Nick Saban won his fourth national championship last night as his Alabama Crimson Tide surged past the Clemson Tigers in the second half and held on for the win. As the league has been eager to point out, an SEC member school won the title for the eighth time in the past ten seasons.
It's a bit misleading to attribute everything to the SEC, however. You can also say it was the seventh time in the past ten seasons that either Saban or Urban Meyer has won a national championship. Meyer's Florida Gators kicked off the SEC's seven-year streak in 2006 and won further titles in 2008 and 2014. Saban was the most responsible for keeping the streak going with wins in 2009, 2011, and 2012, and now he has 2015 to add to his collection.
In fact, you can see their fingerprints at least tangentially on the other national titles in the decade. Saban recruited many of the players on 2007 LSU. The 2010 Auburn Tigers won the title thanks as much to Cam Newton as anyone else, and he originally signed with Meyer out of high school. The lone title won in the past ten years that came without a player who signed with either Saban or Meyer was 2013 Florida State, which was coached by a former Saban coordinator in Jimbo Fisher. That's not to give any credit to Saban or Meyer for those three titles, as Les Miles, Gene Chizik, and Fisher were the ones who actually ran those teams. The point, rather, is to show that it's difficult to find things on the elite level of the sport over the past ten years that didn't feel their influence somehow.
Their reigns do extend a bit beyond ten years, as Saban won the 2003 BCS title and Meyer's 2004 Utah was only the second team in the post-WWII era to win every game by at least 14 points after 1995 Nebraska. But the last decade unquestionably belonged to them, despite each only coaching nine of the ten seasons. Saban went 105-18 (.853); Meyer 106-16 (.868). Of guys who were head coaches at least nine of the past ten seasons, only Chris Petersen at 107-24 (.816) is also over .800 in win percentage—with much of that happening on the mid-major level.
They make great foils, even more so now than when they were expected to duke it out in the SEC Championship Game on a near-annual basis. Saban is defense; Meyer is offense. Saban's offenses keep up with the times but are still anchored in the traditional; Meyer pushes the leading edge of offensive theory. Saban is SEC; Meyer is Big Ten. If you were to write a narrative about two coaching titans existing at the same time, you'd come up with something similar to what we have in Saban and Meyer.
And as good as they are, Saban and Meyer are even great demonstrators of how important luck is in accruing titles:
- 2006: Florida needed an improbable upset by eventual 7-6 UCLA over USC on the last day of the regular season to be able to play for the title.
- 2008: Florida needed Oregon State to knock off USC to have a chance to play for the title as a one-loss team.
- 2009: Alabama may have won anyway, but Colt McCoy leaving the title game early made the task a lot easier.
- 2011: Bama used an improbable Iowa State upset win over Oklahoma State to get the one and only BCS title game rematch.
- 2012: Had Ohio State AD Gene Smith held the interim-coached 2011 Buckeye team out of a bowl to prepay for the inevitable one-year postseason ban for TattooGate, the national title game likely would've been a pair of undefeated teams in OSU and Notre Dame—without Alabama.
- 2014: Without this year just happening to be the first of the playoff era, FSU and Alabama almost certainly would've played for the BCS crown with the Buckeyes watching on TV.
It's best to be both lucky and good. Bad luck kept both from winning a title—Meyer's 12-0 team in 2012 was ineligible for the postseason for reasons beyond his control, while Saban's 2014 Tide probably would've steamrolled a teetering FSU for the hypothetical BCS title. In each case, though, the other was right there to capitalize.
It's difficult to guess how long the sport will be under their spell. Saban is 64, and while he's clearly showing no signs of slowing down, it's difficult to find examples of coaches having elite success into their 70s—to say nothing of the prospect of him retiring before tailing off. Meyer is considerably younger at 51, but there is no guarantee that the impossibly high expectations he's made for himself in Columbus won't eat him alive like those in Gainesville did.
What is nearly certain is that we'll all be seeing them standing atop the game for a few years more. When we look back at the first 20 years after the turn of the millennium, it'll be impossible not to start and end the college football conversation with Saban and Meyer. It's the great coaching rivalry of our age.