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Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer: Is there a clear difference?

Two of the best minds in college football took center stage to start an inaugural playoff. Urban Meyer won the battle, defeating Nick Saban in the 2015 Sugar Bowl 42-35. Meyer won a head-to-head matchup, but it was a valiant effort on Saban’s part in getting Alabama into the conversation. Both coaches share similar goals. Winning and recruiting reign supreme in their minds. Both men have achieved success, but is there a clear difference between the two? The answer falls into five categories: winning percentage, championships (conference and national), recruiting, building a program and preparing players for the National Football League.

Urban Meyer: A consistent winner

Urban Meyer is an old school individual. His career began at St. Xavier High School (Ohio) as a defensive backs coach in 1985. Meyer spent the next four years (1986-89) with Ohio State and Illinois State working with receivers, tight ends, outside linebackers and quarterbacks.

He served as a wide receivers coach for 10 seasons (1990-00) with Colorado State and Notre Dame. Meyer’s first opportunity as a head coach came in 2001 at Bowling Green. The Falcons were 2-9 in 2000, but Meyer turned the program around in his first season.

He received Mid-American Coach of the Year honors after Bowling Green posted an 8-3 record in 2001. 2002 had Falcons fans on their feet for Meyer, as the program finished at 9-3. Josh Harris was Meyer’s first dynamic quarterback.

He played part-time in 2001, but his capabilities came full surface in 2002. Harris totaled 3,162 yards and 39 touchdowns. Meyer left for Utah in 2003. He had a 17-6 record in two seasons with the Falcons.

Meyer put Utah on the map in 2003. He was named the Mountain West Conference’s Coach of the Year, after delivering the Utes to a 10-2 season. The 10-win mark was the best record ever for a first year coach at Utah. The Utes achieved balance offensively by using Bill Walsh’s version of a spread offense. Meyer added his own style to it, providing three wide receivers and a quarterback in the shotgun. Utah created a lot of motions in the backfield, and used the option attack game. Meyer’s style proved to be special for quarterback Alex Smith. Smith thrived under Meyer in 2003. He recorded 2,699 yards (2,247 passing, 452 rushing) and 20 touchdowns.

Utah hit it big in 2004, accomplishing an undefeated regular season for the first time since 1930. Meyer guided the team to a 12-0 season, and a bid in the Bowl Championship Series. Utah’s achievement was something that hadn’t been done by a team from a non-automatically qualifying BCS conference since the system formed in 1998.

Utah ended its perfect season with a victory over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith finished 2004 with 3,583 yards and 42 touchdowns. Meyer left for Florida in 2005. He collected a 22-2 record, a 91.7 winning percentage. It stands as the highest winning percentage among Utah coaches.

Ron Zook recruited a lot of talent, but Meyer brought consistency to Florida. The Gators finished 9-3 in 2005, including wins over Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State. It was only the fourth time in school history that Florida defeated all three programs. Meyer’s calm demeanor took root in 2006, as Florida accomplished 13 wins. It won its first Southeastern Conference title since 2000. Meyer notched his first national championship, defeating Ohio State 41-14 in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game.

2007 had all the ingredients of being another championship year for Florida. It started 4-0, and was ranked as high as No.3 in most polls. The Gators hit a bump in the road mid-season, losing three of four games. It didn’t repeat as national championship; however, Florida finished at 9-4 and quarterback Tim Tebow won a Heisman Trophy (first sophomore to win).

2008 and 2009 witnessed Florida similar in wins, but differ in postseason success. The Gators finished 13-1 in both seasons. It won an SEC title and a national championship in the 2008 season. Florida fell to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game. It routed Cincinnati 51-24 in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Florida lost much offensive talent to the 2010 NFL Draft, but returned production on both sides of the ball to Gainesville. Inconsistent play at the quarterback and receiver positions hurt the Gators. It finished 2010 with eight wins, lowest in the Meyer era.

Meyer ended his six-year tenure at Florida with a 65-15 record. He took a year off to get healthy, spent time with family and worked at ESPN as a college football commentator. Meyer originally denied an opportunity to be Ohio State’s head coach on Nov. 22, 2011. He then request time off from ESPN, during the week of the Ohio State—Michigan game. Meyer accepted the job at Ohio State on Nov. 28, 2011, six days after he had initially denied the opportunity.

Ohio State is thriving under Meyer. He’s posted a 38-3 record in three seasons at Columbus. The Buckeyes are a two-time Big Ten Leaders Division Champion (2012, 2013) and a Big Ten Eastern Division Champion in 2014. Ohio State finished 2014 as Big Ten Conference Champions. It appeared in the College Football Playoff, and defeated Alabama and Oregon. The Buckeyes captured its eighth national title, and first since 2002 in Monday’s 42-20 victory over Oregon in the championship game. Meyer’s registered a career record of 141-26 (84.4 percent).

Nick Saban: A defensive disciple

Like Meyer, Nick Saban is old school. His father, Nick Saban, Sr., taught him at a young age on how to do the little things right. Saban’s incorporated it on every team he’s coached. He played football at Kent State University, but didn’t place any thoughts on being a coach until Don James intervened. James made Saban a graduate assistant, starting him on a course to being a stellar defensive mind. Saban was a defensive assistant for 17 years (1972-89). He worked with Kent State, Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Navy and Michigan State. The National Football League called in 1988. Saban was hired as a defensive backs coach for the Houston Oilers.

Saban studied under Bill Belichick as a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (1991-94), but received his first head coaching job in 1990 with the Toledo Rockets. Toledo finished 6-5 in 1988 and 1989, but Saban generated instant success in 1990. The Rockets went 9-2, and was the co-champion of the Mid-American Conference.

East Lansing was in a drought, as Michigan State had not produced a winning season since 1990. The program suffered NCAA sanctions because of recruiting violations committed under head coach George Perles. It started with moderate success, but Saban brought life into the program.

Michigan State had its first winning season in 1995, going 6-5-1. The Spartans finished 6-6 in 1996 and 7-5 in 1997. Sanctions kept Michigan State from attending a bowl game in 1998, despite a 6-6 record. Saban guided the team to upset victories over No.1 Ohio State and No.22 Notre Dame. 1999 was a goldmine for Michigan State. It finished the regular season at 10-2, its best season since 1965. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in the 1999 season. It was one of the best Spartan teams in the BCS era (1992-13). Michigan State achieved a No.7 ranking in the polls, its highest since 1966 when it was No.2.

Saban made landfall in the SEC in 2000. He became LSU’s 31st head coach. Saban carried instant success to the Tigers in his first season. LSU finished 8-4 in 2000, including a victory in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Saban’s process gained ground the following season at Baton Rouge. LSU notched a 10-win season, an SEC title and a 47-34 Sugar Bowl victory over Illinois.

The Tigers went 8-5 in 2002, but greatness was on the horizon. Saban guided LSU to 13 wins in 2003. The Tigers achieved its second conference tile and a berth in the 2004 BCS National Championship Game. LSU hosted Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans. The Tigers defeated Oklahoma 21-14, capturing a national championship. 2004 saw LSU finish at 9-3. It appeared in the Capital One Bowl, but lost 30-25 against Iowa. Saban posted a 48-16 record during his five seasons at LSU.

Saban gave the NFL a chance, but found himself back in college football in 2007. He returned to the SEC, but this time Alabama called his name. The Crimson Tide was a program in despair. It was living on past heroes, begging for an opportunity to be great again. Saban took a chance and became Alabama’s head coach on Jan. 4, 2007. His process battled resistance at first, but took root in 2008. Saban led Alabama to an undefeated regular season in 2008, its first since 1994. The Crimson Tide finished 12-2, and Saban received several Coach of the Year honors.

2009 saw an ominous cloud removed from Tuscaloosa, as Saban placed Alabama back atop the pinnacle of college football. The Crimson Tide went 14-0, capturing an SEC title and a national championship. Mark Ingram brought Alabama its first Heisman winner. He became the second sophomore since Tebow to win the award.

Alabama lost three games in 2010, yet managed to demolish Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. 2011 and 2012 both were national championship seasons for Alabama. It dominated defensively, and AJ McCarron became a star. The Crimson Tide won its 23rd conference title in 2012, defeating Georgia 32-28. 2013 and 2014 didn’t end with a national title for Alabama, but it accomplished 10+ wins in both seasons. Alabama won an SEC title in 2014, and appeared in the College Football Playoff. Receiver Amari Cooper was its fourth Heisman finalist under Saban. He became Alabama’s first Fred Biletnikoff winner (nation’s top receiver). Saban is 86-17 in his career at Alabama.

Recruiting Battles

Nick Saban has the edge on Urban Meyer in recruiting. He’s brought in seven No.1 recruiting classes (6 at Alabama, 1 at LSU). Meyer has accounted for two (2006, 2007 at Florida). Since 2003, Saban has registered 10 top-10 recruiting finishes. Meyer chimes in with five top-10 recruiting classes since 2003. Both coaches had top 10 recruiting finishes in their worst seasons. Meyer’s 8-5 finish with Florida in 2010 netted him the No.2 class. Saban’s 7-6 finish in his first season at Alabama granted him the No.10 class.

