Is Gus Malzahn to Nick Saban as Saban Was to Urban Meyer?

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, talks with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn prior to the start of an NCAA college football game in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

Nick Saban has built up Alabama from former powerhouse to modern powerhouse, winning three national championships in four years before a "disappointing" 11-win season bucked that trend in 2013.

Before him, though, Urban Meyer came to the SEC and accomplished a similar feat with Florida. The Gators won two national championships and had three 13-win seasons between 2006 and 2009, only succumbing as the class of the SEC once Saban himself joined the ranks of the conference and deposed them.

At the time, especially with Saban coming off a failed stint with the NFL's Miami Dolphins, the thought of Meyer's momentum collapsing was absurd. He recruited whoever he wanted, deployed those players however he wanted and toyed with defenses whenever he wanted.

But Saban came along and beat him anyway.

Today, it seems similarly absurd to question whether Saban's modern dynasty will fall. Whether another coach can come into town and drink his milkshake—both on the field and in recruiting. He's a force that indomitable, a baron so embedded atop the league.

And yet, there is one name that comes to mind.

Might Auburn's Gus Malzahn—he who ended Saban's 15-game winning streak in the 2013 Iron Bowl—do to Saban what Saban once did to Meyer?

It certainly at least bears asking.

Malzahn led an upstart band of underdogs to the BCS national title game in his first season on the job last year. The season before he arrived, the Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC. Two seasons before he left his post as the team's offensive coordinator, it won the national title.

His resume says it's possible.

Saban had a similar albeit far more extensive record of success in the SEC before taking over at Alabama, coaching at LSU for five seasons and winning a national title himself. Still, that Malzahn has now won the conference as both a coordinator and head coach makes him as qualified as anyone to be the next usurper.

But that doesn't mean he will be. Not because Malzahn isn't good enough or Auburn doesn't have the proper resources. He is and it does. Rather, Malzahn won't do to Saban what Saban did to Meyer because Saban is far less assailable than Meyer. He's a far tougher dragon to slay.

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn walks the tiger walk prior to the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Take, for example, the end of the 2014 recruiting cycle. If ever there was a time for Malzahn to seize momentum in the state of Alabama, this would be it. Auburn just beat Alabama and nearly won the national championship. Alabama just lost to Auburn and got punked by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

Saban's legendary recruiting prowess would be tested.

And so it was, but Saban passed the test with flying colors. Not just flying colors, but colors that soared above any in Saban's career. He didn't just maintain Alabama's recruiting success in the wake of a poor end of season. He exceeded it. And then, with experts humming about this perhaps being the best class in college football history, Saban smiled almost wryly and said, according to Andrew Gribble of, that it simply "satisfied our needs" and nothing else.


But really, it was so much more than that. Saban landed six of the top 16 players on the 247Sports composite, securing commitments from three before or during the season and three more during the final stretch.

Those final three were particularly important, too. Cornerbacks Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, both top-12 players, fill a need at the biggest (read: only) position of weakness on Alabama's roster. And instead of landing one, it landed both.

The final commitment was even more important, though. If not for practical football reasons, then at least for the sake of sending a message. On national signing day, Rashaan Evans—the nation's top outside linebacker, a native of the city of Auburn, Ala., and a heavy favorite to attend his hometown school—reached not for the hat of blue and burnt orange but instead for the hat of dark crimson:

This is why Malzahn will never do to Saban what Saban did to Meyer. Saban was able to defeat Meyer because he was able to out-recruit him. And even though Meyer himself seemed at the time impossible to beat on the recruiting trail, Saban has always been a savant in this regard.

Malzahn is a good recruiter who landed a great class for the Tigers. He might be able to score a rare recruiting upset over Alabama in one class out of every four. But he'll never be able to out-recruit Alabama on a consistent enough basis to seize power in the SEC.

At least not until Saban leaves.

Which isn't to say he can't still find success. The two teams might trade blows for the foreseeable future, especially next season when Auburn returns Nick Marshall and Alabama will be breaking in a new quarterback. This isn't to say the Tigers are a fluke.

This is to say that Saban is not going anywhere, not "retiring," not leaving for the Big Ten because a new sheriff has come to town. He's not taking Godfather offers from Texas and the NFL doesn't even want him back.

Saban is in the SEC for the long haul; and for as long as that's the case, Alabama will never be the "other team" in Dixie's Heart. He'll never be Meyer'd. At the very most, Malzahn can make himself and Saban the 1a. and 1b. of the conference.

But, heck. That itself would be a major accomplishment.


Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT