Wherever he has coached, Nick Saban has fielded winning teams.
That has never been more apparent than at Alabama, where Saban in 2020 finally tied the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant for national championships won at a single school (six) and passed him for all-time national champions (seven).
The came can be said for his prior collegiate stops at Michigan State (1995-99) and LSU (2000-04) as well.
Saban is 256-65-1 with seven national titles — six at Alabama and one at LSU — and one of only two coaches to win championships at separate schools. Of course, Saban had help with some talented players along the way. Wherever he has gone, he has coached award-winners, All-Americans and record-setters. Which raises the question:
Who are the best players he has coached? Following Alabama’s 2020 national championship, all but four players comprise the all-time Nick Saban-coached team.
Here’s a position-by-position look of what that team looks like.
It was tough to pick against AJ McCarron and Mac Jones, starter of two BCS championship teams and owner of the most efficient passing season record, respectively. But neither of those players provided the spark that Tua Tagovailoa did in his two-plus seasons as starter. The lefty from Hawaii is all over Alabama’s record books, finishing first in school history in passing touchdowns for a career (87), in a single season (43) and in a single game (six). He’s also second all-time in passing yards, despite having one fewer season than record-holder McCarron.
Tagovailoa’s play style was an enticing mix of dual-threat ability, pinpoint accuracy and big-time plays. Never was that more apparent than the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game against Georgia. Tagovailoa, then a freshman, led the Tide back from a 13-0 deficit, capping the incredible performance with a 41-yard walk-off touchdown to DeVonta Smith. No one had ever done it like Tagovailoa, and it’ll be some time before someone captures that magic again.
Other considerations: AJ McCarron, Alabama (2009-13); Mac Jones, Alabama (2017-20)
Alabama has had a long line of talented running backs under Saban, but none has shown the versatility, consistent excellence or hurdling ability of Najee Harris. The former No. 2 overall player from Antioch, Calif., decided to return for one final season in 2020 — a decision that helped him usurp Heisman winner Mark Ingram Jr. as one of Saban’s best-ever backs.
Harris in 2020 ran for 1,446 yards and 26 touchdowns, just two shy of Derrick Henry’s 28-touchdown mark from 2015. He also added 43 receptions for 425 yards and four more scores, bringing him to 1,891 yards from scrimmage and an SEC record-tying 30 touchdowns from scrimmage. The 2020 Doak Walker Award is Alabama’s career leading rusher (3,843) and rushing touchdowns leader (46). He also tied a school record by scoring five rushing touchdowns against Ole Miss.
Other considerations: Mark Ingram Jr., Alabama (2008-10)
Henry earned his spot on this list with a monster 2015 season in which he rushed 395 times for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns, all SEC single-season records. That helped Henry tie Ingram’s career mark of 42 rushing touchdowns and break the Alabama record with 3,591 rushing yards. For his efforts, Henry won Alabama’s second Heisman Trophy, along with unanimous All-American honors and the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards.
Other considerations: Trent Richardson, Alabama (2009-11)
DeVonta Smith in 2020 earned one of the most decorated seasons in the history of the wide receiver position.
He secured the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Paul Hornung Award, Biletnikoff Award, Sporting News Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, SEC Offensive Player of the Year and unanimous All-America honors. That’s part of a season in which he caught 117 passes for an SEC-record 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. His final game was equally impressive, with 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns — in a half.
The wirey receiver didn’t merely enjoy a flash-in-the-pan season, either: He led Alabama’s uber-talented receiving corps in 2019 in yardage (1,256) and touchdowns (14) and was brilliant in the two years prior as well, helping him break Amari Cooper’s school records for receptions (235), yards (3,965) and touchdowns (46). That includes two game-winning touchdown receptions as a freshmanagainst Mississippi State and, of course, Georgia.
Other considerations: Josh Reed, LSU (1998-2001)
Cooper saved his best season for last, grabbing 124 receptions (an SEC record) for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. In so doing, he set the Alabamarecord for career receptions (228) and receiving yards (3,463). He also tied the league record with 31 receiving touchdowns, all after a three-year career. He won the Biletnikoff Award and unanimous All-American honors.
Other considerations: Julio Jones, Alabama (2008-10)
During his time at Alabama, Jeudy was considered the most talented of an incredible group of receivers that included himself, Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. That was evident in 2018 when Jeudy became Saban’s third Biletnikoff Award winner after securing 68 receptions for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns. He followed that up in 2019 with 77 catches for 1,163 yards and 10 more scores. Like Smith, Jeudy is all over Alabama’s record books.
