CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary Top 20 Coaches
Who were the top 20 coaches since CFN started in 1998? No. 1, Nick Saban
CFN Era Top 20 Coaches: No. 1 Nick Saban, Alabama, LSU, Michigan State
CollegeFootballNews.com is turning 20 this season, so we’re looking back on the greatest players, games, coaches and more since we first kicked things off back in 1998.
Wins and losses are certainly a part of it all – okay, a massive part of this – but it’s also about who came up with the biggest coaching performances over the long haul. Consistency matters, championships matter, and personality plays a role, too.
Who are the 20 coaches who defined college football since 1998?
One note, accomplishments before 1998 don’t count, other than when it comes to a coach’s legacy and overall status.
Nick Saban, Alabama (2007-2016), LSU (2000-2004), Michigan State (CFN Era 1998-1999)
Nick Saban being put into the all-time greatest college football head coach discussion was hardly a given up until just a few years ago.
Now, it’s obvious. Considering the era, the restrictions, the rise of the SEC and the nearly impossible task to go almost perfect in season after season after season after season, now, Saban has to be put into any discussion of the most impressive and accomplished coaches in American sports over the last few decades.
But had he been a little better as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, had there not been a slew of issues in 2003 with hired head coach Mike Price – who never got on the sidelines for the Crimson Tide – and had Dennis Franchione not left for Texas A&M, Saban might not have been hired on in 2007.
Of course, coming off a mediocre 15-17 run in two years with the Dolphins, Saban was brought into Tuscaloosa with a national title on the resume and the expectations to make Alabama decent again.
But win 118 games in 11 years with four national championships, a defensive stop against Clemson away from another, a miraculous kick-six vs. Auburn from possibly winning another, and a fourth quarter against Florida from taking another? His era with the Crimson Tide has created an unfair, unattainable level that might never be matched again.
Sort of lost in the luster of what he’s done with Bama was his fantastic five-year run at LSU, parlaying on okay run at Michigan State – going just 34-24-1 with three bowl losses – into the high-end gig. In Baton Rouge, all of a sudden, Saban took his coaching game to another level, winning two SEC titles, the 2003 national championship, and going 48-16 during his tenure before chasing the NFL dream.
Having worked under Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns, the move to the next-level was hardly a surprise, but would LSU be what Alabama is now had he stuck around? Probably not, but it would’ve likely been close.
And now it’s about adding accolades onto the pile. He’s already cemented his legendary status, and he already has accumulated the type of wealth that’ll make generations of Sabans more than comfortable.
But the machine isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. There are still more national championships to chase.
Biggest Moment: 2009 SEC Championship
There was certainly nothing fluky about LSU’s national championship under Saban in 2003, but after the rough two years with the Miami Dolphins, he had to prove himself all over again.
Going 12-0 in his second regular season at Alabama showed the potential of what he was building, but a loss to Tim Tebow and a Florida team that would go on to win the national title, and a dud of a Sugar Bowl loss to Utah, meant that the 2009 team had to find a different gear.
It was Saban’s lone unbeaten season, going 14-0 with a national championship win in the BCS Championship over Texas – helped by knocking out Longhorn QB Colt McCoy early. But to get there, Alabama had to take down the No. 1, unbeaten Gator team gunning to be repeat national champs.
The 2008 Crimson Tide had the Gators in trouble, only to have Tebow roll in the fourth quarter to take the win. Alabama had control of the rematch with a 19-13 lead going into halftime, but this was a Gator team that seemed to know how to pull games out of the fire.
This time around, a more energized and experienced Tide team took over when it had to, dominating the second half with 13 unanswered points, the defense pitched a gem – Florida ran for just 25 yards for the game outside of Tebow’s 63 – and Mark Ingram’s three touchdown runs were enough get the job done.
Alabama was off to the national championship. Beating Florida not only signaled the changing of the guard in the conference, but it began one of the most dominant eras in college football history.
Nick Saban’s Best Season: 2011
Take your pick of great years under Saban, and you probably have the right one.
The 2009 season might have kicked it all off for Saban at Alabama – and, again, was the only one with a zero in the loss column – the 2015 national champion had to do the most work, and the 2012 version might have done the tough task of repeating, but the 2011 team was the killer.
Oh sure, it didn’t win an SEC Championship – LSU took care of that later, after winning the first meeting of the two teams that year 9-6 – and if you really want to split hairs, Oklahoma State probably deserved to play the Tigers for the national championship over a team that couldn’t even win its own division. But when given the chance, Saban’s team came through.
How good was the 2011Crimson Tide? The defense allowed 21 points in a brain-cramp of a performance against Georgia Southern and its quirky triple-option attack from the FCS world, gave up two touchdowns in a 38-14 win over Arkansas, and allowed two more scores in a 42-14 blowout at Auburn.
No one else would score more than 11 points on a D that gave up just 106 on the season, and finished by shutting out LSU in a dominant performance for a 21-0 win for the national title.
That Georgia Southern team ran for 302 yards. Alabama allowed a total of 636 rushing yards and just two touchdowns against everyone else.
Nick Saban’s Worst Season: 1998
It was the first season of the BCS era, and the first season of CFN. It was also Saban’s fourth season at Michigan State, and he couldn’t get the program going.
He went a pedestrian 19-16-1 with three straight bowl losses in his first three seasons. The 1998 team went 6-6, too, but it didn’t get a bowl invite.
It began the year with a clunk, losing at home to Colorado State, and followed it up by getting blown out of the water by Oregon in a 48-14 embarrassment. Almost making matters worse was the hope and potential the team showed with a good 22-point win over a strong Notre Dame team, only to be followed up by a loss to Michigan.
The team got better over the second half of the season, though, screwing up Ohio State’s national championship chances by taking down the No. 1 Buckeyes in Columbus in a 28-24 thriller. However, two one-point losses to Minnesota and Purdue, kept the season from ever getting going.
A 51-28 loss to Penn State would be the end of the maddening campaign. It would also turn out to be the last time a Saban-coached team didn’t go bowling, or win at least eight games.
The Accolades (CFN Era, not counting 1990 Toledo or three years at Michigan State)
CFN Era Coaching Record: 181-43 in 17 seasons
Bowl Record: 11-6
BCS Championship: 2003, 2009, 2011, 2012. College Football Playoff National Championship: 2015
SEC Championship: 2001, 2003, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016)
Home Depot Coach of the Year: 2008
Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year: 2003, 2008
CFN 20th Anniversary lists compiled by Rich Cirminiello, Pete Fiutak, Phil Harrison & Russ Mitchell