Come Saturday, Nick Saban will assume the role of antagonist for what seems like the millionth time.
Fans outside Tuscaloosa love comparing Alabama’s living legend to various supervillains, and when you forget about his cheesy SEC Network commercials and history with biker shorts, the resemblance is there. Saban has a Luthor-esque ability to outsmart his opponents and a Vader-esque knack for ensuring their demise (he is Bill Belichick’s pupil, after all).
Alabama’s football program is often likened to the “Death Star,” with ESPN, Sporting News and The Washington Post — among others — all making that comparison in this calendar year.
It’s not much of a leap, metaphorically.
Discounting that first transition year — which featured six losses, including one to Louisiana-Monroe (long live Kinsmon Lancaster) — only 12 quarterbacks have survived against Alabama since Saban re-established the Crimson Tide as a national superpower in the autumn of 2008.
“They’re an incredible team,” Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight — one of the select dozen — told SEC Country in August.
In other words, added former South Carolina quarterback and fellow Saban Club member Stephen Garcia, “Alabama’s the friggin’ Patriots of college football.”
So … how can Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs (0-2 against Saban) add his name to the list of survivors this Saturday?
SEC Country tracked down a half-dozen of these heroes to get their secrets. Here’s what they told us:
Brian Johnson (Utah, 2008) — currently QBs coach at Mississippi State
Utah was the nation’s only undefeated team in 2008, but the Utes were not selected to play for the BCS national championship. Instead, they traveled to New Orleans for a Sugar Bowl matchup with one-loss Alabama, which had been undefeated until losing to Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC championship game.
It was after that loss to the Gators that Saban — usually an expert at avoiding bulletin-board material — said the wrong thing.
There was only one undefeated team from a “real BCS conference” during the regular season, and it was Alabama.
Those words stuck with the 9.5-point underdogs during the entirety of bowl season.
“The whole team knew about that,” Utah defensive lineman Greg Newman told the New York Times after the game. “We came out here hungry, ready to go. It was no respect, a slap in the face.”
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson was similarly peeved: “From my perspective, I was angry, not just because of what Saban said but everything that was out there,” he told the AP. “I just felt like we were being completely disrespected.”
SEC Country recently spoke with Johnson about Saban’s verbal misstep.
“We were a bunch of young, impressionable guys at that time,” Johnson said, “but anything you can use as motivation, you try to do that to gain an edge.”
Now a 28-year-old quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State, Johnson claimed he “vaguely” remembered Saban’s words, but his sharp play-by-play recollection of the Utes’ 31-17 Sugar Bowl win — which included a 21-0 lead to open the game — indicated that he can recall more than he let on.
“We got the ball out quick, spread ’em out, and we played well,” Johnson said. “Got off to an extremely hot start, converting some critical third downs, and played great defense. Everybody kind of had their hand in it. I know we had a bunch of sacks on defense. They flew around and played with a bunch of passion and energy and executed our game plan.”
The Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year finished 27-of-41 for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns, opening the game 5-of-5 for 68 yards and a score on Utah’s first drive.
Stephen Garcia (South Carolina, 2010) — currently a personal football coach in central Florida
To this day, Stephen Garcia has no clue why Steve Spurrier decided to breathe easy.
“I really don’t know,” Garcia told SEC Country in a recent interview. “Maybe he just wanted to try something different.”
With his No. 19-ranked Gamecocks prepping for No. 1 Alabama, Spurrier was decidedly not himself.
“I think, for the first time — really, for the only time that I recall — Coach Spurrier was just being completely relaxed and not spastic,” Garcia said. “The entire week of practice, he was saying, ‘We’re just gonna go out there and play loose and have fun. Football’s a game, and we’re gonna have fun. Stephen, just play your game. Just go out there and sling the ball around.’ That was really the only time I ever recalled him telling me that.”
Garcia was not playing “loose” in an ugly loss at Alabama the season before, and he was not having “fun” when he was benched during a loss at Auburn the week prior to his follow-up meeting with the Crimson Tide.
But with Spurrier taking a proverbial chill pill, Garcia came through with the most memorable performance of his career.
The senior completed 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns. He had help from star wideout Alshon Jeffery and All-American running back Marcus Lattimore, who combined for all five scores in a 35-21 win.
Garcia’s fourth-quarter fade toss to Jeffery — who stabbed the ball with one hand and sprinted down the sideline for a 42-yard gain — marked the end of Alabama’s perfect season.
“At that point, we were like, ‘Damn, we’re about to win this game and shock the college football world,’” Garcia said. “That’s when it all lined up together.”
