The Florida Gators and Alabama Crimson Tide will meet in the SEC championship game on Dec. 5th. As my B/R friend Bobby R Engle put it, let's all crow Cock-a-doola-doo.
In preparation for that game, I'd like to look at how Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, the coaches of these two SEC powerhouses, match up head-to-head.
I'll look at three areas—recruiting, big game play and strategy—and see if I can't call the winner ahead of time.
Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are practically rewriting the book on recruiting in the South (although Nick Saban's book is running 20 pages past the allotted limit).
Let's break down the recruiting head-to-head over the past three years:
2007 : Florida's class ranks No. 1 overall to Rivals, with the signing of four five-star players and 16 four-star players; recently hired Alabama coach Nick Saban impresses, bringing in the 10th overall class, with 10 four-star players and 16 three-star players, despite being on the job for less than a month.
Notable recruits: Meyer picks up the Pouncey brothers, currently anchoring the Florida O-line, while Saban lands LB Rolando McClain (a likely All-American this year) and WR Marquis Maze, both Alabama natives.
2008: In their first true year recruiting head-to-head, Saban outduels Meyer, signing three five-star players and a whopping 19 four-star players to post the nation's No. 1 class; Meyer signs a terrific, four five-star player, 12 four-star player class, good for third overall to Rivals.
Notable recruits: Saban lands Julio Jones and OL Tyler Love, while Meyer pulls in RB Jeff Demps, the nation's fastest player, along with starting DB Janoris Jenkins and five-star DT Omar Hunter.
2009: Alabama continues its dominance with an unprecedented second-straight No. 1 overall class, signing four five-star players and 14 four-star players.
Florida slips to No. 11 overall, signing three five-star players and nine four-star players, but signing only 17 players overall. Winning a national championship does keep one busy.
Notable recruits: Saban woos five-star defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick away from his Arkansas verbal and the USC Trojans, while Meyer lifts stud linebacker Jelani Jenkins from his native Maryland.
2010: Alabama currently leads Florida with two five-star verbals and 10 four-star verbals to Florida's one five-star and 11 four-star verbals.
Notable recruits: Saban strikes it rich, shoring up an already-formidable defensive backfield with verbals from five-star DBs Keenan Allen and DeMarcus Milliner, both Alabama natives. Meyer plunders Georgia for two four stars, DE Neiron Ball and RB Mack Brown.
It's hard not to say that Saban is winning this one from a numbers perspective. But recruiting goes beyond pure stars. Saban has recruited terrific defensive players and offensive linemen, but his struggles in landing dynamic offensive players—specifically quarterbacks—make for a significant caveat.
The good news is, Star Jackson, the fifth overall pro-style quarterback in the 2008 haul, currently resides behind Greg McElroy, a fourth-year senior and a three-star overall to Rivals from the 2006 class, on the depth chart.
That's a good sign for Jackson, an Army All-American stud, who appears to have benefited greatly from his redshirt and backup years in the Tide's system. If Jackson can guarantee continuity for the Alabama offense (which has proven to be the weaker side of the ball), it will help Saban in landing more big name recruits at the wide receiver and tight end positions, arguably still missing pieces in the Tide offense.
The other knock on Saban is his carefree refusal to abide by recruiting limits. His name is continually brought up in pieces on oversigning, and the dismissal of four players for unspecified team violations in early August was uncomfortably timely.
Other transfers and withdrawals for medical reasons have shrouded the program in an unpleasant light. And with Houston Nutt's well-publicized 37-person signing class likely paving the way for a recruiting cap, Saban needs to make sure the Tide take it easy the next few years. If not, he risks the shame of sanctions, particularly damning for a team still reeling from vacated wins.
Meanwhile, aside from minor, self-reported recruiting violations that won't keep you up at night, Urban Meyer seems to recruit without flaws. Equal attention has been given to both offense and defense, and more importantly, a Tebow-succession plan has likely been put in motion with the hiring of Scott Loeffler.
Loeffler is an ex-Michigan Wolverines and NFL quarterbacks coach, with Tom Brady and Chad Henne as former pupils, and he will probably take a larger role, possibly as offensive coordinator over the embattled Steve Addazio, once pro-style QB John Brantley takes the reins next year.
Additionally, when one considers what a difficult state Florida is to recruit, it somewhat mitigates the supposed gap between Florida's and Alabama's successes on the trail.
Meyer and his defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, have done a terrific job against the other two major and three-or-so minor Florida football programs (Miami, Florida State, South Florida, UCF and Florida International, in that order). In addition, Meyer has managed to keep the other national schools (Rich Rodriguez's recent love affair with Pahokee kids comes to mind) mostly at bay.
