One definition of greatness is how that individual raises the performance of those around them, and there is little doubt that Nick Saban is a great coach. And, at the beginning of this season, and perhaps every season except his first at Alabama, I didn't particularly like him, and have wanted him to leave Alabama by any means necessary, until this past Iron Bowl was in the books. And now, after watching such a game, and reflecting upon the seemingly rapid peaks and valleys of my Tigers, I have come to a new respect for what Saban has meant for me and my enjoyment of college football.
Saban's entry into the SEC was at LSU - a fascinatingly underperforming team for the previous 2 decades until his arrival. He awoke the sleeping Tiger, and produced sustained excellence and returned the program to conference and national prominence. It was during his tenure there that the Auburn-LSU game was the biggest game in the SEC West, with the winner representing the division in the conference championship game 4 out of 5 years. The best game from my standpoint was the 2004 AU-LSU game. It was one of the hardest hitting games I've ever attended and ended with a late-game scoring drive by Auburn. Replays are still used in Auburn's official and unofficial hype videos, a lasting testament to how Epic a contest it was. In fact, LSU was the sole team that the 04 Tigers (a team I still consider to be the best Auburn squad during my lifetime) played that had the lead, or the ball with a chance to get the lead in the 4th quarter.
He ended up leaving LSU a little over a year later, but his legacy - proving to LSU people that they could win, win often, and win big - led them to hire Les Miles, whom is one of my favorite coaches in the SEC. He's a great coach in his own right, and has kept LSU as a conference and national power, improving the overall play of the SEC, as well as providing a break from the usual coachspeak.
Saban's brief stint in the NFL is well documented, and somehow, Mal Moore, who had notoriously flubbed several coaching searches and hires, landed him in 2007. Alabama steadily and rapidly improved, resulting in a division title in just his second year. The winds of change had arrived in state, and Tuberville was shown the door after the Franklin Air-Raid experiment blew up in his face. This led to the hire of Chizik, who assembled a fascinating staff headlined by an offensive savant, Gus Malzahn. The 2009 Iron Bowl was a better game than it should have been, largely because of Malzahn's offensive genius, but the Tide was too strong for the Tigers that day, as they won late in the fourth in what is now called The Drive. Saban would go on to win his first title at Alabama that year, with no signs a drop-off in sight. If you were an Auburn fan, you knew that to win the division you had to beat Alabama, and to beat Alabama you had to get better - a lot better.
2010 was a crazy year for Auburn. We had a generational freak at QB who started off rusty but continued to lead Auburn in comeback after comeback. Yet, the biggest, the best, the most remembered, most replayed game from that year was not and is not the highly entertaining BCS NC Game, but it was rather the "Camback" - an improbable toppling of Saban's Tide at home after falling behind by 24 points. It required the impossible - making the sure-handed Ingram fumble after being caught from behind by a defensive lineman, having that fumble go 30 yards in a straight line 2 yards off the sidelines. It required superhuman defensive line play - a sack-fumble-recovery by Nick Fairley. And it required a flawless second half offensive gameplan that culminated with a throwback to a crossing Tight-end. When the dust settled, it was the greatest Iron Bowl I had ever seen, and I thought I may never see another top it.
Alas, Auburn had indeed caught a genie in the bottle that year - a roster heavily loaded with senior talent and a generational QB matched with the perfect offense for his unique skill set. Most on the Plains knew we would have a step back in 2011, while Alabama would see no such dip. Saban's process wasn't going to allow it. He continued to win in an impressive, yet methodically boring manner, spare the fantastic games against LSU - the only team that had the talent and coaching to stand toe to toe with Alabama.
Meanwhile, on the Plains, the bottom fell out after Malzahn left, and Chizik decided to try to reform his roster to a pro-style set. One of the worst, if not worst teams I had seen Auburn field resulted. 0-8 SEC, 3-9 overall. Chizik, just 2 years from reaching the top, had hit the bottom. Alabama, meanwhile, remained at the top, and loaded for yet another title run in 2013. Auburn could not tolerate Chizik's timetable for his rebuilding process, and went and got the offensive mastermind that brought us overachieving teams in the first 3 years of Chizik's tenure.
Auburn's successes this year have been well documented, and have culminated in another Iron Bowl Victory - but this was no ordinary victory, no spectacular victory - this may have been the best, most entertaining college football game ever played. Somehow, it topped the Camback. It struck a chord with the nation, monopolizing time on College Gameday Final, Sportscenter, and crossing over into outlets that rarely, if ever, talk about college football.
Had that game played the same way, with merely a good Auburn team playing a good Alabama team, then the college football world would have noticed, but it wouldn't have escaped our hallowed walls. Instead, it was a plucky, surprising, overachieving Auburn team coached by an emerging coaching star toppling a great team from a great dynasty built by the greatest coach (so far) of the 21st century, Nick Saban.
But the game was even bigger than that. On this same day, Ohio State and Michigan played an epic game, one of the best if not best games in that rivalry, with an overmatched Michigan giving it's all to win, falling short on a 2 point conversion for the win. Georgia, starting a backup QB, came back from 20 points to beat in-state rival triple-option Georgia Tech in double OT. A top 10 matchup between Clemson and South Carolina with perhaps a BCS game on the line was tied going into the 4th quarter, with USC eventually pulling out the late win. The Civil War saw Oregon take the lead from Oregon State with 32 seconds remaining. Texas A&M and Johnny Football played a close game at Mizzou, with an SEC Championship berth on the line. Duke got it's 10th win for the first time ever.
And yet, despite having one of the best, most entertaining, most exhilarating, most heartbreaking rivalry weekends in recent memory, what Saban and Malzahn delivered on November 30th, 2013, can finally put to rest an ages-old discussion. That Iron Bowl, a contrast in styles, a game with multiple plays that will live in the record books forever, captured the national attention and cemented that game as the penultimate Rivalry Game. And none of it would have been possible if Nick Saban weren't at Alabama.
I want to live more games like these, even if I end up on the losing side a few times.
Nick Saban, I'm an Auburn fan and alum, and I want you to stay at Alabama.