Saban Steps Aside, Tennessee Rejoices

By Mark Nagi

Last week it was announced that Nick Saban was retiring and would no longer be the head football coach at Alabama.

With that, church bells rang out from Athens to Gainesville, Oxford to Starkville, Columbia (take your pick which Columbia) to Fayetteville.

But perhaps nowhere was that news better received than Knoxville.

Yes, Auburn has a strong case for why they have the biggest reason for celebration. The Tigers are the Tide’s biggest rival. It’s a 24/7 thing in that state. Heck, they were rolling Toomer’s Corner the evening when news broke of Saban’s retirement.

But they at least won 5 Iron Bowls in Saban’s 17 years in Tuscaloosa. The Vols only had one victory over Saban during that time.

Nick Saban was also on the other sideline for what was perhaps the most devastating loss in Tennessee football history. In 2001, the Vols were favored to beat LSU in the SEC championship game and advance to the Rose Bowl to play that historically good Miami team for the BCS national title. But Saban’s Tigers upset the Vols 31-20. More than two decades later, UT has never been in as good a position in the sport.

By the time you read this, Alabama could very well have Saban’s replacement in place. It’s Alabama, they aren’t going to be making a no-name hire. Greg Schiano won’t be rolled out for the press conference in a crimson jacket.

But no matter who they get, college football will never be the same.

Saban’s reign of terror has ended.

Tennessee now has the distinction of sending two of the most legendary coaches in college football history out of Neyland Stadium for the last time with losses. In 1982, it was Johnny Majors and the Vols snapping an 11-game losing streak to Alabama. That 35-28 World’s Fair game was Bear Bryant’s final trip to Neyland. He would resign and then pass away within four months of that loss.

In 2022, it was the Vols 52-49 win over Alabama that served as Saban’s Knoxville swan song, snapping a 15-year losing streak. Saban and the Tide did get revenge last October in Tuscaloosa, but the final trek to Knoxville will always be a very unpleasant memory for Saban.

It’s hard to imagine Saban going gently into the night. ESPN loves him, so Saban probably will get a regular spot on College Gameday, perhaps replacing Lee Corso. But without him on the sidelines, the rest of the SEC just got a little easier.

Alabama won six national championships during Saban’s 17 years and was almost always in the mix for at a minimum a conference title. It’s hard to imagine whoever replaces Saban having a similar historic run.

Next season SEC is expanding to 16 teams with the additions of Texas and Oklahoma.  The Tide will host Georgia, Missouri, and Auburn. They will play at Tennessee, LSU and face the Sooners in Norman. That’s not a schedule that bodes well for Saban’s replacement. Based on winning percentage, the Tide have the third toughest schedule in the SEC, facing opponents that won 63% of their games in 2023.

For Tennessee specifically, the end of Saban helps with recruiting and makes another 1 for 17 stretch highly unlikely. There won’t be and should be no crying in Knoxville with this development.

The opportunity is there for the Vols.

Will they take advantage of it?