Nick Saban faces critical challenge of replacing both Alabama coordinators as Bill O’Brien leaves for Patriots

Alabama’s offseason upheaval continued Tuesday with news that offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is leaving his post after two seasons to accept the OC position with the New England Patriots. The development comes less than two weeks after the defensive coordinator Pete Golding left for the DC job at Ole Miss, meaning coach Nick Saban, 71, will replace both coordinators as he enters his 17th season with the Crimson Tide.

This will mark the fifth time in Saban’s tenure that he will field a team with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and the development comes at a critical time for the Crimson Tide. With Georgia rising from the SEC — led by former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — to challenge the Saban dynasty, the jury is out on whether a return to the top of college football is inevitable for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide is coming off an 11-2 season that ended with a Sugar Bowl victory over Kansas State. It was a good campaign by most programs’ standards, but it marked something of a disappointment for the No. 1 team in the preseason, which returned Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and consensus All-American edge rusher Will Anderson. Now those star players have left and an overhaul of the coaching staff is in the offing.

It’s never wise to bet against Saban, who won six national titles at Alabama and seven overall in his career. But the sea of ​​changes coming to the Crimson Tide entering the 2023 season will mark one of the biggest challenges yet for the second-oldest coach in the sport. Alabama has never gone three consecutive seasons without a national title under Saban, and the program will need to thrive with new faces at key positions if that is to remain true next year.

Overhauled

The Crimson Tide have never won a national championship under Saban in seasons when they had new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

The 2007 team, Saban’s first, went 7-6 and won the Independence Bowl with new coordinators Major Applewhite (offense) and Kevin Steele (defense); the 2008 team went 12-2 and lost in the Sugar Bowl with new coordinators Jim McElwain (offense) and Kirby Smart (defense); the 2018 team finished 14-1 and lost in the College Football Playoff National Championship game with new coordinators Mike Locksley (offense) and Tosh Lupoi (defense); the 2019 team went 11-2 and won the Citrus Bowl with new coordinators Steve Sarkisian (offense) and Golding (defense).

Replacing only an offensive coordinator proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for Saban, who won a title in 2012 with Nussmeier in his first season as OC and another in 2017 with Daboll in his first and only season as OC. But the program has never won it all with a first-year defensive coordinator.

The 2018 team with Locksley and Lupoi in their first seasons as coordinators was elite. He hit 13 of 14 opponents by double figures during the 14-0 start. But the Crimson Tide ended up losing 44-16 to Clemson in the title game that season.

This group also comes with a warning. Although this was Lupoi’s first season as the lead defensive coordinator, it was his fifth on the Alabama coaching staff and he had held the title of assistant defensive coordinator the previous season. Offensively, this was Locksley’s third season on Saban’s staff, and he had served as co-offensive coordinator the previous year.

Coordinators under Saban

Offensive and defensive coordinator every season under Saban. Seasons with first-year coordinators on both sides of the ball are in bold.

Offensive coordinator Defensive Coordinator Record (postseason)
2007 Major Applewhite (1st) Kevin Steele (1st) 7-6 (W Independence Bowl)
2008 Jim McElwain (1st) Kirby Smart (1st) 12-2 (L sugar bowl)
2009 McElwain (2nd) Smart (2nd) 14-0 (W BCS Championship)
2010 McElwain (3rd) Smart (3rd) 10-3 (W Capital One Bowl)
2011 McElwain (4th) Smart (4th) 12-1 (W BCS Championship)
2012 Doug Nussmeier (1st) Smart (5th) 13-1 (W BCS Championship)
2013 Nussmeier (2nd) Smart (6th) 11-2 (L sugar bowl)
2014 Lane Kiffin (1st) Smart (7th) 12-2 (L CFP Semifinal)
2015 Kiffin (2nd) Smart (8th) 14-1 (W CFP Championship)
2016 Kevin (3rd) Jeremy Pruitt (1st) 14-1 (L CFP title game)
2017 Brian Daboll (1st) Pruitt (2nd) 13-1 (W CFP Championship)
2018 Mike Locklesley (1st) Stone Lupoi (1st) 14-1 (L in CFP title game)
2019 Steve Sarkisian (1st) Pete Golding (1st) 11-2 (W Citrus Bowl)
2020 Sarkisian (2nd) Golding (2nd) 13-0 (W CFP Championship)
2021 Bill O’Brien (1st) Golding (3rd) 13-2 (L CFP title game)
2022 O’Brien (2nd) Golding (4th) 11-2 (W Zaharnitsa)

Candidates for the openings

The internal promotions of Locksley and Lupoi for the 2018 season were obvious to Saban after the program’s 2017 national title. But the list of internal candidates is less attractive this time around after back-to-back title-less seasons. BamaOnLine’s preliminary hot committee for the OC position lists just one internal candidate, and that’s offensive analyst Derek Dooley.

As for the defensive coordinator opening, defensive analyst Todd Grantham appeared on BamaOnLine’s preliminary hot board, as did former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Hiring Pruitt would make sense for Saban, as Pruitt has worked under Saban for eight years in various roles on and off the field during two stints in the past. But there may be hurdles to overcome before a reunion is practical with Pruitt, whose program at Tennessee was accused of 18 NCAA Level I violations.

Saban should have no problem bringing in talented coaches to work for him, but he may have to go outside his current staff or previous coaching tree for one or both coordinators, and that will only increase the curve. learning everyone in the coming months.

Quarterback situation

Alabama’s next offensive coordinator will be the ninth of Saban’s tenure and the sixth for the program in the past eight seasons. O’Brien leaves after two seasons as the first offensive coordinator to serve more than one season under Saban without winning a national title.

Adding to the importance of hiring an offensive coordinator for Saban is the program’s uncertainty at quarterback entering the 2023 season following Young’s departure for the NFL Draft. After backing up Mack Jones as the Crimson Tide won the 2020 national championship, Young stepped in and became a star for Alabama over the past two seasons.

Ultimately, he will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in program history to never win a national title, and replacing him won’t be easy. Young’s backup, Jalen Milrow, is poised to return for his redshirt sophomore season after showing a mix of promise and worrisome decisions while logging significant action against Arkansas and Texas A&M amid an injury to Young in the 2022 season.

Former five-star prospect Ty Simpson is also an option at the position after appearing in four games during his true freshman year in 2022. The Purple also signed four-star QB prospect Eli Holstein in their 2023 recruiting class, and he enrolled for spring semester. Quarterback development will be a critical responsibility for whoever Saban decides to replace O’Brien with.

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