Nick Saban used a phenomenal eight-season run between 2003-2004 and 2007-2012 to establish himself as one of college football’s greatest coaches.
After winning a fifth title this January, he has — in the eyes of some — surpassed the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant on the field. If Saban retired tomorrow, he would have the credentials to win any “Greatest of All-Time” argument.
Part of the coach’s lore is built on the amount of talent he has pushed through East Lansing, Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa.
So, SEC Country did its darndest to narrow down the best players from Saban’s college head coaching career into a Top 50 list. Players’ performance in the National Football League was not taken into account.
We focused on the following:
- College performance under Saban (NOTE: players who reached peak performance after Saban left Michigan State or LSU — ex. Charles Rogers, LaRon Landry and Dwayne Bowe — do not qualify)
- Big-game moments/winning pedigree
- All-conference and All-American recognition
- Trophies and awards
- NFL draft position
With that, here is the definitive ranking of Nick Saban’s 50 Best Players:
50. Derrick Mason, Michigan State (1996)
Accolades: 1x All-Big Ten, selected No. 98 overall by the Tennessee Oilers
The Detroit native set a Michigan State record with 2,575 career kickoff yards and was part of a strong receiving cast that also included Mushin Muhammad and Nigea Carter. Mason caught just eight career touchdown passes, but earned second-team Big 10 honors after collecting 1,701 all-purpose yards his senior year. One of the greatest special teams players in Spartans history, he showed enough flashes of greatness at receiver to warrant a Top 100 selection in the draft.
49. Domanick Davis, LSU (2002)
Accolades: 2x All-SEC, selected No. 101 overall by the Houston Texans
The rare player who earned all-conference honors at two positions, Davis, who later changed his name to Williams in 2007, excelled in both the Tigers’ backfield and return game. He left Baton Rouge second in school history and third in conference history with 5,743 all-purpose yards, and his other statistical accomplishments — 2,056 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground in addition to the one-time SEC record for combined return yardage (3,294) — make his resumé stand out from Saban’s other LSU running backs.
48. Ike Reese, Michigan State (1997)
Accolades: 2x All-Big Ten, selected No. 142 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles
A two-time captain at Michigan State, Reese developed a close relationship with Saban as the coach began to settle in to Lansing. On the field, Reese delivered 420 career tackles for the Spartans while leading the school to a seven-win season in 1997, its first in seven years.
47. Amp Campbell, Michigan State (1999)
Accolades: 2x All-Big Ten
Campbell is best known for his comeback from spinal fusion surgery after injuring his neck against Oregon in 1998. Despite the risk of paralysis, the NCAA granted him an extra year of eligibility in 1999, and he scored the winning touchdown on an 85-yard pick-six in a rematch with the Ducks that year. Campbell helped Michigan State get off to its best start (6-0) in 33 years and finished his career with two All-Big Ten selections. After Saban left for LSU that December, Campbell helped carry interim coach — and current Alabama assistant — Bobby Williams off the field following a win in the Citrus Bowl.
46. Eddie Lacy, Alabama (2012)
Accolades: 1x All-SEC, BCS National Championship Game MVP, 3x national champion, selected No. 61 overall by the Green Bay Packers
Lacy led Alabama in rushing during its 2012 title run and capped off the season with national title game MVP honors after posting 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. His hefty career rushing touchdown total (30) ranks seventh in Crimson Tide history. Lacy was deceptively quick for his 6-foot, 225-pound frame, and broke 31 rushes of 12 yards or more during his final season.
45. James Carpenter, Alabama (2010)
Accolades: 2x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 25 overall by the Seattle Seahawks
Carpenter was a junior-college transfer who immediately stepped in and started 14 games at left tackle for the 2009 national champions, helping clear the way for Mark Ingram to win Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman followed that by starting all 13 games at the “blind side” position in 2010, earning All-SEC honors in both seasons.
44. Greg McElroy, Alabama (2010)
Accolades: National champion, selected No. 208 overall by the New York Jets
As a first-year starter in 2009, McElroy helped Saban collect his second national championship. The quarterback served in the “game manager” mold, as the Crimson Tide offense featured eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and No. 3 overall NFL pick Trent Richardson at running back. But he was still an important part of the Tide’s success, throwing for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns. He topped that in 2010, adding 2,987 yards and 20 scores. On his career, McElroy tossed 39 touchdowns against just 10 picks.
43. Robaire Smith, Michigan State (1999)
Accolades: All-American, 2x All-Big 10, selected No. 197 overall by the Tennessee Titans
In three seasons on the field, Smith earned two All-Big 10 nods and was named a Walter Camp All-American. He sat out his freshman year for academic reasons and missed three games his junior year with a broken fibula, but the Flint, Mich., native was still able to amass 22 career sacks. Smith was part of a lethal pass rushing duo with fellow Spartans great Julian Peterson in the late ‘90s and is widely considered one of the best defensive linemen to pass through Lansing.
42. Skyler Green, LSU (2004)
Accolades (during Saban’s tenure): All-American, 1x All-SEC, national champion, later selected No. 125 overall by the Dallas Cowboys
Green’s inclusion is nearly a violation of the Charles Rogers rule (see guidelines at top of post), but his All-American performance during LSU’s 2003 national title season makes him more than worthy of the list. Saban’s first nationally-recognized specialist eventually nabbed another All-American nod the year after his coach departed for the NFL. Green’s first career punt return was a 62-yard touchdown vs. Arizona State, and his receiving numbers under Saban (79 receptions for 861 yards and nine touchdowns) were a nice complement to the trio of special teams touchdowns he collected in that time.
41. Javier Arenas, Alabama (2009)
Accolades: Consensus All-American, SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, 2x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 50 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs
Much like Green, Arenas was an elite returner who also stood out at his “normal” position. The defensive back collected 154 career tackles and six interceptions en route to becoming a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. In the return game, he was also among the country’s best; Arenas earned a consensus All-American nod and the SEC’s Special Teams Player of the Year in 2009. His seven career punt return touchdowns are a conference record, and he left Tuscaloosa with the school records for career kick return and punt return yards.