Jordan Jefferson (LSU, 2010/2011) — currently QBs coach at Destrehan High in New Orleans
Former Tigers Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are the only quarterbacks who have defeated Saban twice since the coach arrived at Alabama.
Defense was LSU’s primary weapon in those victories, but Jefferson explained that extensive film study showed “areas that were a weakness that we could use to our advantage.”
Hold on a second … Areas of weakness? On an Alabama team?
Yes, Jefferson said. Analysis of the film revealed trends and tendencies (“This is what they did every first down. This is what they did every second down…”) that the Tigers offense could use to craft a winning game plan.
When LSU won its second in a row — a 9-6 triumph in 2011’s “Game of the Century” — Jefferson helped exploit a specific shortcoming.
“One of the most important things was trying to beat them sideline to sideline, because of the fact that they had kinda heavy-set linebackers that were more run fit,” Jefferson said. “Like A-gap, B-gap run stoppers.
“So our plan of execution was to attack them on the outside and get the linebackers to run sideline to sideline. We were pretty efficient the first time with the option, the stretch or outside zones plays that we used that were pretty successful for us.”
Saban got his revenge against Jefferson and Lee with a 21-0 win in the national title game that year, but no quarterback has been able to top the Tide more than once since.
Nick Marshall (Auburn, 2013) — currently practice-squad cornerback with the Jacksonville Jaguars
Auburn had a trick up its sleeve for the entire 2013 regular season, but decided to hold it until the Tigers were down 7 points with 41 seconds remaining in the Iron Bowl.
There was a hidden layer on a basic read-option play that quarterback Nick Marshall had run several times that year, including twice against Alabama earlier in the game. All season, coach Gus Malzahn had told Marshall there would come a time when, instead of running with the football, Marshall would pull up at the line of scrimmage and throw over the top of the collapsing defense.
The Tigers knew it would work that night; Alabama’s boundary cornerback had raced in to cover the run both times the play was called earlier.
“I think I took him by surprise,” Marshall said. “We had it open during the season, but I never threw it to him. Coach always told me we were going to get one. It just happened to be that one against Alabama.”
Marshall’s 39-yard touchdown to Sammie Coates tied the game, which ended moments later on Chris Davis’ legendary “Kick Six” return.
Bo Wallace (Ole Miss, 2014) — currently QBs coach at Marshall Co. High School in Tennessee
Former Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace and his teammates failed to make much of a dent vs. top-ranked Alabama in either 2012 or 2013.
Before both of those games, coach Hugh Freeze used a simple message.
“Freeze would say, ‘Let’s lock the gates and pick a fight,’” Wallace said. “He knew we weren’t talented enough to win that game, so let’s go out and fight ’em and whatever happens, happens.”
The message changed in 2014.
“That night, he came in and said, ‘You guys don’t have to do anything crazy. You’re good enough to beat ’em,’” Wallace said. “And we all believed that. But for him to come in and say it, it gave us that extra jolt of confidence.”
Finally, Ole Miss had the talent to step on the field with Alabama and break a 10-year losing streak against the Crimson Tide. And two years of experiencing that failure on a personal level gave Wallace the intel he needed.
Alabama was too perfect, he said. Too robotic.
“They were so well-coached that we felt like if we knew what defense they were in,” Wallace said, “we would know exactly where they were gonna be.”
Mississippi took advantage of Alabama’s “don’t get beat deep” philosophy, forcing Tide corners to turn their hips early and be left vulnerable to back-shoulder passes along the sidelines. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell — 5 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown — was especially able to capitalize on Wallace’s accuracy.
There was another potential weak spot: Alabama tended to “rock and roll” its safeties, meaning it would cheat its defensive backfield to one side of the field. The imbalance gave Ole Miss leverage when it dialed up the correct play (in particular, a backside corner route that went for a big gain).
Wallace’s iconic game-winning touchdown pass to Jaylen Walton was the result of knowing where the defense would be.
“I loved the call when we got it in,” Wallace said. “I remember as soon as it left my hand, I was making sure, ‘Please get over that guy.’ My heart kinda sank for a second, then he caught it.”
Chad Kelly (Ole Miss, 2015) — currently starting QB at Ole Miss
Alabama fans will never be able to discuss the 2015 loss to Ole Miss without mentioning the Crimson Tide’s five turnovers or a certain 66-yard touchdown pass.
