Dabo Swinney vs. Nick Saban: Who Is College Football's Top Coach?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 28, 2020

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, pose with the Sugar Bowl trophy for their upcoming semi-final playoff game, for the NCAA football national championship, in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Under normal circumstances, late July is around the time of year we start ramping up the rate at which we churn out college football content. Conference-by-conference breakdowns, Heisman Trophy candidates, College Football Playoff sleepers, etc.

But, uh, these are abnormal circumstances. The decision-making folks within the Power Five conferences are desperately trying to figure out a world in which we still have a semiregular college football season in the middle of a pandemic, but I'm hardly optimistic at this point. Pretty sure you're all in the same boat.

While we wait to see what's going to happen, let's temporarily push the pause button on the 2020 season preview stuff and shift gears to a few debates that will rage throughout the fall regardless of whether we get to watch football.

These debates will be between yours truly and my colleague of many years, David Kenyon. In the interest of full disclosure, we flipped a coin to determine who would take which side in each debate, so there are cases in which we don't even believe our own argument. But let's have some fun anyway.

The first debate I want to have is the best head coach in college football.

With all due respect to the likes of Lincoln Riley, Ed Orgeron and Kirby Smart, it's a 1A and 1B conversation between Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney.

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And I'll be bringing my own guts onto the Rest of Y'all Bus to go to bat for Dabo.

My main argument in favor of Swinney is that he built a juggernaut out of thin air. When Bobby Bowden resigned midway through the 2008 season, Swinney inherited a program well on its way to an 18th consecutive season with fewer than 10 victories. It took a couple of years for his recruits to take root, but Clemson has now won at least 10 games in nine straight campaigns, including an active streak of five College Football Playoff appearances.

I acknowledge and appreciate that Saban has a similar recent history, but Swinney turned Clemson into a place that 5-star recruits want to be. Saban merely inherited that luxury at Alabama.

Your rebuttal, sir?


David Kenyon

Saban entered a high-potential situation with his own winning reputation for sure. He also brought a national championship to Tuscaloosa in Year No. 3.

And No. 5. And No. 6. And No. 9. And No. 11.

Saban wasted little time elevating Alabama to elite status and has kept the program there for more than a decade.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Yes, like you mentioned, Swinney has enjoyed a relatively similar path. But beyond the national titlesand honestly, I could end therewhat I find particularly impressive is how Alabama has consistently boasted one of the country's best defenses. Many of his teams in the pre-Tua Tagovailoa era hardly needed an offense to win games.

The Crimson Tide haven't merely thrived; they've overwhelmed the FBS for a large portion of the last 13 years.



The five national championships is a fine point that I can't very well refute or dismiss. Swinney only has two.

But it bears mentioning that both of Swinney's titles came against Sabanone of which was a 44-16 shellacking that had everyone wondering A) Was that the greatest college football team ever? and B) Are Saban's best days behind him?

As far as all-time greatness is concerned, sure, your 68-year-old has a leg up on my 50-year-old. However, they have been rather equally dominant against the rest of the nation thus far in the College Football Playoff era.

Too bad Saban couldn't lead Bama to the CFP last season, thereby eliminating our chance of a fifth consecutive meeting between these titans.

I suppose this is the part where you make the "But the ACC is garbage!" argument?



To some degree, absolutely. I'm confident you agree it's incredible that an SEC program, particularly from the loaded West Division, made the CFP in five straight seasons.

Not for a moment is that a dig at Swinney or Clemson. Five CFPs in a row is extraordinary, no matter the conference. But do I even need to point out that Florida State, NC State and the ACC's Coastal Division are nowhere near on par with Auburn, LSU and usually Georgia? It's OK to acknowledge one path is more difficult, and Saban deserves credit for winning against that tougher competition.

Also, don't forget the CFP semifinal matchup that Saban and Alabama completely owned against Dabo and Clemson. They have but indirect control of when the matchups happen in the CFP, and it's 2-2 all-time.

Let's plan on getting that Round 5 when the next CFP happens.

One important trait of Saban's we haven't discussed is his bold brilliance. In the last decade alone, he hired an assistant coach most of the sport avoided. That coach, Lane Kiffin, reshaped the trajectory of Alabama's offense. Saban called for the onside kick in the 2015 championship that changed the game. Saban also benched two-year starter Jalen Hurts for freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the 2017 title game.

While Clemson has leaned on stability in its coaching staff, Tuscaloosa has become a revolving door of coaches. Yet the Tide have kept on winning. Saban's ability to successfully adapt and integrate new voices while managing their egos and coaching styles has been remarkable.



The state of affairs in the ACC is bleak. No denying that. But how quickly we forget Florida State won a national championship in 2013 as part of a 29-game winning streak. Between Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech, the Coastal Division at least produced a solid challenger during most of Swinney's ascension to greatness.

And Clemson almost always plays at least one nonconference game against a ranked opponent. Certainly can't say that latter part about Saban in recent years.

The onside kick was gutsy, but bold brilliance? That was simply Saban coming to the realization that Dabo's Deshaun Watson-led offense was probably going to score a touchdown whether it started 50 yards or 80 yards away from the end zone. It was a desperation move that paid off, and it's the only reason Saban is 1-2 in national championships against Swinney instead of 0-3.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Also, bold brilliance is handing the reins to a true freshman quarterback in Week 4, knowing full well that your senior is going to transfer two seconds after you make that decision. Subbing out Hurts when he looked helpless against Georgia simply made sense.

One more area in which Swinney is clearly superior to Saban is attitude. Some fans undoubtedly get sick of Swinney's "We're just little ol' Clemson" routine, but the players clearly eat it up and thrive off it. He's a great coach and a great cheerleader, and you can't just write that off as nothing.

Swinney is always hyped up, while Sabaneven in his most joyous moments—looks about as excited as Stanley Hudson working on a sudoku puzzle.



Make sure you stretch today, Kerry. Don't want you to pull a muscle with all that reaching you're doing.

Since leaving the Miami Dolphins for Alabama in 2007, Saban has raised the standard in college football. Everything is measured in comparison to the Crimson Tide.

Even as Clemson trims the gap, Saban has longevity and success on his side. Swinney is a tremendous coach, and Clemson has become an absolute juggernaut in the ACC. Pick a coach for 10 years into the future, and Swinney is probably the choice.

But right now, Saban is fully deserving of the label. He's the best coach in college football.



I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree.