Where does 2021 season rank among Nick Saban's best coaching jobs for Alabama football?

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

INDIANAPOLIS — Few have a better understanding of each of Nick Saban’s coaching jobs better than Georgia’s Kirby Smart.

Smart was there for Saban’s first nine seasons in Tuscaloosa. Then Smart took the Georgia job in 2016 and has been battling Saban for SEC supremacy.

Smart has a pretty good idea of what each season has uniquely required from Saban. And he had high praise Tuesday for Saban’s 2021 season the morning after the College Football Playoff championship.

“Really probably one of the best jobs he's ever done with his team, because they were really young at some positions,” Smart said. “And I think they've got the best player in college football in Bryce Young, and I saw it firsthand on the field in the SEC Championship.”

Smart told Saban as much on the field after the game in which the No. 3 Bulldogs beat No. 1 Alabama 33-18 on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Media don't respect that because they didn't win the national championship,” Smart said. “But the job he did, with that team? Incredible. Incredible.”

There’s no doubt it was a strong effort, considering the talent Saban had to replace. But Saban has 15 years worth of coaching jobs with Alabama, six of which have ended with national championships.

Some might argue for 2011, a year in which he helped navigate a team and city through the aftermath of a tornado that struck the previous spring. He also found a way to shut out LSU in the national championship after losing earlier in the season.

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 In 2020, Saban led the Crimson Tide through a 10-game SEC slate in the regular season during a pandemic. Not only did Alabama win all 10 games, but it also won the College Football Playoff championship.

Then there are also defining moments of coaching brilliance in championship seasons, such as the onside kick call in 2015 and the quarterback change at halftime in 2017.

Another season some might even consider is 2008 season. It didn’t result in a national championship, but Saban’s squad came close in his second year as Alabama rose to the top of the SEC West. The Crimson Tide fell in the SEC Championship game to Tim Tebow and Florida, who won the national championship that year.

Can 2021 be considered among these seasons? The argument can be made.

The day six Alabama players heard their names called in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft signified a historic day for the program as it tied the record for most from any single school. But this also signified a colossal task ahead of Saban.

He had to coach a team through replacing all of these elite players with a young group.

Saban’s ability to recruit had elite talent waiting in the wings such as five-star sophomore quarterback Bryce Young. Saban also managed to land talented transfers such as Jameson Williams and Henry To’o To’o, who became significant starters in their first seasons.

Saban had to help manage a young roster that struggled to find consistency. His challenge became even greater once Alabama lost to Texas A&M on Oct. 9. That left no margin for error the rest of the season if the Crimson Tide wanted to return to the College Football Playoff.

Alabama didn’t lose again until Monday, which was no small feat considering the close calls it found itself in such as the LSU, Arkansas and Auburn games down the stretch. Helping his young team find a way in each of these moments signified elite coaching.

His staff also found a way to outsmart and dominate Georgia in the SEC Championship game, which perhaps becomes even more impressive considering what the Bulldogs showed in the national championship.

Saban and his team couldn’t find a way to leave Indianapolis with the trophy, but the fact the Crimson Tide even found itself here is a strong reflection of Saban’s strong coaching job.

Smart will tell you as much.

Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly