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15 for 15: The 15 most important wins of Nick Saban's Alabama tenure

In the Nick Saban era, Alabama history is college football history.

There are many words that define Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama, but the one that comes most immediately to mind is transformative. Transformative for the SEC, for the University of Alabama, for college football as a whole. Whenever Saban's tenure ends, each of those three institutions will be utterly unrecognizable from when they began the day Saban landed on the Tuscaloosa National Airport's tarmac on Jan. 3, 2007.

And though Saban's crimson reign is not near its end, the 2021 campaign marks Saban's 15th at Alabama. It's been a remarkable run for a coach labeled a nomad and a mercenary the day he took the job. This week, we're marking the occasion by recounting Saban's 15 most impactful assistant coaches, players, wins and quotes during his time as Alabama's head coach.

I can tell you what college football's next transcendent moment will be, though I can't tell you when it will happen. 

It'll be the moment Nick Saban's Crimson Dynasty finally ends, whenever and wherever that may be. Think Colorado's 62-36 destruction of No. 1 Nebraska in 2001, and multiply it by the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

We've seen Saban himself do it to other people, time and time again over these past 14 seasons. He landed a knockout punch to Mack Brown's run as a national title contender at Texas, same for Urban Meyer at Florida. He single-handedly ended the Mark Richt era at Georgia. He pushed Les Miles out at LSU, Kevin Sumlin out at Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn out at Auburn. Tennessee was one of the most stable programs in the SEC before Saban arrived. 

Some day, we may get to see another coach do to Saban what he's done to so many others. When and if that happens, it'll be a moment of jubilation mixed with a dash of melancholy. 

Jubilation because every college town outside of Tuscaloosa will have been freed from a regime of crimson tyranny. 

Melancholy because, for so many, college football has become inseparable from the man that has ruled it this past decade and a half. He has Stockholm Syndrome-d the rest of the college football world, where we're all used to Saban being the final boss you expect to battle at the end of the game. Saban's dominance has been so complete, so universal that "Alabama" has now become the default choice for "big-time college football program" the same way the New York Yankees are the default Major League Baseball team.

So, when and if Saban finally falls, we'll all know it when it happens. 

Then again, there's a chance that Saban never gets got. John Wooden's final game was a national championship victory, same for Tom Osborne. There's a chance Saban wins title No. 7, No. 8 or (dear god) No. 9, then rides into the sunset. Don't pretend it can't happen. No one evolves better than him. He's won title games 21-0 and 45-40. 

But knowing the Saban the way I think I know him, I think he's too competitive for that. I think he wants to make someone knock the crown off his head and pry the scepter from his hands. I think it would kill him to hand the crown jewels over by default. 

Until that moment, we're in for more triumphant victories (and some epic losses) until Saban decides he's had enough. 

15. Alabama 41, No. 20 Tennessee 17 -- Oct. 20, 2007

When Saban got to Tuscaloosa, Alabama held a 43-38-1 lead on the Third Saturday of October and Tennessee had taken 10 of the previous 12. No more. A decade and a half later, Tennessee has stillnever beaten Saban, and they've come within 14 points twice. It's debatable whether Saban killed Tennessee football -- the Vols filled plenty of bullets into their own feet over the years -- but he certainly killed this rivalry.

14. No. 1 Alabama 36, Auburn 0 -- Nov. 29, 2008

Just to illustrate how fast things can change in college football, a year and five days earlier Tommy Tuberville ran his Iron Bowl winning streak to a program-record six games as his 25th-ranked Tigers beat unranked Alabama. A year later, Tuberville was all but fired before the game even kicked; all the Auburn brain trust needed was for Saban to accompli the fait everyone knew was coming. Undefeated and top-ranked Alabama ended the Tuberville era at 5-7 with an emphatic and entirely expected shutout.

13. No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 7 Florida 46 -- 2020 SEC Championship

So evolved was Saban's monster that the Tide could surrender 46 points and 408 passing yards on 40 attempts and barely break a sweat. Mac Jones threw for 418 yards and five scores, Najee Harris accounted for 245 yards and five touchdowns, DeVonta Smith clinched his Heisman victory with 15 grabs for 184 yards and two scores, and the Tide never trailed in the second half.

