SEC Country did its darndest to narrow down the best players from Nick 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, let’s continue the definitive ranking of Nick Saban’s 50 Best Players:
5. Trent Richardson, Alabama (2011)
Accolades: Heisman Trophy finalist, Doak Walker Award (nation’s top running back), consensus All-American, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, 2x All-SEC, 2x national champion, selected No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Richardson’s NFL career has been a complete disappointment. But we’re not ranking players based on their pro careers. Here’s a refresher on the former star: Richardson set several school and SEC records while becoming the conference’s first running back to rush for 20-plus touchdowns in a season. His production in Tuscaloosa made him the highest NFL draftee (No. 3 overall) from any of Saban’s college teams.
An underrated pass catcher (68 career receptions for 730 yards and seven touchdowns), Richardson contributed on special teams, too. He averaged 25.7 yards and scored once on 28 career kick returns. He’s also Saban’s only running back with multiple All-SEC seasons: Richardson had at least 700 yards in three straight years, including a 751-yard, eight-touchdown campaign as a freshman. He capped that first year with 109 yards and two scores in the national title game vs. Texas, and added another ring during his Heisman-worthy junior season.
4. Rolando McClain, Alabama (2009)
Accolades: Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker), Lambert Trophy (nationa’s top linebacker), SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2x All-American (1x consensus), 2x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 8 overall by the Oakland Raiders
Saban and McClain were both new to campus in 2007, and the coach immediately took a liking to his future star. McClain started eight games as a true freshman and earned All-American honors his sophomore year. The program became a national power and McClain became arguably the best player in the country in 2009, as the Crimson Tide secured their first national championship in 17 years. Alabama’s star defender was the first Tide player to win the Lambert Trophy and the first since Derrick Thomas in 1988 to win the Butkus Award.
3. C.J. Mosley, Alabama (2013)
Accolades: Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker), 2x consensus All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2x All-SEC, 2x national champion, selected No. 17 overall by the Baltimore Ravens
Mosley racked up more than 500 tackles during his high school career at Theodore High in Mobile, Ala., then played every game of his true freshman year at Alabama. Injuries slowed him down as a sophomore and senior, but he fought through a dislocated elbow, dislocated hip and a torn labrum — among other maladies — to lead the Tide in tackling his final two seasons. Mosley earned plenty of honors during his time at Alabama, perhaps none more important than Defensive MVP in the 2013 national championship game vs. Notre Dame. The junior made eight tackles (five solo) while the Tide held the Irish to 32 yards rushing in a blowout win.
2. Derrick Henry, Alabama (2015)
Accolades: Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award (nation’s top player), Walter Camp Player of the Year, Doak Walker Award (nation’s top running back), consensus All-American, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, 1x All-SEC, national champion, projected 2nd-3rd round NFL draft pick
Henry’s biggest drawback — only one season of greatness — when compared to several players on this list is cancelled out by the fact that it was the greatest rushing season in conference history. The kid from smalltown Yulee, Fla., set new SEC records for yards (2,219) and touchdowns (28) while putting together a more impressive Heisman campaign than either Herschel Walker (Georgia, 1982) or Bo Jackson (Auburn, 1985). In the end, neither of those legends played nearly as well against top competition, and Henry’s consistently beefy box scores make his 2015 season virtually untouchable for future southern backs.
1. Amari Cooper, Alabama (2014)
Accolades: Heisman Trophy finalist, Biletnikoff Award (nation’s top receiver), consensus All-American, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, 1x All-SEC, consensus freshman All-American, national champion, selected No. 4 overall by the Oakland Raiders
Saban’s teams are known for pounding the rock inside, but the addition of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in 2014 led to Cooper’s unforgettable season. Kiffin — the former Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC coach — took over play-calling and sent the ball in Cooper’s direction as often as possible. So, despite a capabale dual-threat quarterback and a star-studded backfield, Cooper led the country with 124 catches in his final season while finishing second with 1,727 yards and 16 touchdown receptions.
His freak athletic ability also made him the featured target on the Tide’s 2012 national title team (59 catches for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns), and while injuries held back his sophomore numbers, Cooper still led the team in yards (736) and touchdowns (four) while hauling in a pivotal 99-yard touchdown in the “Kick Six” Iron Bowl game. Throughout his final season, he was consistently the best player on the field while playing against the country’s best competition. It’s easier to cover him than argue against his spot at No. 1 on our list.