TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Just when you thought that Nick Saban’s legacy in the sport of college football couldn’t get any more profound, any more dazzling, any more awe-inspiring, we present the second week of October in the Year 2020.
In the same week, the soon-to-be 69-year-old coach beat a former assistant for a 22nd time, the No. 3 ranked team in the land and COVID-19.
Decades from now, long after we’re all gone from this Earth and when our children’s children run this world, history will look at this 2020 college football season and wonder aloud: What in the hell was going on?
Let’s take just this week and this conference alone. Two SEC games were postponed after at least a combined 60 players on Vanderbilt and Florida contracted the virus. Two active SEC head coaches announced they had tested positive for the virus, including one, Florida’s Dan Mullen, who had just a few days before encouraged his administration to allow 90,000 fans into a football stadium.
The other coach, Saban, followed his positive test by registering three consecutive negative tests to gain clearance to coach, even after having spent three straight days in quarantine, by using a 9-day-old SEC policy that was really only implemented after a soccer player in the league experienced a false positive last month.
And then, as if that wasn’t enough already, Saturday brought us Arkansas beating Ole Miss by holding the Rebels to 27 fewer points than Alabama did the week before; South Carolina beating Auburn for the first time since 1933; and Kentucky winning at Tennessee—by 27 points (the Vols are, in fact, not back)—for the first time in 36 years.
To top it all off, Saban, one of the greatest defensive minds in college football history, used an offensive avalanche to outlast, outgun and out-score a Georgia team that many believed was the last remnant of the Era of SEC Defense. The final score: Alabama 41, Georgia 24.
The Bulldogs entered having allowed 236 yards a game. The Crimson Tide had 564. Steve Sarkisian’s unit rolled up a whopping 33 first downs on 76 plays—basically, a rate of a first down every other play. His quarterback, Mac Jones, in his seventh start, now has the same amount of 400-yard passing games as Tua Tagovailoa had in his career (three).
Saban, one never to get overly complimentary, couldn’t resist during the postgame news conference: “It was a really good offensive performance,” he deadpanned.
This one was always going to be about how a fiery Alabama offense would fare against what felt like the SEC’s last true strong defensive unit. A sitting Power 5 offensive coordinator told SI earlier this week that Georgia’s defense was one of the saltiest he’d seen in years. “It’s the explosive offense against the immovable object,” he said.
Consider the object moved.
Afterward, Saban described the bout as a 15-round fight, something he says he predicted entering the game. “We probably wouldn’t be winning the fight until the later rounds,” he said.
The Tide finished the game on a 24-0 run, turning a 24-17 deficit into a 17-point win. Now here we sit: Alabama is the lone undefeated team in the SEC, and Saban is a stunning 22-0 against head coaches who once worked for him, including 3-0 versus Georgia and Kirby Smart. Smart’s guys again coughed up a late lead for a third time in the three meetings with Saban.
You remember the 2017 national title game and second-and-26, right? How about the blown 14-point lead, with 18 minutes to go, in the 2018 SEC championship?
In this one, the Bulldogs led 14-7, 17-10 and 24-17 before Jones and his speedy receivers smoked’em. A 90-yard complete here, a 40-yard pass there. He finished with 417 and four scores.
But back to these Smart vs. Saban bouts. In the 180 minutes of football that they’ve played since 2017, the Bulldogs have either led or been tied for 154 of them, including 35 on Saturday night.
But this night wasn’t about Georgia. It wasn’t about Smart. This wasn’t about an Alabama defense that has allowed 72 points in two games—just 33 fewer than the 2011 team allowed in, uh, 13 games.
It wasn’t even about how the officials gave a couple of unneeded assists to the Tide (They added one second to a clock that had expired at the end of the first half, setting up an Alabama field goal, and then they threw a touchy PI flag in the end zone to help the Tide even more; Newsflash: they don’t need help).
This night was about Saban, a man who continues to dominate the college football landscape—from recruiting to championships to, yes even, overcoming a virus that has killed more than 200,000 people in America.
He was cleared by the SEC around lunchtime after his third and final test returned negative, ruling the Tuesday result as a false positive.
“It was emotional for me coming back today,” he said.
There were some slight emotional moments in the news conference, too—the robotic cyborg displaying outwardly human feelings.
“I gained a lot of respect thinking that I had this (virus), even though we’ve done everything we can to set a good example—wear masks, keep distance, wash hands,” he said. “Everybody should have a proper respect (for the virus), because when they tell you that you tested positive, that’s not a good feeling.”
No worries, though. Against physical foes or invisible ones, Saban did what he’s done for decades now in this sport: He won.