Hot Reads: Which 1990s Powerhouse Would Saban Leave Alabama For?
Photo Credit: John David Mercer - USA TODAY Sports

Hot Reads: Which 1990s Powerhouse Would Saban Leave Alabama For?

November 08, 2019

So, this is a thing that was on the internet this week.

I am not deeply embedded with Florida State sources, but this . . . seems unlikely to me. Nick Saban, as you may know, is preparing for the biggest college football game of the season to date this week. He's got a pretty good thing going at Alabama. Probably the best thing.

I am not even sure that random tweet wasn’t just trolling, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes today because the idea itself is interesting to consider, at least hypothetically. Let's say Saban was just bored by how easy things have become at Alabama and he really was ready to take on a new challenge. As a football guy through and through, maybe Saban realizes there's a chance to not just own every other coaching résumé but to bring it full circle in the process.

"I got my start in 1990 at Toledo," he says, being strangely specific in a way that helps provide additional information essential to the story but doesn't much resemble the way human people talk. "The 90s was where things began, and the 2020s will end with me reviving one of the programs I wanted to build when I first got my start."

Impossible setup complete, which 1990s powerhouse would Saban actually choose?

The 1990s were kind of a strange decade. Based on winning percentage between 1990 and 2000, Texas A&M (9th) and Kansas State (10th) ranked ahead of Ohio State (11th) and Notre Dame (13th). Syracuse (16th) ranked ahead of Alabama (24th) and Texas (25th).

But if we're talking Saban-worthy programs, there were really four (in order of overall winning percentage).

1. Florida State: The Seminoles were 120-15-1 (.886) in the 90s, ranked in all 186 AP polls in the decade. Bobby Bowden won national titles in 1993 and 1999 while beating up on the rest of the ACC for a share of eight conference titles.

2. Nebraska: Fell a couple of games short of FSU in the wins category–the Huskers went 118-18-1 (.865)––but Nebraska won three national titles and shares of seven conference titles while also being ranked for the entire decade.

3. Tennessee: Johnny Majors grabbed an SEC title to kick off the decade, but then, two seasons later, depending upon who you believe, had his power and position usurped by Phillip Fulmer. That worked out OK for the Vols. They went 107-26-2 (.800) in the 1990s, were ranked in 90.8% of the polls and won SEC titles in 1997 and 1998, also winning the national title in the latter season.

4. Miami: So, here's a fun fact––Sonny Lubick, former Miami assistant and then head coach of Colorado State––turned down a shot at the Miami job in 1995 to stay in Fort Collins. (If that can happen, maybe Saban could go to Florida State?) The Hurricanes went with Butch Davis instead, he lost at least three games in his first five seasons before righting the ship so Larry Coker could win a national title in 2001. Miami only won one national championship in the 1990s (1991), but managed six conference titles while going 103-28-0 (.780). The Hurricanes were ranked 83.3% of the time over the decade.

OK, so which of those programs is Nick Saban choosing to revive just to show he can?

Tennessee is probably out. One, that's technically a rival for Alabama and, two, Saban's already proven he can run the SEC. Maybe the Appalachian setting in Knoxville would remind Saban of his youth in Fairmont, West Virginia, but that's really stretching it.

I don't have Florida State in the top two because it almost seems too easy. If Saban went there, he would turn it around and probably build Bama 2.0. Access to talent is there, tradition is there. But, the Seminoles haven't been down long enough to get maximum "I am a god," bang for his buck. FSU's transition plan for the end of the Bobby Bowden era basically worked until the Jimbo Fisher era got a little squirrely at the end. The Seminoles were third in the preseason AP poll just two seasons ago. Now, maybe the chance to share a division with Dabo Swinney––and end him once and for all!––has some appeal, but it doesn't change the fact that Florida State hasn't really fallen far enough for Saban to get full credit here.

That leaves Miami or Nebraska. Miami, of course, was the setting for Saban's most recent coaching failure as he couldn't get things up and running with the Dolphins. Maybe making the city love him again adds a little extra juice. The Hurricanes have also been rougher around the edges than Florida State this century, so you get some bonus ego bucks if you turn it around.

Now, Nebraska might offer the biggest return of all. The Huskers have won more games than Tennessee this century, but the Vols don't face quite the same "I just don't know if it can work they way it used to there" adversity Nebraska does. While there are recruiting challenges in Knoxville, it's nothing compared to how people perceive Lincoln when it comes to accessibility and access to talent (not an issue at either of the Florida candidates). A thing nobody ever says about Tennessee (or Florida State or Miami): “They need to go back to the option, that thing the service academies do to stay competitive.”

There's also Saban's first-hand experience seeing the Nebraska program at its height.

"Man, when that thing was going," Saban might conveniently say, "it went as well as any program had ever done it. Besides my current one, of course, which I'm going to give up just for sport."

I think the size of the Nebraska rebuild, when you consider the heights it must reach (higher than Tennessee's) and the recent lows (lower than Florida State's or Miami's), might be appealing to a coach just (bizarrely) looking for the biggest challenge he can find.

But I would guess that Saban would choose Miami. He just likes boats too much.

The Grab Bag

  • The latest Varsity Club podcast is here as Derek Peterson and Greg Smith look for reasons for optimism over the final three games.
  • Why do freshmen keep coming up this season? Greg Smith explores that in his latest recruiting notebook.
  • Greg also has a running list of where the Husker coaches have been on the recruiting trail during this bye week.

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