The latter — a “strike” from Chad Kelly to Quincy Adeboyejo — was the result of a one-in-a-million ricochet that could’ve just as easily resulted in 6 points for the Tide, and Kelly knows it.
“I threw it up before the play even developed,” he told SEC Country in August. “But God is good, and he was on our side.”
Kelly, who was making his SEC debut, tossed three touchdowns — including the freak completion to Adeboyejo — in the second half to stave off a furious comeback attempt from Jake Coker and the Tide, who would not lose again en route to another national title.
It wasn’t just the grace of God that carried Kelly through; it was also advice from his uncle, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who encouraged him to “take what the defense gives you.”
“It might not be the sexiest thing to do, but taking the flat throw might be the best way to go,” the nephew said. “It’s a completion, it’s gonna get yards, and sooner or later the big play will open up.”
Those words helped him after that wild 66-yard touchdown.
“I just needed to calm down,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of stuff open in the first half, but I kind of just rushed through my reads and everything else. The game got slower.”
The fraternity of quarterbacks who have lost to Saban is much larger than the select group that has triumphed; in fact, many members of the latter also belong to the former.
Kelly tasted defeat this September.
“Anytime you’re going up against Alabama,” he said beforehand, “you know it’s gonna be a dogfight.”
Knight and Texas A&M will get a chance to knock off the Tide on Oct. 22, and if the former Oklahoma quarterback wins, he’ll become the first passer to defeat Alabama in back-to-back starts since Saban took over. (LSU’s Jefferson and Jarrett officially alternated starts in 2010 and 2011.)
Beyond that, passers still looking for a magic answer can use this wisdom Spurrier gave Garcia six years ago: “Just play your game, and let fate decide who the better team is.”
(Hint: It’s usually Alabama.)
List of Saban/Alabama conquerors
|2007||Matthew Stafford||26-23, Georgia (OT)||229/2|
|2007||Xavier Lee||21-14, Florida State||283/2|
|2007||Matt Flynn||41-34, LSU||372/3|
|2007||Wesley Carroll||17-12, Miss. St.||89/0|
|2007||Kinsmon Lancaster||21-14, UL Monroe||148/1|
|2007||Brandon Cox||17-10, Auburn||110/1|
|2008||Tim Tebow||31-20, Florida||273/3|
|2008||Brian Johnson||31-17, Utah||321/3|
|2010||Stephen Garcia||35-21, So. Carolina||212/3|
|2010||Jordan Jefferson||24-21, LSU||168/1|
|2010||Cam Newton||28-27, Auburn||255/4|
|2011||Jarrett Lee||9-6, LSU||24/0|
|2012||Johnny Manziel||29-24, Texas A&M||345/2|
|2013||Nick Marshall||34-28, Auburn||196/3|
|2013||Trevor Knight||45-31, Oklahoma||355/4|
|2014||Bo Wallace||23-17, Ole Miss||283/3|
|2014||Cardale Jones||42-35, Ohio State||286/1|
|2015||Chad Kelly||43-37, Ole Miss||363/4|
Tebow added his own Saban advice — don’t play it safe — in 2008, when Florida had a 24-20 fourth-quarter lead over No. 1 Alabama in the SEC title game.
With the Gators offense about to get the ball back, he gathered his teammates around him and yelled, “Let’s go win it here! No reason not to. Throw it on your shoulders and let’s go get it,” per the New York Times.
The junior proceeded to complete 3 of 3 passes — included a third-down touchdown throw to Riley Cooper — and Florida got the points it needed to clinch a spot in the national title game.
Manziel gave some advice to Ohio State before its playoff game against Alabama two seasons ago (via Cleveland.com): “You respect them, but you don’t fear them.”
He added that quarterbacks who “force things” against the Tide are doomed: “Don’t make things any worse than it already is being out there against a defense that’s extremely good and fast. Take what’s given to you and live to fight another day.”
As Alabama was picking up the pieces of that 42-35 loss to Ohio State, three key defenders admitted something surprising.
“All three of them said they did not respect the quarterback,” former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart told Atlanta’s 680 The Fan the following year (per BleacherReport.com). “They heard from everybody that he was a third-string quarterback. How can a third-string quarterback beat Alabama?”
Before that game kicked off, Buckeyes passer Cardale Jones added another tip to our list: (Their) ignorance is bliss.
“If people forgot about me, I don’t have a problem with that,” he told Cleveland.com in the wake of a surprise Big Ten championship performance that Alabama players apparently didn’t pay much attention to. “My teammates and my coaches knew I was capable of winning games. It was great I got to show everybody I could do that.”