No. 1 is tied for the most by any coach since the Associated Press poll was created in 1936. He shares the distinction with Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, Jack Mollenkopf and Joe Paterno, who are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant did it only three times.

But with the BCS and creation of the four-team playoff, November has become more important than ever, especially in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, easily the toughest in college football. Even if you took away Alabama’s three recent titles, the other West teams still have won more BCS championships than any other conference, never mind division.

By then teams are beat up, have been exposed and the season becomes a test of survival. It’s when the 2011 Crimson Tide defense, considered by many to be one of the best of all time, gave up 51 points, compared with 55 during the rest of the season, and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had his signature win at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012.

November rain to reign for Crimson Tide
Year November record PF/PA
2003 1-3 93-92
2004 1-2 53-61
2005 1-2 46-44
2006 0-3 45-74
2007 0-4 70-96
2008 4-0 130-28
2009 4-0 116-39
2010 2-2 141-69
2011 3-1 117-51
2012 3-1 143-41
2013 3-1 135-52

Compiled from Alabama's annual results

It’s also when the 2007 season, Saban’s first with the Crimson Tide, completely fell apart. No. 17 Alabama was a respectful 6-2 and coming off a 41-17 thrashing of Tennessee, but never recovered from the loss of five suspended players, including starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, after the university's investigation into textbook disbursement.

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It lost 41-34 to No. 3 LSU, at MSU 17-12, to Louisiana Monroe 21-14 and at rival Auburn 17-10. Wilson had six of his 12 interceptions that season during the month, and no running back reached 100 rushing yards.

"The suspensions hurt us a lot," offensive lineman Mike Johnson said at the time. "All the different offensive lines we played with, I switched from right tackle to guard, but you can't put your finger on one thing. We just struggled overall as a group. We went downhill."

But that was nothing new for the Crimson Tide. Since 2003, Alabama had been 41-30 overall, meaning that nearly half the program’s losses during that time span were in November. The 2004 team was 5-3 entering the month, 8-0 in 2005 and 6-3 in 2006. Had Mike Shula gone .500, or even won back-to-back games once in the month, things might have been very different.

Instead, the 2008 Crimson Tide began a November winning streak that lasted eight games and helped lead to the 2009 national championship. It’s 16-4 (80 percent) in the month since then, 72-9 overall (88.9 percent), and captured two more crystal footballs.

Win November and anything is possible, especially this year when Alabama has to visit Tiger Stadium, Auburn is coming off playing for the national title and all three division games could be against ranked rivals.

 

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Follow @CrimsonWalsh

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