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Alabama vs. LSU Preview: The head coaching matchup

Is this as lopsided as you imagine?

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Alabama v LSU

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are few ways to do this comparison any kind of justice (or even with a coherent framework). You’re comparing oranges to nutria here: It’s a lifelong assistant with nearly seven years of program experience vs. a guy who’s been a head coach for almost three decades. And the age difference isn’t as vast as you’d think — Nick Saban turned 68 today (Happy Birthday, GOAT), while Ed Orgeron isn’t a spring chicken: He turned 58 over the summer. But, we’ll look at a few data points, contrive some comparisons out of necessity, and we’ll go as far back as necessary to see what we’re dealing with here.

It’s probably unfair to contrast the two men’s overall records. After all, Nick Saban is the best college football coach to have ever lived, supplanting even the man whose name is on half the building in Tuscaloosa. He is the fiery CEO; the merchant of professionalism. It’s hard to argue with his results either...or his willingness to adapt to the game around him.

Ed Orgeron, after a buffoonishly spectacular faceplant in Oxford has acquitted himself well. He got sober, he got serious about his career, he earned a second chance, and then he made the most of it. For all of those things, I absolutely applaud him. He is a mostly-affable, larger-than-life character in a sport filled with them. He got the most out of a cratering USC program and then sold himself to the Tigers on his love of LSU and a willingness to take a cut-rate deal. It worked: he’s done a capable job with the Tigers — 32-9 in three-plus seasons in Baton Rouge. And, along the way, he’s rounded off into a nice second-tier coach.

Is this the year he becomes an elite one? That remains to be seen.

So, let’s compare what we can about these two very different men.

Fortunately, some of this work has already been done for us (make sure to read Glen’s methodology for ranking) :

Versus Top 25 teams:

Ed Orgeron vs Top 25 Teams:

Orgeron has coached LSU four seasons, going 5-8 against ranked teams. His record is 2-4 against top 10 teams and 3-4 against teams in the 11 to 25 ranked group.

Orgeron also coached in the SEC a few years earlier at Ole Miss, from 2005 to 2007. However, he had no success against ranked teams while there. In his three seasons he had a combined record of 0-13 against ranked teams, 0-7 against top 10 teams and 0-6 against teams ranked in the top 25.

He also coached Southern Cal for part of a season as their interim head coach, going 1-2 against ranked teams, 0-0 against top 10 teams and 1-2 against teams ranked between 11 and 25.

Nick Saban vs. Top 25 teams:

During the period from 2014 to 2018, Saban had a record of 9-5 against top 10 teams and a 16-1 record against teams ranked from 11th to 25th. That is an overall record of 25-6. Of course, with the talent Saban signs every recruiting season at Alabama you most likely expected him to have a pretty good record against ranked teams.

But how did he do his first year at Alabama when he had very few four and five star players? How about a record of 1-3, going 0-2 against top 10 ranked teams and 1-1 against top 25 teams.

This year, the Tigers are 4-0 against teams that were then-ranked, 8-0 overall. Alabama is 1-0, and 8-0 against the same.

Versus Unranked:

Well, what about the 70% of the schedule that does not include ranked teams? This is where the contrast is most clear. Alabama simply beats teams it is meant to, and does not lose to inferior opponents.

Nick Saban has lost to zero unranked teams this year. Or last. Or in the last decade. In fact, the last one he lost to was UL-Monroe — in 2007. That spans a record 89 games.

In Orgeron’s 3 12 year tenure at LSU (2016 to present), the Tigers have already lost five games to unranked opponents. In all five games, the Tigers were favored or ranked or ranked and favored.

Record Versus Rivals:

Alabama has three uncontested rivals — LSU, Tennessee, and Auburn. And we can throw in that simmering, 30-year high-stakes rivalry with cross-divisional juggernaut Florida. I know, I know. Ole Miss claims it is a rivalry. And the game means a lot more to Mississippi State than Alabama fans. But, c’mon, those are the Mississippi schools. So, we’re just using these four.

The list of rivals is really hard to rattle off for LSU — they apparently a spiteful bunch that hates everyone, down to lil’ ole Tulane and ULL. But, Ole Miss and Alabama we know for a fact are among them. Florida is long-standing beef and is now going on 50+ straight years of annual meetings. Polling LSU fans, I’ve heard Auburn pop up more often than Arkansas. But, the Golden Boot and those 60+ meetings are a real thing, so we’ll add the Hogs and go with those five: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida.

At Ole Miss, the primary rivals are of course LSU, Alabama, and the despised Mississippi State Bulldogs. While USC’s primary rivals are Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA.

To make this somewhat fair, we’ll only use the last seven years for Saban, and we’ll contrast that to Ed Orgeron’s seven years in rivalry games:

Ole Miss (2005-2007): 2005 0-3, 2006 1-2 (and all were within a field goal), 2006 0-3 (with two being decided by a FG).
USC (2013 Interim): 1-2, with two decided by a FG.
LSU (2016 - present): 2018 3-2, 2017 4-1, 2016 (Auburn omitted) 2-2, 2019 to date 1-0.

Rivalry losses decided by a TD or more: 8
Rivalry wins decided by a TD or less: 4

So, not too shabby a record for Coach O: 12-15 against his teams’ rivals (44%), and 10-5 with LSU (66%). But, where the Xs and Os gap most shows is that he is just 4-8 in close games against rivals at the three programs (33%).

Nick Saban:
2013 2-1 (and boy, was that one loss a doozy)
2014 3-0
2015 4-0
2016 4-0
2017 2-1
2018 3-0
2019 1-0

Rivalry losses decided by a TD or more: 1
Rivalry wins decided by a TD or less: 4

Obviously what jumps out at you is not just that Alabama beats its rivals (17-2, 89%), it’s how few of them are competitive. In 19 rivalry games, just five have been close. And Alabama won 80% of those. Even if you want to chalk the other 14 one-sided affairs up to a talent gap, that Alabama wins 80% of its close games is absolutely a function of preparation and coaching.

LSU has played two rivals this season and are 2-0. They beat Florida far worse than the 14-point final margin, and won an ugly squeaker last week against Auburn by a field goal. Alabama has played one rival in 2019. And, despite trying to give Tennessee a win on Third Saturday, it wound up not being close when the final gun sounded.

Head to Head:

This is obviously going to militate in favor of Nick Saban. He has faced Ed Orgeron four times in his career: That awful 2007 probation team against the dreck that Orgeron produced after three seasons in Oxford; and now in three attempts with Ed O at LSU.

Saban has never lost to Ed Orgeron. And, with the exception of the 2007 win against Ole Miss, every one of them have been decided by double digits; two of those wins have come via shutouts. In fact, in 2016 and 2018, Alabama’s defense had four total shutouts: But 50% of them were against the LSU Tigers.

2007: 27-24
2016: 10-0
2017: 24-10
2018: 29-0

You can draw your own supplementary conclusions here. But the ball don’t lie and we have some general takeaways:

  • Nick Saban gets up for LSU in a big way.
  • Orgeron has matched up poorly against the Tide.
  • In close games against rivals, Alabama finds ways to win — if it even is close; and it’s usually not.
  • And, while Orgeron is a very capable coach and has improved at LSU, against other elite opponents, you probably want the guy in the grey Armani suit on your sideline.

2019 is an unwritten chapter. On paper, the two seem to be the most closely matched than they have been since the epic defensive battle of 2011 or the flawed 2014 programs. But, until the ball is snapped, we are left to merely conjecture as to how it will play out.


Nick Saban we obviously give the highest marks to. But, how would you grade Ed Orgeron?

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