Nick Saban’s arrival at Alabama ahead of the 2007 season was a seismic college football event. Saban has since built two different dynasties with the Crimson Tide, winning three titles between 2009 and 2012 and another three from 2015 to 2020. The most clear-eyed way to look at the Tide may be that since Saban’s arrival, they have yet to go more than two years without winning a national championship. The sport’s solar system now revolves around Tuscaloosa.
The past 14 years have been fruitful for the rest of the Southeastern Conference, too. The league now wins the national title most of the time by any recent frame of reference you could pick, after a relatively dry spell that covered most of the 1990s and the early 2000s. Financially, a rising Tide has helped raise the rest of the league’s boats: When every other Bama game is a blockbuster, it’s easier to strike up $3 billion TV deals that benefit everyone.
Saban has also turned the SEC’s old order on its head, reconfiguring the conference’s competitive landscape. Most college programs across the country have not had to face Saban even once. Seven of the other 13 SEC teams have to do it every year, and all of them have to deal with the Tide’s looming shadow over both recruiting success and any conference championship dreams. That’s never been truer than right now, when the Tide are somehow even more of a juggernaut than usual. They are not just in their customary perch as the No. 1-ranked team and defending champions. They just signed the highest-rated recruiting class in a rankings era that dates to the early aughts.
As Saban goes for his seventh national and eighth SEC title at Alabama, it is worth asking: Which other SEC teams have felt the Tide’s wrath most acutely since the head man took over? And which have managed to get by with the least Bama-related damage? If you asked five SEC fans, you might get five different answers to each question, and all five would sound reasonable enough. So, let’s try to quantify Bama’s effect on each team with a new metric created just for that purpose: Beaten At Saban’s Hands, or BASH. The lower the BASH score, the lower a school’s fortunes have sunk while living in Saban’s world.
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BASH has two components: win/loss records and average recruiting ranking. The first is a team’s net record against Saban: wins minus losses. A win or loss in the SEC Championship Game is worth an additional 3 points in either direction, while a result in a BCS or College Football Playoff game is worth an extra 5. (As it happens, the latter are all losses for Bama’s SEC opponents. Go figure.) If a team is 0-14 against Saban with all regular-season losses, it loses 14 points in this area of BASH. The second element is the difference between a school’s average recruiting ranking in the SEC from 2002 to 2006, the five years before Saban’s arrival, and 2007 to 2021. So, if a team averaged the SEC’s No. 2 signing class from ’02 to ’06 and dropped to No. 6 from ’07 to ’21, it loses 4 BASH points.
The head-to-head factor is straightforward: How badly has Bama beaten up on a team? The recruiting component is a little more complex because of the many other factors involved beyond Bama’s mere presence. But we know recruiting is highly correlated to on-field success, and whether a team has kept up its recruiting in Saban’s new world is an important facet of how it has adapted. The pre-Saban window starts in 2002 because that’s the year the modern recruiting ratings industry started to kick into gear. BASH uses the 247Sports Composite ratings, which aggregate evaluations from across the industry, with the understanding that star ratings for players have gotten more refined over time. The SEC’s two 2010s additions, Texas A&M and Missouri, are excluded from the recruiting portion.
The picture BASH paints is clear. The teams that have had it worst during Saban’s reign are bottom feeders that lose to the Tide annually and East Division heavyweights that run into the Saban buzzsaw in high-stakes title games:
|Losses in…||recruiting rank|
|School||Record vs. Bama||SEC Champ.||Playoff or BCS||2002-06||2007-21||BASH|
BASH cannot capture everything and will not insult the weird complexity of college football by trying. No metric can distill the totality of even a single program, and Bama in particular has had too big an impact on its peers for one number to get it all right. Bama’s effect on the SEC has stretched far beyond Saban’s 108 wins and 16 losses against his conference foes. For instance, multiple SEC schools have hired Saban’s former assistant coaches, who have usually flamed out. (A few tenures remain in progress.) BASH makes no assessment of those causal chains, and it cannot make determinations about which wins and losses, at least in the regular season, have left the biggest marks.
Yet our new metric is making a valiant effort. It says the school Bama has harmed most is Florida, at a -20.6 BASH score, followed by Georgia and Tennessee at -17. These all pass the small test.
Florida was the last dynasty-like team before Saban built up his monster at Alabama, and his first national title with the Tide came directly at the Gators’ expense when Bama beat UF in the 2009 SEC Championship. Tim Tebow crying on the sidelines that day was a sign of things to come, and Bama has twisted the knife by repeatedly beating Florida in future SEC Championships. The Gators’ loss in ’09 was the first of four (and counting) to the Tide on the same stage. If anything, BASH understates Florida’s Saban-related suffering. After Urban Meyer exited, the Gators hired two onetime Saban assistants who went on to get fired as head coaches in Gainesville: LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. Saban wreaked havoc on Florida on the field and in the hiring department.
