Tennessee fans may not like Nick Saban - it's our default setting for Alabama's coach - but you have to not only respect, but admire the job he's done in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has won 20 straight regular season games, and last year under Saban's watch the Tide won their first SEC West Championship since 1999, going on to play in their first BCS bowl since that same season. And what's more, not even the most optimistic Bama fan could've seen it all coming so soon. Saban has coached only 34 games on the Alabama sideline, but in that short timespan he has confirmed that which Tide faithful have wanted to believe for so long: Bama's back.
Tennesssee wasn't gone for quite so long - as difficult as 2008 was, the Vols did win three division titles during Bama's drought, didn't suffer through as many losing seasons (Bama went 3-8 in 2000, 4-9 in 2003, 6-6 in 2004 and 6-7 in 2006), and didn't ride the coaching carousel (after Gene Stallings retired in 1996, Alabama had four head coaches in ten years pre-Saban). Plus, you know, we don't cheat.
But the chain of events that transpired in the two years before Saban's arrival and in his first year on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa is remarkably similar to what we've seen in the last three years in Knoxville. And while we hope Kiffin is able to duplicate Saban's remarkable success in his second and third year...here's why we'd like that comparison to come to a screeching halt, for now.
The Last Stands of Mike Shula & Phillip Fulmer
This may be the only common thread between these two men, but their penultimate seasons produced great success. In 2005, Alabama went 10-2 thanks to an 8-0 start, blowing out Florida and surviving a string of close SEC contests before losing a heartbreaker to LSU, 16-13 in overtime. In 2007, Tennessee went 10-4 and won the East, blowing out Georgia and surviving a string of close SEC contests before losing a heartbreaker to LSU, 21-14 in the SEC Championship Game. Both teams won ten games and a January 1 bowl.
Following the 2005 season, Mike Shula was given a contract extension: 6 years at an average of $1.8 million per season. Fulmer also received a contract extension following the 2007 season, with the much-publicized automatic extension for any 8+ win seasons that followed. Both coaches appeared to have gained the security they needed after surviving rough patches in earlier seasons.
There were warning signs early for Shula in 2006: too-close-for-comfort wins over Hawaii and Vanderbilt by a combined 11 points in the first two weeks, followed by something even worse than losing a game via two blocked field goals in the fourth quarter: before Leigh Tiffin was automatic from 50 yards away, he was missing an extra point in double overtime to give Arkansas a 24-23 win. Roll Bama Roll has been around for awhile...
I love the Alabama Crimson Tide dearly, but we are in for a long, ugly season unless we show some guts in the play calling department. This team has the talent to win close games and to win big games, but you've got to let the talent play. Right now, Mike Shula is playing to not lose, and we need him to play to win.
The schedule did Alabama no favors, sending eventual National Champion Florida across their path next. Thus the Tide would be 5-2 when they rolled into Knoxville, where again Shula played not to lose, and again it didn't matter: Tennessee trailed 13-6 going to the fourth quarter but escaped with a 16-13 win, the Vols' last victory over the Tide.
After a win over Florida International got Bama to 6-3, Mike Shula's funeral procession began: first, a 24-16 loss in Tuscaloosa to Mississippi State, the Bulldogs' only SEC win of the season. Its next stop was Baton Rouge, where #12 LSU won 28-14. And finally, Auburn continued its Iron Bowl dominance with a 22-15 win in Tuscaloosa. The Tide faithful were never comfortable in 2006, and Shula lost four straight conference games to close the season and leave the Tide at 6-6.
Would a top ten finish the season before save him? It appeared most Bama faithful were already focused on moving on. Nine days after the Iron Bowl loss, with Bama headed to the Independence Bowl, Mike Shula was fired.
We know what happened to Phillip Fulmer, and there's no need to rehash it in detail. Like Alabama in 2006, the Vols inspired no confidence from the get go, losing the season opener to UCLA en route to a 3-6 start, 1-5 in the SEC. Unlike Bama, the Vols were noncompetitive in conference, with losses of 24, 12, 20 and 21 points. The one game the Vols were competitive in is still the standard bearer for frustration, a 14-12 loss to Auburn.
Would a division title the season before save him? Much like Shula, many Vol fans loved Fulmer "as a person", but the rumbles of frustration from years past became a giant unstoppable snowball, and Fulmer was avalanched by his own expectations of the past and his inability to keep them in the present.
Let's throw money at it and see what happens
Alabama went after West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, and it appeared a deal was imminent...but RichRod turned down Bama on December 8, and the Tide set their sights on Nick Saban. Saban...well, he wasn't entirely truthful to the Miami Dolphin faithful. But by early January, he was Alabama's man. And for around $4 million per season, wouldn't you like to be too?
The Vols didn't throw all their money at Lane Kiffin, but chose instead to spread the wealth around. Thus with Kiffin came the hire of the most expensive assistant coaches in the SEC. Both moves are simply a commentary on the state of SEC football, in a world where television contracts and pure passion mean we don't have none of that recession round these parts, nosir.