And so the Gators have come as close as one can to domination in the second-toughest state to recruit behind Texas.
Meanwhile, the most Saban has to worry about is an Auburn team just recently off a coaching change and a 5-7 season. Between the Tide's recent successes and the almost religious reverence of its progenitors, Alabama is, and will remain, a notoriously insulated state and a tough nut to crack to any meddling outsiders.
Additionally, Saban won a tough in-state battle for Mark Ingram, a native of Flint, Michigan, who chose Alabama over the exhaustive efforts of Mark Dantonio at Michigan State.
And so while Meyer's shown tremendous success in controlling Florida and selling the spread to skill players with NFL ambitions and justified hesitancy, Saban has shown that he can both recruit nationally, and circle the in-state wagons successfully, in spite of the Tide's struggles earlier in the decade.
Because of the in-state advantage and the beefy roster, I would say Saban holds the lead for now.
But as the Bowden regime in Tallahassee continues to decline, and as Meyer continues his on-field success, and while the NCAA ponders a recruit-addicted intervention, this angle could tip towards a tie, or a Meyer advantage, as the battle wears on.
A lot will depend on the result of the bowl games and the SEC Championship Game. With an Alabama win, and maybe a good showing by Miami, Florida might find the power balance in the SEC shifting uncomfortably beneath its feet.
As Big Game Coaches
Saban has a long and inconsistent history as a big-game coach.
Starting with his time at Michigan State, Saban's teams were fond of the upset. He led the Spartans to their upset win over Ohio State in 1998, and is the last MSU head coach to beat the Buckeyes.
His best season was definitely 1998, when the Spartans beat Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State and posted a 9-2 record on the season and a bid to the Citrus Bowl. But Saban's tenure at MSU was cut short when he took the LSU job, and so his grade here is incomplete.
At LSU, Saban's biggest wins were upsets of the No. 2 Tennessee Vols in the 2002 SEC Championship, and the upset of Georgia in the SEC Championship and the National Championship win over Oklahoma in 2003.
Saban, er, took a vacation to somewhere, returning to coach the Tide in 2007. After a strong start to the 2007 season, including an upset of SEC West rival Arkansas, Saban's team seemed to run out of gas after the loss to LSU in Saban Bowl I, dropping four straight, including a loss in the Iron Bowl, to close the year at 6-6. They went on to beat Colorado in the Independence Bowl.
Last year's opening blowout over the Clemson Tigers was a great win that got the Tide rolling, and they kept up the pace with blowouts over Arkansas and Georgia. The Tide hung on in Saban Bowl II in Baton Rouge, winning 27-21 in overtime, and shut out Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
That left the SEC Championship game. The Tide played the Gators close, taking a 20-17 lead to the fourth quarter, but were unable to stop the will of the Tebow Child. After going down 24-20, John Parker Wilson threw a costly interception and couln't hold off another Florida scoring drive.
Then came the ignominious upset to the Utah Utes in the Sugar Bowl, which is explained here in salivating detail. Essentially, Utah attacked the spot vacated by All-American left tackle Andre Smith, using a variety of pre-snap motions and zone-blitzes, and the result was that Alabama was unable to overcome its offensive limitations once it faced a 17-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter.
That's Saban getting outcoached. Which, for the record, doesn't occur that often.
Now, Let's look at Meyer.
This case is fairly open and shut. Meyer is the second-best big-game coach in the modern day next to Pete Carroll. He consistently overachieved as coach at Bowling Green and Utah, and he's showed he's just as capable of the small-school upset as of holding off an upstart team.
Meyer's Utes went 10-2 in his first year as coach, then went undefeated the next year. The Utes posted double-digit wins over every member of the MWC, and Meyer remained at Utah long enough to coach a 35-7 Fiesta Bowl win over an overmatched Pitt team on New Year's Day, 2005, before departing to Florida.
They say every game is big in the SEC, but not for Meyer. In his first year with the Gators, Meyer had Florida on the stoop of the SEC championship game, but lost to Steve Spurrier's South Carolina team, opening the door for the Georgia Bulldogs. In 2006, Meyer's Gators won the national championship, upsetting the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes, 41-17.
His team struggled through defensive growing pains in 2007, going 9-4 with losses to rivals Georgia, Auburn and LSU, and a bowl game loss to Michigan. But the Gators won the national championship again in 2008, posting huge wins over Georgia, Tennessee and LSU, with the only loss a five-turnover upset to Ole Miss in the Swamp decided by a missed extra point.
Notably, his teams never struggle from a lack of motivation, and he has only the blowout loss to Georgia in 2007 blemishing his resume. His teams have struggled with turnovers in close games, but they never play down to an opponent.
