NCAA Football

Proving Alabama's Nick Saban Is Still College Football's Best Big-Game Coach

It’s one of those statistics that now just seems preposterous, but single-handedly demonstrates the University of Alabama’s turnaround under Nick Saban.

In 2008, when Alabama was 8-0 and en route to playing in the Southeastern Conference’s title game, it also had a losing streak in games played during the month of November spanning three seasons and nine games.

From 2003 to 2007, its record during the month was an abysmal 3-14 (17.6 winning percentage). It had lost six straight to rival Auburn and five to LSU, both series records. As a starting quarterback, senior John Parker Wilson was 0-2 against Mississippi State.

"We have a point to prove that we can finish," senior safety and co-captain Rashad Johnson said at the time.

Obviously, the Crimson Tide figured it out. Even though Alabama’s now seemingly annual national title chase came up short last year, losing at Auburn on a 100-yard return off a missed field goal as time expired, Nick Saban still has to be considered the best big-game coach in college football.

Yes, flat Alabama was beat by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and, yes, Saban is just 8-7 in bowl games (0-3 at Michigan State and 8-4 with SEC teams).

Consider the bigger picture:

He’s 4-0 when the national title is on the line.

Saban’s 4-1 in conference championships, the lone loss in 2008 to Florida when Tim Tebow was running Urban Meyer’s offense and Saban had just one full recruiting class at Alabama. 

Over his 18-year career as a head coach, including stops at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU, Saban’s teams are 51-35 against ranked opponents (59.3 winning percentage), and 27-17 (61.6 percent) against top-10 teams. Among coaches who have faced at least 20 opponents ranked in the Top 10, only one has had a better career winning percentage: Frank Leahy. (Note: Among active coaches, Meyer is 12-5, or 70.6 percent).

Saban’s four wins against opponents ranked No. 1 is tied for the most by any coach since the Associated Press poll was created in 1936. He shares the distinction with Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, Jack Mollenkopf and Joe Paterno, who are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant did it only three times.

But with the BCS and creation of the four-team playoff, November has become more important than ever, especially in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, easily the toughest in college football. Even if you took away Alabama’s three recent titles, the other West teams still have won more BCS championships than any other conference, never mind division.

By then teams are beat up, have been exposed and the season becomes a test of survival. It’s when the 2011 Crimson Tide defense, considered by many to be one of the best of all time, gave up 51 points, compared with 55 during the rest of the season, and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had his signature win at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It’s also when the 2007 season, Saban’s first with the Crimson Tide, completely fell apart. No. 17 Alabama was a respectful 6-2 and coming off a 41-17 thrashing of Tennessee, but never recovered from the loss of five suspended players, including starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, after the university's investigation into textbook disbursement.

It lost 41-34 to No. 3 LSU, at MSU 17-12, to Louisiana Monroe 21-14 and at rival Auburn 17-10. Wilson had six of his 12 interceptions that season during the month, and no running back reached 100 rushing yards.

"The suspensions hurt us a lot," offensive lineman Mike Johnson said at the time. "All the different offensive lines we played with, I switched from right tackle to guard, but you can't put your finger on one thing. We just struggled overall as a group. We went downhill."

But that was nothing new for the Crimson Tide. Since 2003, Alabama had been 41-30 overall, meaning that nearly half the program’s losses during that time span were in November. The 2004 team was 5-3 entering the month, 8-0 in 2005 and 6-3 in 2006. Had Mike Shula gone .500, or even won back-to-back games once in the month, things might have been very different.

Instead, the 2008 Crimson Tide began a November winning streak that lasted eight games and helped lead to the 2009 national championship. It’s 16-4 (80 percent) in the month since then, 72-9 overall (88.9 percent), and captured two more crystal footballs.

Win November and anything is possible, especially this year when Alabama has to visit Tiger Stadium, Auburn is coming off playing for the national title and all three division games could be against ranked rivals.

 

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Follow @CrimsonWalsh

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Which School Gives 5-Star ATH Torrance Gibson Best Chance at Stardom?

2015 5-Star ATH Torrance Gibson has released his top seven schools consisting of Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Miami, and Central Florida.

Gibson is an electrifying playmaker at the quarterback position, but has also garnered attention as a wide receiver.

Bleacher Report's CFB analyst Michael Felder broke down how Gibson would fit with his top seven schools and where he believes the 5-Star prospect will have the most success.

Which school gives him the best chance at stardom?

Watch the video and find out.

 

Highlights courtesy of xosdigital.com

Rankings courtesy of 247sports.com

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Notre Dame Football: Better Late Than Never for FieldTurf

A single second had been returned to the game clock. And on a perfect October afternoon in 2009, Jimmy Clausen and Charlie Weis were given one final chance to beat Pete Carroll and USC. 

On 3rd-and-goal from just inside the 5-yard line, Clausen dropped back from the shotgun and rifled a pass to Duval Kamara, just across the goal line. The throw was never close.

Kamara slipped making his cut on Notre Dame Stadium's fabled natural grass. And just like that, another fable—the Notre Dame Turf Monster—claimed one more victim.  

It's amazing to think what could've happened had Kamara not slipped. A touchdown would've sent the Irish and Trojans into overtime. An Irish victory over the No. 6 Trojans would've vaulted the Irish into the Top 15.

That Halloween day massacre of Washington State that ended up being Charlie Weis' final victory at Notre Dame's head coach? It could've had the Irish ranked in the Top 10 entering November.

Could Notre Dame still have lost four straight to Navy, Pitt, UConn and Stanford to close out the season? Sure. But let's say one or two of those coin-flip games went the Irish's way. Could you fire Weis after an 8-4 season? 

