Saban vs Meyer has become one of college football’s most fascinating rivalries. In 2009, Nick Saban appeared to have the permanent upper hand as Alabama stopped top ranked Florida and Tim Tebow from gaining a third national title in three years. The next day, Urban Meyer was hospitalized and within a few weeks, he retired and left the SEC. With Alabama winning three championships in four years and Meyer going to the Big Ten Conference, it seemed as if the intensity of the rivalry had faded.
But that spark reignited during last year’s Sugar Bowl, in which Meyer’s fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the top-ranked Crimson Tide by a score of 42-35 to advance to the first College Football Playoff Championship Game (which it ultimately won 42-20 over Oregon).
“Alabama did not look like the more talented team,” recalled Tommy Duff, Editor of The Kickoff newsletter, which covers the world of college football. “With that game, Meyer bridged the perceived talent gap with Alabama and the SEC. Since Meyer came to Ohio State, the Buckeyes appear to be on an even footing, which is not to say that the league is as good as the SEC, but Ohio State is as strong of a program as any in the country. After embarrassing losses to LSU and Florida in the past, people previously said things like, ‘OSU may be 12-0 in the Big Ten, but they’d be 8-4 if they were playing in the Southeastern Conference.’ That perception has changed with Meyer. Ohio State ended 2014 by winning the championship with their third string quarterback.”
Saban pointed to poor team chemistry and the timing of NFL Draft grades as an excuse for the Sugar Bowl loss, saying he believes some of his players were more focused on avoiding injury than advancing to the national championship game.
Even Paul Finebaum, speaking at this week’s SEC Media Days, said that the Southeastern Conference may be overrated.
“Paul Finebaum bases his observations on whether a team is going to win another national championship,” Duff said. “In the SEC, there could be 11 teams, top to bottom, who go to a bowl game this year. Just because the best team in the conference lost a playoff game last year does not mean a death spiral.”
Duff said the SEC may actually be stronger this year because of the likely reemergence of the Tennessee Volunteers under 3rd year Head Coach Butch Jones and traditional powerhouses expected to be competitive.
“We don’t know what the direction of Florida will be under first year Coach Jim McElwain, but expectations are high in Knoxville for the first time in years. Keith Marshall at Georgia was even more highly touted than Todd Gurley coming out of high school. All of the spotlight at LSU continues to shine on sophomore RB Leonard Fournette, but success for the Tigers will undoubtedly rest on improvement made in the quarterback position,” Duff said.
The state of Alabama continues to make a strong showing in the playoff hunt. The Kickoff has Auburn ranked pre-season at #3 and Alabama at #5. The difference between those in-state rivals? Certainty at the quarterback position.
“Auburn is expected to make a very strong showing this year with Jeremy Johnson as the starting quarterback, plus Will Muschamp joining as defensive coordinator. Alabama has the same problem they had last year: they haven’t announced a starting QB,” Duff said.
“It’s not who Saban ultimately picks, it’s the fact that there’s no standout leader. Jacob Coker was supposed to be the handpicked successor to AJ McCarron, but he couldn’t beat out Blake Sims, who is now gone. Redshirt freshman David Cornwell was highly recruited, but he’s not elite and has never taken a snap in a college football game. In contrast, Johnson at Auburn, we’ve seen him start an SEC game, and he’s better than the quarterback they had last year who took them to the BCS National Championship Game in 2014. Johnson has long been considered to be a star in the making: a pocket passer with a cannon, solid accuracy, and the ability to scramble when the play breaks down. It was telling when former AU great and current co-OC Dameyune Craig stated that he expects Johnson to break most of his passing marks in 2015.”
The question marks are not to suggest that Alabama will experience a bad season – just, perhaps, not the all-out domination we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.
“I expect Alabama will win 10 or 11 games minimum and finish the season as a Top 10 team,” Duff said.
The Crimson Tide, well aware of the changed perception, will certainly use the talk as motivation to earn respect. Will we see a rematch between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer at the end of the season? Time will certainly tell. OSU starts their season Sept. 7th against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg (8 pm on ESPN) while the Crimson Tide face the Wisconsin Badgers Sept. 5th at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (8 pm on ABC).
With all three signal callers returning, Meyer has a tough decision to make. Neither Barrett nor Braxton Miller participated in the spring game, leaving Cardale Jones the chance to make the most of the opportunity. Jones was inconsistent during the spring game, leaving the door open for either Barrett or Miller to reclaim their starting QB slot this fall.
Beyond individual games to be played, Saban and Meyer are locked in a battle of records. Both coaches have won a national championship at two different schools. Meyer’s overall head coaching record in college football stands at 141-26, Saban’s at 177-59-1, but for now, Saban edges Meyer with four national titles to three. Urban Meyer’s goal headed into this fall will be to even things up a bit. With Meyer being 13 years younger than Saban, there’s a good chance he may eventually catch up and surpass the Alabama coach.
For fans of college football, it sure will be fun to watch him try.
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