Building Programs

Urban Meyer has had the luxury of inheriting talented programs. Gary Blackery was Bowling Green’s head coach from 1990-00. He recorded a 36-8-2 record in his first four seasons. The Falcons won two MAC titles in 1990 and 1991. Josh Harris was already in place for Meyer, when he arrived in 2001. Harris put up jaw dropping numbers, and helped Meyer accomplish a 17-6 overall record in his two seasons at Bowling Green.

Utah would sing the same chorus for Meyer in 2003-04. Quarterback Alex Smith was in pocket. All Meyer had to do was push the right buttons. He brought in the 90th ranked recruiting class in 2003 and the 76th ranked class in 2004.

Meyer played the role of Michigan’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh at Florida. Ron Zook recruited talent, but he couldn’t get it to work. Meyer entered in 2005, and posted a 65-15 career record at Florida. He won two national titles and two conference championships, but couldn’t keep it going. The writing on the walls became clear in 2010, when Florida finished 8-5. The Gators had a stable backfield, a few talented receivers and a vaunted defense, yet Meyer struggled.

Meyer is having success at Ohio State. He’s won a Big Ten Conference title and a national championship. The majority of his team returns next season. The question is will he be able to hold serve when the talent leaves?

Nick Saban excels at building programs. Michigan State was suffering. 1990 was the last time it had a winning season. Saban ushered in success, delivering the Spartans a winning season in all five years as its head coach (1995-99).

Saban made LSU a powerhouse program in the SEC. The Tigers made bowl game appearances in all five seasons under Saban (2000-04). LSU won two conference titles (2001, 2003) and a national championship in 2003. Saban brought in two top-10 recruiting classes, including the No.1 class in 2003.

Saban rescued Alabama from mediocrity. The program was slipping under Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula. Saban’s accounted for a top-10 recruiting class in all eight seasons at Alabama, including six No.1 recruiting finishes. He’s guided Alabama to three SEC titles, three national championships and eight bowl appearances.

Leaving programs in good hands

Urban Meyer was at Bowling Green for two seasons, yet he had a better win percentage (73.9 percent) than Greg Brandon (59.5 percent) and Dave Clawson (50.8 percent). Clawson brought the Falcons a conference championship in 2013, its first since 1992.

Meyer did leave Utah in good hands. Kyle Whittingham took over in 2005, posting an 84-43 record. The Utes won seven of eight bowl games, including a 31-17 victory over Alabama in the 2009 All State BCS Sugar Bowl. Utah finished second in the Coaches Poll and fourth in the AP Poll in 2008, highest ranking ever in program history.

Meyer didn’t leave Will Muschamp with much in 2011. Muschamp did the best he could in four seasons at Gainesville (2011-14). 2012 was Florida’s most productive season under Muschamp. Its defense was dominant, and Mike Gillislee totaled 1,000 yards rushing. The Gators finished the 2012 regular season at 11-1.

Nick Saban left Michigan State in good hands. His successor, Bobby Williams (2000-02) coached the Spartans to two bowl game appearances. John L. Smith (2003-06) struggled, but managed to produce one bowl season with Michigan State. Mark Dantonio took over in 2007, and has made Michigan State a force in the Big Ten. He’s won two conference titles, appeared in seven bowl games and has the highest winning percentage at Michigan State since Saban (70.8 percent).

LSU won a national championship in the 2007 season. Les Miles was its head coach, but the majority of the players were recruited by Saban. LSU fans remain hostile toward Saban for leaving, but he exited with the team in solid hands. Miles has won two SEC titles (2007, 2011), accounting for a 131-50 record at LSU.

Final Thoughts

Urban Meyer has a higher win percentage, but Nick Saban has the upper hand in everything else. Saban has more national titles, better recruiting classes and has placed more individuals in the NFL Draft. Both coaches are tied in conference titles (5). It’s a grey area, but having class is another aspect that Saban ranks superior. He is known for “calling off the dogs” when his teams get a huge lead. Monday’s championship game between Ohio State and Oregon saw Meyer go after one more touchdown in garbage time.

The contest had been won. Ohio State was up by 15, 35-20. It didn’t make any sense to add insult to injury. Simply taking a knee would have been enough. It would have, except we aren’t Meyer. Ohio State was coined as an underdog in six games this season. The Buckeyes won all six matchups. It defeated three Heisman finalists, Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Amari Cooper (Alabama) and Marcus Mariota (Oregon).

In football, the goal is to score more points than the opponent. Meyer saw the underdog status, and took aim at every opportunity to put points on the scoreboard. He wanted to prove that his team belonged in the College Football Playoff. Taking a knee would have done justice, but it wasn’t enough for Meyer. Here is a chart detailing the successes of both coaches.

Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer
Name Record Percentage Conf. Titles Nat. Titles NFL Draft
Nick Saban 177-59-1 76.6% 5 4 81
Urban Meyer 141-26 84.4% 5 3 53
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