As we're reminded each year, Weis' contract was a bitter pill that's still being swallowed. But at 6-6 and after another late-season swoon, Jack Swarbrick didn't have much of a choice. 

Five years later, Swarbrick wasn't given much of a choice in this controversial decision, either. Putting an artificial surface inside the House That Rock Built was a no-brainer.

Even after replacing the sod multiple times last season, the playing surface inside one of college football's most historic stadiums was a joke. So during the Blue-Gold game televised nationally on NBCSN, Swarbrick made the announcement that FieldTurf was coming to Notre Dame Stadium.  

"We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field,” Swarbrick said in April, when the university officially released the news. "However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface.

"That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety."

For Irish fans that take pride in the throwback experience inside Notre Dame Stadium, seeing the game take place on FieldTurf could take some getting used to. But then again, not seeing the home team slip and slide when trying to cut upfield or make a tackle could help ease the pain. 

For years, Notre Dame tried using its poor field conditions to its advantage. When Florida State came to town in 1993 for the Game of the Century, Bobby Bowden wondered if the groundskeeper got lost.

In 2005, when Weis nearly beat the Trojans, there were more complaints about the grass, and it was blamed for USC kickoff returner Desmond Reed's ACL tear. 

"I stood on it and I can tell you, if it was your backyard, the Homeowners Association would send you a citation," SI.com's Stewart Mandel wrote after the game

But as the Irish have upgraded their athleticism and personnel, too often it's been the home team that's suffered. Five seasons into the Brian Kelly era, the speed on the Irish roster is as good as it has ever been, turning the natural grass surface into a handicap. 

Just as crippling, the difficulties of keeping the playing field in acceptable condition has lessened the Irish's home field advantage.

Lukewarm crowd support has long been a complaint among the Irish faithful looking at the donors sitting on their hands in the gold seats. But too often, Notre Dame players feel like visitors in their own stadium, unable to practice in the stadium other than pregame walkthroughs. 

"It’s really about getting a surface where there’s some consistency week‑in and week‑out for our players," Kelly said after the Blue-Gold game. "I think today was an indication. We can’t even practice out there.

"We want to be able to get out there with our team. We want some safety issues to be not part of the equation. I think everybody is in agreement. If we can get the best surface there in grass, we’d love to have that. We just haven’t been able to get to that. This is my fifth year here at Notre Dame and we haven’t been able to get to that."

The Irish have been practicing on FieldTurf since the LaBar Practice Complex was built in 2008. Their indoor practices at the Loftus Center have been on the same surface. Matching the playing field with a surface the team practices on daily only makes sense. 

It's been no secret that Kelly has been a proponent of FieldTurf. But after Swarbrick and Notre Dame's brass toured college and professional facilities learning about their options, the only logical one was to install a synthetic surface. 

It may not have been soon enough to help Weis finally beat Pete Carroll, but it'll help Kelly and the Irish continue to improve their home field advantage in South Bend.  

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter. 

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Doesn't Look Like Texas A&M Recruiters Will Give Charlie Strong Much of a Chance

One of the biggest priorities for first-year Texas coach Charlie Strong is to take back the state of Texas on the recruiting trail. 

Texas A&M would like a word about that. And the word is "no." 

(Or, "YESSIR." Either way.)

On Thursday, the Aggies landed a verbal commitment from 4-star wide receiver Kemah Siverand of Cypress Ridge High School in Houston, Texas. That pledge came one day after 5-star dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 prospect at that position in the country, verbally committed to A&M. 

As always, this is the time to point out that verbal commitments don't mean a thing until pen meets paper meets fax machine next February. Still, Murray's family ties to A&M should mean his verbal is solid. With that likely being the case, Murray is one of the influential cornerstones of the Aggies' 2015 class. 

Consider this blurb from Dave Behr of the Austin American-Statesman about A&M's recent string of recruiting news: 

Wednesday’s announcement by Murray seemed to be the catalyst for Siverand to make his decision public. News of Siverand’s intention to declare Thursday broke shortly after Murray committed, and this came just one day after Siverand released a top 18, which included Texas, Texas Tech and TCU among other national power programs.

Murray’s decision also seems to have affected A&M’s top overall recruit, Gladewater defensive tackle Daylon Mack. The five-star prospect tweeted Thursday, 'I have cancelled my summer visits,' after weeks of speculation he might open his recruitment.

With eight whole months until signing day, A&M already has a pair of 5-star commits—Murray and Mack—and the No. 4 class in the country. Nine of A&M's 13 commits are one of the top 50 players in the state. 

Yes, things are bound to change (for better or worse) between now and then, but A&M has shown no signs of slowing down on the recruiting trail. A&M is heavily in the running for three other top-10 in-state players: linebacker Malik Jefferson, cornerback Kendall Sheffield and wide receiver Damarkus Lodge

The last time a school reeled in five of Texas' top 10 players was in 2012 when the Longhorns signed running back Johnathan Gray, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, tackle Kennedy Estelle, guard Curtis Riser and receiver Cayleb Jones. 

It's not that Texas isn't in the running for top-tier prospects for the '15 class—Sheffield is also high on the Horns—or that Strong is bound for a disappointing class. Texas can't control what A&M does. The only thing the Horns can do is go out and win. Do that and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Horns pick up the momentum they've lost on the recruiting trail. 

But there's no denying A&M has the momentum in Texas at the moment. When you have momentum, the last thing you want to do is give it up. 

Especially to Texas. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports

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