12. No. 1 Alabama 12, Tennessee 10 -- Oct. 24, 2009

The Lane Kiffin-led Vols lined up for a 44-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal on what was to be the game's final play when Terrance Cody, all 350 pounds of him, busted through to block it. The win preserved the first of Saban's two undefeated seasons and stood as the closest call of what turned out to be a 19-game winning streak, to date the longest of the Saban era. (Bama has currently won 14 straight). Furthermore, Alabama has won a mind-bending 98 straight games against unranked opponents, and this is the closest of those wins.

11. No. 1 Alabama 35, No. 4 Georgia 28 -- 2018 SEC Championship

The aftershock to the earthquake that happened on the same field 11 months prior. Georgia leads 28-14 deep into the third quarter, chases Tua Tagovailoa (10-of-25 with two picks) from the game... and it doesn't change the end result. Jalen Hurts hits 7-of-9 passes for 82 yards and a score, runs for another, and Kirby Smart calls for a Justin Fields fake punt on 4th-and-11 at midfield in a tie game. My gosh what a disaster for Georgia.

10. No. 1 Alabama 49, No. 6 Texas A&M 42 -- Sept. 14, 2013

One of the most-hyped regular season games of the Saban era, there was a moment here when Saban's seat on the throne appeared to be in real peril. Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel memorably beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2012, and A&M opened the rematch on absolute, blue-flamed fire: a 7-play 84-yard A&M touchdown drive; a Bama 3-and-out; a 5-play, 59-yard drive A&M touchdown drive. A&M had the reigning Heisman winner, all the momentum in the world and the antidote to Saban's dominance. Sumlin and co. were cracking the code right before our eyes.

And then Alabama ran off 35 consecutive points.

A&M pulled back within seven at two different points, but order was restored. The Tide won the game; A&M would lose three more games that season; Johnny Football flamed out in the NFL; Sumlin would be fired four years later; and A&M still hasn't beaten Alabama again.

9. No. 13 Alabama 38, No. 8 Georgia 10 -- Oct. 3, 2015

Another moment where we thought regime change could be on the horizon. Alabama had already lost to Ole Miss at home, and Georgia entered the game higher-rated by the polls and in Vegas. And we did see an era end in real time, but not Saban's. In a driving rain, Alabama drove Mark Richt out of town. The Tide built a 38-3 lead five minutes into the second half, Richt would be fired at the end of the year, and Alabama would win title No. 4 under Saban.

8. No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 3 Ohio State 24 -- 2021 CFP National Championship

Fresh off an electrifying defeat of Clemson, Ohio State could not only be the actual national champions but also the narrative national champions of 2020. The Buckeyes joined the party late, inspired the Big Ten to change their rules mid-stream to get them into the conference title game (thus boosting their CFP chances), and now here they were, ready to send everyone in the South into a fit of rage.

Instead, Ohio State ran into a crimson buzzsaw. Mac Jones threw for 464 yards and five scores, DeVonta Smith caught 12 balls for 215 yards and three touchdowns, and Najee Harris added three scores of his own. After Ohio State pulled within 21-17 with five minutes left before halftime, Alabama scored 35 of the game's final 42 points -- and didn't score at all in the game's final 13 minutes.

7. No. 2 Alabama 45, No. 1 Clemson 40 -- 2016 CFP National Championship

The game that proved you might be able to pull Saban into deep water, but you'll be the one who drowns. Saban's defense allowed 40 points in a title game. He had Jake Coker as his quarterback and Deshaun Watson as his opponent's, and he won the game. 

Lane Kiffin called a masterful game, pounding Derrick Henry 36 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, thereby allowing Coker clear passing lanes to throw for 335 yards and two scores on just 16 completions.

This game turned on Saban's most daring in-game decision to date, an onside kick that, followed by a 51-yard bomb to breakout tight end OJ Howard, put the Tide up for good at 31-24.

6. No. 2 Alabama 32, No. 3 Georgia 28 -- 2012 SEC Championship

If it looks, sounds and feels like a national title game, it basically is a national title game. Georgia built a 21-10 lead midway through the third quarter; Alabama see-sawed ahead 25-21 to open the fourth; Georgia re-gained the lead five plays later; and then Alabama moved back ahead on a 45-yard AJ McCarron-to-Amari Cooper strike with 3:15 to go. The teams then traded three-and-outs before Georgia raced down the field, moving all the way to the Crimson Tide 8-yard line with five seconds to go when Chris Conley mistakenly caught a pass in bounds and shy of the goal line as the clock ran out on Georgia five yards shy of glory.