He's managed to dominate the toughest conference in the country starting with the 2006 team and continuing in the modern day.
Saban is inconsistent in big games. But as a general rule, if he's underestimated, watch out.
He is a sufferer of Little Man's Syndrome—estimates of his height range from 5'11" all the way down to 5'4.5" without shoe inserts—and that means he is particularly aggressive in toppling supposedly bigger and better programs (just ask Phil Fulmer, Bob Stoop, or Tommy Bowden). His teams play up to opponents more capably than they play down.
Balance that against Meyer's ability to motivate his teams for a big game and never slouch, and you've got one incredibly difficult angle to call.
I have to go with Meyer on this one.
He's won the big game head-to-head so far, and in that win, he showed his team could break tendency. Despite trailing the Tide in the fourth quarter, the Gators came back something that even the Tebow Child hadn't accomplished in five previous tries.
Saban will prepare to remain motivated through the fourth quarter, as they did in this year's survival against Tennessee and in the big win over Virginia Tech in the opener. But until he shows it against Florida, I'm afraid the Gators might remain Saban's big-game Achilles heel.
Let's break tendency ourselves and start with Meyer. Installation of his hybridized short-passing routes/motion-to-backfield/option running attack has been successful everywhere he's gone it.
His Bowling Green and Utah teams broke conference records in scoring and yardage output, and he's proven uncannily capable of transmitting his offense with little necessity for the “right players.”
The biggest advantage Meyer brings to games as a strategist is that his offense sets the tempo for a game. It can be a grinding ground attack via the dive play. It can be a gashing, explosive rushing attack via the counter play. It can also be a frustrating, indefensible triple option attack. It can morph into a high-flying air attack, if the offensive line can pass protect.
It is never simple, and it can usually only be beaten through an act of God on defense. With Percy Harvin, it was probably one of the toughest offenses to defend in history.
Defense is not Meyer's game, but he's entrusted it to the capable hands of Charlie Strong, who is sure not to last much longer at the Swamp with so many porous run defenses littering the countryside. While he's there, though, Meyer can trust that the Gators will field penetrating defensive lines and punishing secondaries that make receivers and quarterbacks think twice before airing it out.
Saban, however, is a defensive strategist, although each of his teams have tended to resemble each other on both sides of the ball. Big pocket passers like Matt Mauck, John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, JaMarcus Russell (who was recruited by Saban, but never played for him) are paired with bruising backs like Justin Vincent, Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram.
Throw in one or two huge wide receivers (Plaxico Burress, Michael Clayton, Julio Jones), and add a well-coached defensive secondary, and you've got something resembling a pre-professional team, Saban's trademark.
Saban's approach is very traditional—break one or two big plays, run the ball and create favorable field position by forcing turnovers. He also emphasizes special teams—sound kickers, explosive kick and punt returners—though not to the fanatical extent of, say, Beamerball.
Saban is also a branch off the Belichick coaching tree (he spent three years as a defensive coordinator at Cleveland), which makes him an intimidating personality prone to seething rage and terrifying outbursts. He is not a kind man, is intolerant of mistakes, and his teams play notably tight football because of it.
Like other NFL teams, he takes few risks downfield, although he vocalized his desire to move away from that tendency prior to this year's LSU game, pointing out that stretching the field on long pass plays hampers a defense's ability to load up on the line of scrimmage even if the passes are unsuccessful.
His strategy is to outwit, outplay and outlast, and in narrow victories over Virginia Tech, Tennessee, South Carolina and LSU, the Tide have shown the ability to do that this year.
In pure contemporary terms, neither team has shown the capability to score a lot of points in-conference. Florida's offense has appeared both dangerous and unimaginative, sometimes in the same red-zone trip, while Alabama's offense has regressed over the course of the season due to Greg McElroy's dwindling confidence.
And though defensive struggles are usually Saban's territory, the Gators are no slouches this year, either, having returned almost every significant starter from the 2008 championship defense and playing through the injury of their most talented teammate, Brandon Spikes.
Still, I'm calling this one for Saban. I've had a hunch the Tide will win the rematch in the SEC championship game all year. They've survived so far, and if they beat Auburn, they'll have played a more difficult all-around schedule than the Gators.
I think the Tide have a better defense-first mentality, and they will play more comfortably in a close game as a benefit of their coaching. The feel of this game has shifted from high-flying offensive circus to attitude of survival, and that means we're in Saban's territory now.
Plus, I can't envision a world where the Gators win the SEC in back-to-back years without a tear in the fabric of space-time. Meyer will have his players ready, but Saban's will be hungrier and more battle-tested, and in the end, the Tide defense wins the day.
Tentative final verdict?
Alabama 19, Florida 15