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 NFL 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:
20. Bradie James, LSU (2002)
Accolades: All-American, 3x All-SEC, selected No. 103 overall by the Dallas Cowboys
James was a key player for all four of his years on campus, with the final three coming under Saban’s watch. The linebacker left Baton Rouge with the school’s single-season tackles record (154) and the second-most career tackles (418). He was named to All-SEC teams — including All-Freshman — in every season at LSU, and his intelligence landed him on the super-elite National Scholar-Athlete list as a senior.
19. Reggie Ragland, Alabama (2015)
Accolades: Consensus All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2x All-SEC, national champion, projected first-round pick in 2016 NFL Draft
Alabama’s 2015 championship season made a star out of Heisman Trophy-winning back Derrick Henry, but few would argue against the theory that the Crimson Tide defense was primarily responsible for the school’s 16th title. Ragland was the unquestioned leader of that unit, calling the signals and earning rave reviews from the coaching staff on a weekly basis. The Madison, Ala., native nearly left for the NFL after his All-SEC junior year, but decided to return — a move that very well might have been the difference in Alabama’s title run.
18. Julio Jones, Alabama (2010)
Accolades: 2x All-SEC, national champion, selected No. 6 overall by the Atlanta Falcons
If talent were this list’s only criteria, Jones would be fighting for the No. 1 spot. As it stands, his stat line fell victim to a run-heavy approach during his time in Tuscaloosa. The elite athlete never reached All-American status, but he showed Alabama fans something special from the outset. His 31-yard touchdown reception put Alabama up 31-0 against Georgia in the teams’ memorable 2008 “Blackout” game, and Jones directly affected the outcome of two other conference games as a freshman. Following a modest sophomore year, the receiver broke out for 1,268 total yards and nine scores from scrimmage in his final campaign.
17. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (2011)
Accolades: Consensus All-American, 2x All-SEC, 2x national champion, selected No. 25 overall by the New England Patriots
Hightower spearheaded one of college football’s greatest modern defenses, making all the calls and primary adjustments for a unit that led the nation in five major categories. A regular starter as a freshman, Hightower tore his ACL during his sophomore year, then returned as a junior to earn All-SEC honors. His final season was his best; Hightower rolled to 85 tackles and consensus All-American recognition while leading that aforemenioned 2011 defense to a title.
16. Julian Peterson, Michigan State (1999)
Accolades: All-American, 1x All-Big Ten, selected No. 16 overall by the San Francisco 49ers
Along with a few other players on this list, Peterson helped Saban reach nine wins for the first and only time in his five-year Michigan State tenure. The 1999 season propelled Saban to the LSU job, and Peterson’s 15 sacks that year earned him All-American honors. In all, the junior college transfer collected 25.0 sacks in just 23 games at Michigan State. That followed a prolific two-season run at Valley Forge Military Junior College (Wayne, Pa.) during which he posted 40.0 total sacks.