Ask your average NFL player if he thinks Alabama’s football team could beat an NFL team, and most will laugh in your face. The level of physical and mental maturity it takes to succeed in the NFL is overwhelming, and any team in the league would smash Alabama, they’ll say.
But if you ask an Alabama football alum, you’ll get a different response. There’s a consensus among guys who played for Nick Saban that an Alabama team in the Saban era would not only beat an NFL team, but if they played a 16-game season, they would win multiple games.
“We would beat NFL teams,” says Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland, who played for Alabama from 2012-15. “I ain’t even gon’ lie to you; it’d be a winning record, and we’d make the playoffs.”
Typically at this point in the conversation with a former Alabama player, a teammate within earshot objects. Chiefs linebacker Breeland Speaks heard the word ‘playoffs’ and could no longer bite his tongue. From one locker over, Speaks pleaded with his teammate: “In the playoffs though?”
“Yes,” Ragland said, “In the playoffs. It’s all a mindset really.”
There are 52 former Alabama football players in the NFL, the largest number from any NCAA school. Many of those players attribute their longevity in the league to something that Ragland says Alabama players learn early: A different mindset. They believe they learn to approach the game like professionals long before their peers at other schools.
“Being in the league, I can see where guys from other schools didn’t get our kind of coaching,” says Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who played for Alabama from 2008-10. “The way Coach Saban taught us was just a different way. We look at this game differently.”
So how many games does Dareus think the best Alabama team he played on would win?
“The NFL is way too strong, way too fast. There are too many dogs in the NFL,” Dareus says. “I’ll safely say four wins. We’d beat teams because they would make more mistakes than Alabama. We may not be as physical, but other teams would make mistakes we would not.”
Jaguars defensive lineman Calais Campbell, a University of Miami alum, cannot abide. “You're talking about kids!” Campbell says. “Even a team of rookies has no chance. You might have four or five NFL stars on an Alabama team, but they’ve got to develop first. It took Mark [Ingram] a couple years to develop. It takes everyone time!”
Dareus is unmoved: “People can say what they want. If you’ve played with Alabama players, you know.”
Since Saban accepted the Alabama head coaching position in 2007, after two years as the Dolphins head coach, he has turned the Crimson Tide program into a powerhouse, winning five national titles and producing two Heisman Trophy winners (Ingram and Titans RB Derrick Henry). And not only does his team continue to win, but it wins by huge margins—this season, Alabama beat Ole Miss 62–7, Tennessee 58–21 and then-No. 4 LSU 29–0. So what might a game between the Crimson Tide and the professionals look like?
Saints RB Mark Ingram, who played for Alabama from 2008-10, has a more measured take. He’s a realist, someone who can take off the crimson-colored glasses and see the big picture. “It’s different on this level,” Ingram says of the NFL. “It’s hard to win in this league. Even the worst team has the best players from every college.”
He pauses to contemplate. Ingram runs a 16-game simulation in his head. Alabama vs. Buffalo, Alabama vs. Kansas City, Alabama vs. Baltimore. He thinks the team with the best chance to win would be the current team and its spread offense, not the bruising power-running teams he played on.
“We were more physical, take your will from you. How they spread it out, run and pass it around, would have a better chance,” Ingram says finally. “Our best team would win more than one game. Sixteen weeks with an Alabama team and Coach Saban? We’d win at least once. I can’t say we’d whoop on the worst teams in the league, but we’d win.”
A college vs. NFL game is not without precedent. From 1934–76, the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game pitted a team of college football all-stars against the defending Super Bowl champions on a date in August—and the college all stars actually went 9-31-2 in a game that served as a proving ground for the recently drafted collegians and a meaningless exhibition for the NFL team. The charities cited rising salary and insurance costs when it discontinued the game in 1977. Wrote the Milwaukee Journal: “A piece of Americana died here Tuesday...”
Yet the game’s death gave birth to this annual hypothetical: Could an Alabama team under Saban, essentially a college all-star team in its own right, win games in the NFL?
Rams safety Mark Barron is in the same boat as Ingram. He believes size and strength wouldn't be an issue, because, “we were grown,” he says. Barron also doesn't think it matters which Alabama team played a 16-game schedule—any one of them under Saban would win, he believes.
“If Saban coached 16 games with that team, we’d win games,” says Barron, who played for Alabama from 2008-11. “No bullsh--. The talent level is there. I see no reason why we wouldn't win games.The scheme we ran in college was more complex than any defense I've played in the NFL. We played more disciplined than most NFL teams, and when everybody is doing their job, it's hard to find weaknesses.”
Surely there’s one Alabama alum who will listen to reason. After all, Alabama on any given year may send 10 starters to the NFL, yet every single player on a 53-man NFL roster is in the NFL. It would be crazy to think an Alabama team could even compete, much less win games, right?
“Wrong,” says Jaguars safety Ronnie Harrison, who played for Alabama from 2015-17. “We’d definitely win games. A lot of the time in the NFL it comes down to who's more focused, and who's ready to play that day. We’ve got the talent, but it would come down to coaching. Being disciplined and ready to play. At Alabama, with how Coach Saban runs that program, I feel like we’d run the table. 14–2. 15–1. Something crazy. For real.
“I swear I’m not even stuntin’. Real talk, we probably would run the table.”
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