Alabama would demolish Notre Dame in the BCS title game, 42-14, a month later.

5. No. 1 Alabama 37, No. 2 Texas 21 -- 2010 BCS National Championship

You can't win six without first winning one. Alabama came out unprepared and flat-footed early, but Marcell Dareus changed the trajectory of the game by knocking Colt McCoy out with a nerve injury. Dareus then provided the winning score by swiping a Garrett Gilbert screen pass and taking it to the house, staking the Tide to a 24-6 halftime lead. When Texas pulled within 24-21 in the fourth quarter, Alabama forced another Gilbert turnover and scored the game's final 13 points.

4. No. 4 Alabama 26, No. 3 Georgia 23 (OT) -- 2018 CFP National Championship

To date the closest any former Saban apprentice has ever come to beating the master.

Alabama had to be lucky, good and daring to win this game. Trailing 13-0 at the half, Saban benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts for true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who went three-and-out on his first possession and threw a touchdown on his second. Tua then threw an interception trailing 20-7 midway through the third quarter, but avoided that fatal blow when Bama's Raekwon Davis intercepted Jake Fromm the very next play. Tua tied the game on a 4th-and-4 touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley in the back of the end zone, and Alabama had a chance to win in regulation on a 36-yard Andy Pappanastos field goal, but he missed it. (That covers how Alabama was daring and good. How were they lucky? A blocked punt that would've given Georgia the ball deep in Bama territory with a 13-0 lead was wiped away due to an erroneous offside call.)

No matter: Tagovailoa found fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown pass in the bottom of the first overtime to win the national championship on an out-of-nowhere knockout blow, to date the most stunning college football pass since Doug Flutie's Hail Mary.)

3. No. 8 Alabama 41, No. 3 Georgia 30 -- Sept. 27, 2008

We're done with you after this, Georgia fans, I promise.

Scott Cochran declared Georgia's black uniforms were because the Dogs were going to a funeral, and he was right. Taking on the AP preseason No. 1, Alabama went into their house and absolutely kicked their ass. The Crimson Tide opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, scored on all four first half possessions and took a 31-0 lead to the locker room.

Saban took the Alabama job on Jan. 3, 2007. He coached his first game on Sept. 1, 2007. But the Saban dynasty was born at Sanford Stadium on the night of Sept. 27, 2008.

2. No. 2 Alabama 21, No. 1 LSU 0 -- 2012 BCS National Championship

A 21-0 game that might as well have been 63-0. The Crimson Tide offense was wholly unrecognizable from what it would become less than a decade later, with seven field goal attempts and no touchdowns until 4:36 remained in the game, but it didn't matter because the Alabama defense -- the best of its time, a defense so good we'll never see another one better -- didn't allow LSU to cross midfield.

This game was so anticlimactic, so unwelcome, so loathed that it served as the finishing blow in a century-long argument in whether or not college football should install a playoff system.

1. No. 2 Alabama 32, No. 1 Florida 13 -- 2009 SEC Championship

No longer were the storm clouds gathering off shore, they were dumping buckets of rain and lifting whole homes off their foundations. Alabama at once snapped Florida's 20-game winning streak, all but ended the Urban Meyer dynasty and avenged their 31-20 loss in the 2008 SEC title game. In fact, it was clear Saban began prepping for this game the moment his feet left the Georgia Dome turf a year prior. The Tide out-rushed Florida 251-88 and shoutout the Gators in the second half, reducing Tim Tebow to tears on the sidelines as even College Football Jesus was powerless to stop what was coming. The Meyer dynasty ended on this day, and Alabama has been the premier program in the SEC -- and, thus, the nation -- ever since.

And in the name of fairness, Saban's 10 most epic losses in crimson.

10. Louisiana-Monroe 21, Alabama 14 -- Nov. 17, 2007

The ultimate "get your licks in now" game in college football history.

