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:
15. Plaxico Burress, Michigan State (1999)
Accolades: 2x All-Big Ten, selected No. 8 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers
Burress’ two seasons in East Lansing (131 receptions for 2,155 yards and 20 touchdowns) were not world-beating, but they were both the best single-season outputs in Michigan State history. The junior-college transfer set the receptions record (65 and 66, respectively) and touchdowns record (8 and 12) in two consecutive years. He recorded 10 catches for 255 yards — another school record — in a game against Michigan, and put up a 13/185/3 line vs. Florida in the 2000 Citrus Bowl, his final game. When the Steelers took Burress at No. 8 in the 2000 NFL Draft, he was the highest Spartans player selection in 11 years (Tony Mandarich, No. 2 overall in 1989).
14. Corey Webster, LSU (2004)
Accolades: 2x All-American, 3x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 43 overall by the New York Giants
The former wide receiver began a string of three straight first-team All-SEC seasons when Saban switched him to the secondary as a sophomore. That year, he led the conference with seven interceptions — incuding a three-pick day against Florida — despite not starting at either of the Tigers’ top two cornerback spots. Once he broke into the first-team unit as a junior, he snagged seven more passes while helping Saban win his first national title. In one memorable game against Georgia that season, Webster collected nine tackles and an interception while breaking up five other throws. Injuries slowed the Vacherie, La., native during his senior year, but he recorded two more interceptions and left Baton Rouge second on the school’s all-time list.
13. Andre Smith, Alabama (2008)
Accolades: Outland Trophy (nation’s top lineman), consensus All-American, 2x All-SEC, selected No. 6 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals
During his time at Alabama, Smith was arguably Saban’s highest-rated NFL prospect ever. Some draft analysts projected the 6-foot-4, 330-pound lineman as the No. 1 player in his class. A poor pre-draft showing dropped his stock on the big day, but red flags couldn’t overshadow his immense talent, and he still went No. 6 overall. Smith started every game as a freshman, sophomore and junior before being suspended from the 2009 Sugar Bowl for taking money from an agent. He is one of Saban’s few Alabama stars that never won a national championship.
12. Marcus Spears, LSU (2004)
Accolades: Consensus All-American, 2x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 20 overall by the Dallas Cowboys
Spears’ terrifying presence was one of the primary reasons LSU brought home its first national championship in 45 years. The 6-foot-4 defensive end provided the winning points in the Tigers’ 21-14 title-game win over Oklahoma, returning an interception 20 yards for a touchdown. He finished his junior season with at least one tackle for loss in nine consecutive games, and then ended his career with 8.0 sacks and 14 tackles for loss over the final six games.
11. AJ McCarron, Alabama (2013)
Accolades: Heisman Trophy finalist, Maxwell Award (nation’s top player), Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, 2x All-American, 2x All-SEC, 3x national champion, selected No. 164 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals
The Mobile, Ala., native found his way into the starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore, and — in his first road start — delivered the final loss of Penn State legend Joe Paterno’s career. It was an impressive origin story for McCarron, who delivered back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012. The 6-foot-3 signal caller threw for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns while tossing just three interceptions in the latter year, easily becoming the best quarterback Saban had ever coached.
A third straight dream season was not in the cards for McCarron’s senior year, but his passing numbers (3,063 yards, 28 TDs) made him the first Alabama quarterback to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist. The cover of Sports Illustrated pondered if McCarron (36-4 career record) was the best college football quarterback of all-time, with Jon Wertheim writing: “Let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football.”