Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer: Looking back at the history of the matchup
College football coaches have almost a month to prepare for bowl games, which can be chaotic. That’s especially true for Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, who enter their Sugar Bowl clash on New Year’s Day quite familiar with each other’s past. History says a national championship is on the line when Meyer and Saban meet. Both know what it’s like to try to beat the other.
“Urban has done a fantastic job as a college coach wherever he's been,” Saban told reporters during a press conference in Orlando on Dec. 11, “and we've played some tough games when he was at Florida. We certainly have a lot of respect for the tradition and the great team that he has at Ohio State this year.”
Meyer and Saban combined to win six national championships in the BCS era. Saban has four -- one at LSU in 2003 and three at Alabama -- while Meyer has two with the Gators. The coaches also have a storied history from when both were competing for SEC titles. They’ve faced each other three times in their careers, twice in the SEC title game and once in the regular season. In those matchups, Saban owns a record of 2-1 against Meyer.
The winner of two of those games went on to win the BCS crown. As Meyer and Saban get set for their fourth coaching tilt, in the inaugural College Football Playoff, let's look back at the previous three times these coaches met.
No. 2 Florida 31, No. 1 Alabama 20 (Dec. 6, 2008)
When Alabama and Florida met in the Georgia Dome for the 2008 SEC title, Meyer, not Saban, was the coach to beat in the conference. The Gators were vying for their second BCS championship in three seasons, while Saban was only in his second year with the Crimson Tide. However, Alabama was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country heading to Atlanta.
The Gators, who had lost to an unranked Ole Miss team 31-30 earlier in the year, didn’t flinch. Quarterback Tim Tebow hit David Nelson for a touchdown pass three minutes before halftime to give Florida a 17-10 lead. The Tide responded after the break with a Mark Ingram score and a field goal to regain a 20-17 edge.
But it was Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, who came through in the clutch. The quarterback’s five-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper gave Florida a 31-20 advantage with 2:50 to play, a lead the Gators wouldn’t relinquish.
“Every time that they needed to make a play,” Saban said afterward, “Tim Tebow made plays in the game that made a difference in the game.”
Florida went on to beat No. 5 Oklahoma 24-14 for Meyer’s second national title.
No. 2 Alabama 32, No. 1 Florida 13 (Dec. 5, 2009)
Alabama’s fortunes reversed during the next season’s SEC Championship Game. This time, there was very little drama in the Georgia Dome.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide routed the top-ranked Gators 32-13 to mark the second straight upset in the series. Alabama held Tebow in check (63 rushing yards on 10 carries) and kept Florida’s offense scoreless in the second half. Behind Ingram and quarterback Greg McElroy, Saban’s offense converted 11-of-15 third downs and nearly doubled up time of possession, holding the ball for 39:37 of game time.
As the clock ticked down, cameras caught Tebow kneeling on the sidelines with tears running down his face. The loss spoiled the senior’s shot at a second straight national title, and third in four years.
“It was frustrating, obviously,” Tebow told reporters. “This is not how we wanted to finish our season in the SEC, and, you know, there were a lot of goals we won't be able to accomplish. But it was frustrating. To say it wasn't, it would be a lie.”
In the postgame press conference, Meyer was asked if Alabama was the more physical team in this matchup.
“More physical? I don't know,” Meyer said. “But tonight they were very physical. And it was noticeable.”
Alabama carried its momentum into next month’s BCS title game, as it beat No. 2 Texas 37-21. It was the first of Saban’s three national titles in Tuscaloosa.
No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 7 Florida 6 (Oct. 2, 2010)
The last time Meyer and Saban faced off was in the 2010 regular season. Alabama and Florida met as cross-divisional opponents on the SEC schedule.
The Crimson Tide looked poised for a second straight BCS title run when Florida ventured to Bryant-Denny Saban during the first week of October. Saban’s squad had already beaten two ranked foes (Penn State and Arkansas), while Gators had an unblemished 4-0 record.
But Florida wasn’t the same team without Tebow. His successor, John Brantley, threw two costly interceptions, including one in the end zone, to cap a day in which the Gators failed to find paydirt. Alabama whipped Florida 31-6, which at the time stood as the second-most lopsided loss of Meyer's six seasons with Florida.
"I was very, very pleased with the way we played in the first half," Saban said after the game. "I thought we played physical, played with toughness, played strong. I was really encouraged."
This time, however, neither team went on to win a national championship. Alabama lost at No. 19 South Carolina the very next week and would drop later meetings with LSU and Auburn -- the eventual national champions -- during the regular season. The Tide went on to beat Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.
The Alabama loss was part of a more forgettable season for Florida. It was the first of three straight defeats that dropped Meyer’s team to 4-3 on the year. The Gators would finish 8-5 with losses to South Carolina and Florida State, as well as a 37-24 win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.