Other considerations: Plaxico Burress, Michigan State (1998-99)
Howard was under-utilized while at Alabama, a head-scratcher considering he was a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses: The 6-6, 250-pound tight end was too big for defensive backs, and too fast for linebackers. He finally broke through on the biggest stage, nabbing five receptions for 208 yards and two scores against Clemson in the 2016 CFP title game. In all, he finished with 114 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns.
Others considerations: Irv Smith Jr., Alabama (2016-18)
Alex Leatherwood is another of that legendary 2017 Alabama recruiting class who decided to come back for their senior year. The 2020 Outland Trophy winner, co-winner of the SEC Jacobs Blocking Trophy and unanimous All-American was one of the best players on the Crimson Tide’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. He averaged an overall blocking grade of 91.3 by the Alabama coaching staff and 99.7 on assignments, helping Alabama to the greatest statistical offense of all time.
Other considerations: Jonah Williams, Alabama (2016-18)
Smith in 2006 became only the fourth true freshman in Alabama history to start on the offensive line, and with good reason: He was nearly unstoppable at left tackle. Anytime the offense needed sure yardage, it ran behind Smith. The two-time All-SEC selection earned unanimous All-American honors and the Outland Trophy in 2008, helping him be selected No. 6 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Other considerations: Jedrick Wills, Alabama (2017-19)
Jones was an invaluably versatile four-year starter during Bama’s dynastic run. He started at guard as a freshman and sophomore before moving to left tackle as a junior, winning the Outland Trophy in the process. He made one final move as a senior, taking over at center (and winning the Rimington for his troubles). He started at three different positions on three different title-winning teams and was only the second player in history to win both the Outland and Rimington trophies (after Minnesota’s Greg Eslinger). He’s the only player to do so in different seasons.
Other considerations: Stephen Peterman (LSU, 2000-03)
Warmack was a three-year starter at Alabama, including the Tide’s 2011 and ’12 championship seasons. Best known for his run-blocking skills, Warmack earned All-SEC honors twice and was a unanimous All-American as a senior. He was considered one of the best interior linemen in the 2013 NFL Draft and became only the second guard since 1997 to be drafted in the top 10 when he was taken 10th overall.
Other considerations: Mike Johnson, Alabama (2006-09)
Kelly was a three-year starter at Alabama after backing up Barrett Jones on the Tide’s 2012 national title team (a year in which he was named SEC All-Freshman). Kelly ended his college career in 2015 with another national title, the Rimington and Jacobs Blocking trophies and first-team All-SEC and unanimous All-American honors. He anchored a line that paved the way for Derrick Henry to win the Heisman and earned the 18th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft in the process.
Other considerations: Landon Dickerson, Alabama (2019-20)
Allen racked up 28 sacks at Alabama, including at least five a season since he was a sophomore. He was a monster during Alabama’s 2015 national title run, earning 14.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. His 2016 season was better: He recorded 16 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and two fumble return touchdowns; he also won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and Ted Hendricks Award on top of unanimous All-American honors that season. He ranks second in school history for sacks, behind only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.
Other consideration: Da’Ron Payne, Alabama (2015-17)
Spears left LSU with 19 sacks and 34.5 tackles for a loss, turning in his best performances as a junior and senior. A year after winning the national title for LSU in 2003, he led a top-five LSU defense with 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks, earning him consensus All-American honors. For his career, he put up 49 total tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown. He was taken No. 20 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Other considerations: A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama (2013-15)
Quinnen Williams began his Alabama career buried in the Crimson Tide’s defensive line depth chart behind such players as Johnathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand. In his one season as a starter, however, Williams nearly proved better than all of them.
Williams in 2018 racked up 71 total tackles, a team-leading 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams graded out at an FBS-leading 96.0 that season, the highestgrade ever given to a defensive tackle. He also graded out at 96.5 against the run and 92.5 as a pass-rusher, leading all draft-eligible defensive tackles that season.
Other considerations: Marcell Dareus, Alabama (2008-10)
Peterson only played two seasons as a Spartan, but his stat line wouldn’t suggest it: He racked up 140 tackles, 48 tackles for loss (a school record) 25 sacks (second-most all-time at MSU) 10 forced fumbles (tied for school record) and an interception returned for a touchdown. He was an All-American selection his senior year and was drafted 16th overall in the 2000 draft.
Other considerations: Reuben Foster, Alabama (2013-16)
James made his career at LSU being a team player. In four years, he finished with 418 tackles (becoming only the second player in school history to finish with more than 400), 33 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He was twice an All-SEC selection and earned All-American honors as a senior, when he recorded 154 tackles (an LSU single-season record).