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In Georgia’s case, the Bulldogs could have won up to three national titles since 2012 (as opposed to their actual zero) had the Tide not been standing in their way. The Tide didn’t just beat the Dawgs in overtime in 2017’s playoff final, but they also cost the Dawgs a BCS Championship berth in 2012 and a playoff bid in 2018 by beating them in the SEC Championship Game both years. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is a Saban disciple who has a perfectly good chance to get his team to the mountaintop one day, so you could argue that Saban’s influence has put UGA on a good path. But there is no denying that Saban has been a primary impediment to several shiny trophies.
Tennessee, meanwhile, used to have one of the country’s better rivalries with the Tide. The Third Saturday in October was such a serious matchup that it monopolized its own day and month in proper-noun form (even when it wasn’t actually played on the third Saturday). When Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, the all-time record was 43-38-7 in the Tide’s favor, and the Volunteers were gaining rapidly: Between 1995 and 2006, Tennessee pulled out victories on 10 of 12 Third Saturdays. But Saban has proceeded to suck the soul out of this once-great rivalry, rattling off 14 wins in 14 tries without even letting Tennessee keep things interesting. Only twice have the Vols kept their losing margin to one score. And those moments have been extra painful.
Making the Vols’ case as one of Saban’s most tormented teams even stronger, two of their recent failed head coaches got their jobs after successful runs as Saban assistants. Derek Dooley worked under Saban for both LSU and the Miami Dolphins and went on to a 15-21 record on Rocky Top from 2010 to 2012. Jeremy Pruitt, one of Saban’s many Bama defensive coordinators, went 16-19 from 2018 to 2020 and was fired amid NCAA issues and a fight with UT administrators. Much like he’s done to the Gators, Saban has tortured the Vols in ways BASH can’t even begin to comprehend.
The other schools that have fared worst in BASH also make sense. Arkansas and Mississippi State have submitted to annual bodybaggings against Alabama much the same way as Tennessee.1 Combined, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State are 1-41 against Saban’s Bama teams.
Most interesting, though, is who BASH says has been least hurt during Saban’s run. The bottom of the BASH leaderboard (or the top, depending on how you look at it) is mostly the bad teams from the East whose lives haven’t changed much aside from losing to Bama every few years. And then, at the very bottom, there is … Alabama’s Iron Bowl rival, Auburn.
It makes more sense than some might think, and it comports with what connected Auburn people might tell you today. Yes, the Tide’s dominance has rendered the Tigers a perpetual little brother in one of the sport’s most contentious rivalries. But Auburn has had more success than anyone else in the SEC against Saban, beating him five times. And those wins have tended to be magical moments that go down in college football lore. (See 2010’s Camback and 2013’s Kick Six, which were cool enough that they require only shorthand nicknames today.) While almost the whole conference has seen its average recruiting ranking in the league drop since Saban got to Bama, Auburn’s rank has gone up from an average of 6.4 in the five years before Saban’s arrival to 4.9 in the decade and a half since. Some of that, people closely familiar with Auburn in those years have explained to me, may have been because ex-coach Tommy Tuberville was not exactly putting his back into recruiting in those pre-Saban years. But it’s notable anyway that Auburn has improved its lot in the talent acquisition game, especially as other Bama rivals, like Clemson and Georgia, have risen recently while recruiting heavily against Auburn.
Plus, BASH does not know the full extent of how much Saban has helped his rival. Tuberville won six Iron Bowls in a row from 2002 through 2007. In 2008, Saban’s second year, the Tide beat Auburn 36-0. That was the last straw on a 5-7 season, and Tuberville was out of his job days later, an exit that Auburn termed a resignation but seemed essentially to be a firing.2 It’s easy to make the case that Saban beat Auburn so thoroughly in 2008 that the Tigers made a coaching change, which in turn brought coach Gene Chizik –– and then a quarterback named Cam Newton –– to the Plains. In that sense, Saban was a key piece to Auburn’s 2010 national title.
Auburn has lost to Saban’s Tide nearly twice as often as it’s beaten them, but the Tigers are still the SEC’s most successful team — by BASH — against the Death Star. There is a lesson in their story. Alabama is inevitable, but by embracing its role as a chaos agent, Auburn has managed to fare pretty well and even get into the national championship column. Long-term resistance to Saban’s dominance is futile, but occasional counterpunches can be lots of fun.