9. No. 7 Utah 31, No. 4 Alabama 17 -- 2009 Sugar Bowl

Saban is a trendsetter even in defeat. This is the game that birthed the "SEC teams don't lose bowl games, they just don't care" meme.

8. No. 2 LSU 46, No. 3 Alabama 41 -- Nov. 9, 2019

It remains to be seen whether this was an aberration or the birth of a legitimate rivalry, but either way it was shocking to see Alabama carry a 20-point halftime deficit into its own locker room.

7. No. 2 Florida 31, No. 1 Alabama 20 -- 2008 SEC Championship

Alabama was very good but not yet elite. The Tide carried a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter, but Tim Tebow and company closed the door in the clutch: 62-yard Gators touchdown drive; Tide three-and-out; 65-yard Gators touchdown drive; Tide interception; end of game. Florida would win the 2008 national title while Alabama would have to wait a year.

6. No. 15 Texas A&M 29, No. 1 Alabama 24 -- Nov. 10, 2012

I'm trying to be brief here, but this game demands a story.

Texas A&M goes to Tuscaloosa and knocks off the defending national champions, handing them their first loss in a full calendar year. The win, justifiably, legitimized Texas A&M as an SEC member and all but handed Johnny Manziel the Heisman. The Aggies raked in all sorts of spoils of victory, and on the flip side Alabama paid no price for losing. The very next week, No. 1 Kansas State lost to Baylor and No. 2 Oregon lost to Stanford -- to date, the only time since 2007 the AP Nos. 1 and 2 lost on the same regular-season Saturday -- and by Nov. 24 Alabama was back in the BCS top two.

The SEC figured out how to win without losing.

5. No. 1 LSU 9, No. 2 Alabama 6 (OT) -- Nov. 5, 2011

Speaking of Alabama losses that didn't matter at all, we have Nick Saban coming out on the losing end of a Game of the Century but winning a national title anyway. We probably still get the College Football Playoff without Alabama losing this game, but we may not get it at the time we did had this game not played out the way it did. A decade later, we can all admit this was just bad offense, right?

4. No. 2 Clemson 44, No. 1 Alabama 16 -- 2019 CFP National Championship

The peak schadenfreude of the Saban era. Not only did the greatest coach in college football history get his butt kicked in a national title game, he allowed himself to become a meme when Saban asked kicker Joseph Bulovas to block Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins on a fake field goal down 31-16 in the third quarter. The fake failed. 

3. No. 2 Clemson 35, No. 1 Alabama 31 -- 2017 CFP National Championship

A national championship decided by a touchdown pass with one second to play. What more could you possibly want from a football game? The fact that Clemson could've still pushed the game to overtime had Hunter Renfrow dropped Deshaun Watson's pass shows how astronomically high the bar for the most epic Saban loss truly is.

2. No. 2 Auburn 28, No. 11 Alabama 27 -- Nov. 26, 2010

The only time post-2008 dynasty birth that Alabama entered the Iron Bowl out of national title contention, but the Tide still impacted the title chase in a major way.

Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 first half lead that would've been higher had Mark Ingram not had the ball punched out from behind at the Auburn 18-yard line and, rather than tumble out of bounds, the ball tight-walked the sideline all the way to the end zone, turning an Alabama touchdown into an Auburn touchback. 

The sun shining directly on their orange and blue-striped tiger behinds, Auburn rallied to win, keeping their 2010 title march alive. That turned out to be the fifth of seven straight SEC national championships, and it took Alabama losing to keep the streak alive. Even when Alabama lost, the SEC won.

1. No. 4 Auburn 34, No. 1 Alabama 28 -- Nov. 30, 2013

Calling this the greatest college football game of the 2010s probably doesn't go far enough. This is the best regular season game of my lifetime, and maybe even the best ever.

Consider that this was a classic game before college football's most powerful mind made the ultimate blunder, when the sheer force of his will -- a will that had bent the entire sport in his direction, that had changed the arc of history of the entire sport -- led to his own downfall. Saban successfully argued to put an extra second put back on the clock, and that extra second saw a 57-yard Alabama field goal turn into a 100-plus yard touchdown the other way, the most epic defeat anyone has ever suffered in a sport that dates back more than 150 years.

That is a legacy, my friends.