Other considerations: Dont’a Hightower (2008-11)
McClain served as an extension of Saban on the field during the Tide’s 2009 championship march, directing the defense and piling up 105 tackles (14.5 for a loss), four sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. His efforts won him the Jack Lambert Trophy, Butkus Award and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He accumulated 275 tackles, eight sacks and five interceptions over his career, earning unanimous All-American honors in 2009 and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Other considerations: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (2008-11)
Mosley made his name early at Alabama, returning two interceptions for touchdowns while adding 67 tackles as a freshman. His playmaking ability didn’t stop there: As a junior, he added two more interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), four sacks and 107 tackles. As a senior, he became Saban’s second Butkus Award winner after leading the Crimson Tide with 108 tackles. Mosley was a two-time consensus All-American and the 17th pick in the 2014 draft.
Other considerations: Reggie Ragland, Alabama (2012-15)
Minkah Fitzpatrick excelled from Day 1 at multiple positions in the Tide’s secondary, earning consensus and unanimous All-American honors in 2016 and ‘17, respectively. He owns school records for longest interception returned for a touchdown (100 yards), most career interceptions returned for touchdowns (four) and tied the school record for most interceptions in a game (three). He earned both the Chuck Bednarik and Jim Thorpe awards in 2017, joining Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson as the only players to win both in the same season. He had 171 tackles, five sacks and nine interceptions in three seasons.
Other considerations: Corey Webster, LSU (2001-04)
Even among Saban’s defensive backs, Milliner stands out as a lockdown corner. He only had six interceptions in three years, but defended 42 passes and broke up 36 over his career — including 22 and 20 in 2011 and ’12, respectively. He was a Nagurski Trophy and Jim Thorpe Award finalist that season en route to earning unanimous first-team All-American honors. He was taken ninth overall in the 2013 draft.
Barron, a run-stopping specialist, was known for his hard-hitting tackles and good pass coverage: He totaled 12 interceptions, 34 defended passes, 22 pass breakups and 237 tackles in four seasons. He also headlined Alabama’s 2011 defense, considered among the best in college football history. He was a first-team All-American in 2010 and a unanimous selection in 2011. He was drafted seventh overall in the 2012 draft.
Other considerations: Landon Collins, Alabama (2012-14)
Jackson was a four-year contributor at Alabama, finishing his career with nine total interceptions (with at least one each season), three interceptions returned for touchdowns and 303 career interception return yards, a school record. His best season came in 2015, when he led the Alabama secondary with six picks, two of which were returned for scores. That included a pivotal turnover in the 2016 CFP championship game against Clemson, which kept the Tigers from going up 21-7 early in the second quarter.
Other considerations: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama (2011-13)
The definition of clutch, Tiffin holds school records for points scored (385), most points in a season by a kicker (132), most career field goals (83) and most field goals in a season (30). In all, he was 83 of 111 on field goals (74.8 percent, good for fourth all-time at Bama) and 136 of 142 on extra point attempts (95.8 percent). Tiffin was a Lou Groza Award finalist and AP All-American in 2009, a season in which he completed 30 of 35 field goals.
Other considerations: Will Reichard, Alabama (2019-present)
Scott secured his place as the best punter ever under Saban in 2017. A one-time Ray Guy finalist in 2014, Scott boomed 243 punts for 11,074 yards over his four-year career, averaging 45.6 yards per punt. He was also a whizz at flipping the field, downing 117 punts (48 percent) inside the 20-yard line. That trend continued in his final year when he downed 29 of 54 punts (54 percent) inside opponents’ 20, and 18 (33 percent) inside the 10.
Other considerations: Craig Jarrett, Michigan State (1998-99); Donnie Jones, LSU (2000-03)
Mason turned in a productive career at Michigan State, setting school records with 106 kicks for 2,575 yards. He returnedthree for touchdowns (second-most all-time at MSU) and averaged 24.3 yards per return. He ranks third all-time at Michigan State with 5,114 all-purpose yards.
Other considerations: Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (2018-20)
Arenas was pure excitement as a punt returner, threatening a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He owns the SEC record with seven punts returned for touchdowns, and his 1,752 punt return yards are second-most all-time, just 9 yards behind record-holder Wes Welker of Texas Tech. Arenas was a consensus All-American and SEC Special Teams Player of the Year on Alabama’s 2009 national title team.
Other considerations: Cyrus Jones, Alabama (2012-15)
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