Year One: The Process
The comparisons between Nick Saban's first nine games and everything we've seen from Lane Kiffin thus far are uncanny:
- "I know it was only _________________, but...": In Nick Saban's very first game, Alabama blasted Western Carolina 52-6. Lane Kiffin and the Vols wiped out Western Kentucky 63-7. Hope springs eternal in the fall.
- We're close...: In games against teams with relatively similar talent, Nick Saban and the Tide lost in overtime to then-#21 Georgia in The Britney Spears Game, then lost a neutral site game in Jacksonville to Florida State 21-14. In games against teams with relatively similar talent, Lane Kiffin and the Vols have lost 19-15 to UCLA and 26-22 to Auburn. Flashing back to 2007, Roll Bama Roll offers the "I believe in this coaching staff and I also have some questions" angle that every fanbase with a new head coach gets familiar with.
- The first big win: Nick Saban, unfortunately, got his against us. The #22 Vols walked into Tuscaloosa and walked out on the receiving end of a 41-17 beatdown that appeared to come out of nowhere, especially the play of one John Parker Wilson at quarterback: 32 of 46, 363 yards, 3 TDs. The Vols, of course, throttled Georgia 45-19, thanks to the out-of-nowhere play of one Jonathan Crompton at quarterback: 20 of 27, 310 yards, 4 TDs.
- The Almost: In 2007, Alabama had a bye week following their big win over the Vols, then played #3 (and eventual National Champion) LSU. In a game Alabama had to feel like they should've won, the Tide blew a 27-17 third quarter lead, then got a Javier Arenas touchdown on a punt return to retake the lead 34-27 before watching LSU tie it with under three minutes to play, John Parker Wilson fumble inside his own five, and LSU score for a 41-34 heartbreaker. Freshly acquainted with heartbreak ourselves, quotes like "We had this game won and just suffered a complete meltdown late...All in all, heartbreaking as it was, it's hard to complain too much. We played a better team and really had it won...honestly we have a shot at winning out." could've all come from this blog, but they're from RBR's postgame two years ago.
The only big difference between Kiffin and Saban Year One thus far is that the Vols have played the number one team in the country twice, while Alabama only had to deal with a top-tier team like LSU once in 2007.
And this is where we hope the similarities stop:
Nick Saban and Pearl Harbor
After the emotional and deflating loss to LSU, the Tide faced Mississippi State...and lost 17-12. They returned home to face Louisiana-Monroe...and lost 21-14. And to close out the season in the Iron Bowl, they lost their sixth straight game to Auburn, 17-10. A 6-2 start turned into heartbreak, followed by misery, and a 6-6 finish.
Did Saban lose his team? We had Todd from RBR on our podcast last Monday, and when we asked him about all these comparisons, he mentioned his belief that some of the older players under Shula's administration may have checked out on Saban after the LSU loss.
For Kiffin, he'll certainly have some emotional vulnerability to deal with this week, and South Carolina will be a tough test either way. If he can keep his team together and keep them moving forward, then hopefully the Vols can avoid a late season collapse that also ends Kiffin's first season at 6-6...and hopefully the comparisons end here.
A team that went 7-6 with an Independence Bowl win certainly wasn't expected to be 12-0 and just a few minutes away from a conference (or national) championship the following season - Alabama was ranked #24 in the 2008 preseason AP poll. The Tide, of course, destroyed #9 Clemson and #3 Georgia before the calendar hit October, and played their way into that conversation on their own merit. I have no doubts that it caught everyone in Tuscaloosa off guard, even the most faithful Bammers.
But looking back...were there signs of such rapid progress in Saban's first season? If such hope came from being close against teams the Tide should've had no business being close with - something Todd also mentioned on the podcast - the '09 Vols can certainly relate. You know, with our moral victories and all.
If it's having seen a performance that gives you something to hang your hat on, the way Alabama destroyed the Vols in '07...Kiffin's already got that too. If you're tired of seeing Mt. Cody block our kick while Eli Gold's voice works its way back into my nightmares, rewatch the Georgia tape. It's much more fun.
And if it was in recruiting - that the Tide simply needed more talent, and Saban delivered? Well, we're right there too.
The process Saban spoke so frequently of was a nice little joke to us while we were playing in Atlanta two years ago. But now, it looks like we're seeing the pieces of it come together in Knoxville as well. It's always an ongoing one - it still is for Alabama, who still hasn't built the depth Saban would like, and still has only a division title to show for all this work, with the bigger prizes left on the table. But the process is working.
Kiffin has already laid the foundation, and it's a good one. I like where this team is. In recruiting, the future looks bright. The next step will be for Kiffin to break away from this comparison and not lose his team over the next month, so that the Vols can finish strong instead of on their faces, and we can play in January, not Shreveport. And then perhaps our process will become even more accelerated.
But either way - even if he is Alabama's head coach - you have to like the comparison.