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 defensive coordinator Pete Golding left for the DC job at Ole Miss, meaning that coach Nick Saban, 71, will be replacing 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 featuring new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and the development comes at a critical time for the Crimson Tide. With Georgia rising from within the SEC — led by former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — to challenge Saban’s dynasty, the jury is out on whether a return to the top of college football is imminent for Alabama.
The Crimson Tide are coming off an 11-2 season capped by a Sugar Bowl victory over Kansas State. It was a fine campaign by the standards of most programs, but it marked something of a disappointment for the preseason No. 1 squad, which returned Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Bryce Young and consensus All-American edge rusher Will Anderson. Now, those star players are departed and an overhaul of the coaching staff is in order.
It is never wise to bet against Saban, who has won six national titles at Alabama and seven overall during his career. But the sea of change coming to the Crimson Tide entering the 2023 season will mark one of the biggest challenges yet for the sport’s second-oldest coach. Alabama has never gone three consecutive seasons without a national title under Saban, and the program will have to thrive with new faces in key positions if that is going to stay true in the year ahead.
The Crimson Tide have never won a national championship under Saban in seasons when they’ve had new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
The 2007 team, Saban’s first, finished 7-6 and won the Independence Bowl with new coordinators Major Applewhite (offense) and Kevin Steele (defense); the 2008 team finished 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 finished 11-2 and won the Citrus Bowl with new coordinators Steve Sarkisian (offense) and Golding (defense).
Replacing only an offensive coordinator has proven a manageable obstacle to overcome 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. It beat 13 of 14 opponents by double digits during a 14-0 start. But ultimately, the Crimson Tide lost 44-16 to Clemson in the title game that season.
That group also comes with a caveat. Though it was Lupoi’s first season as the lead defensive coordinator, it was his fifth on Alabama’s coaching staff, and he’d held the title of co-defensive coordinator the season before. Offensively, it was Locksley’s third season on Saban’s staff, and he’d served as co-offensive coordinator the year before.
Coordinators under Saban
Offensive and defensive coordinators each season under Saban. Seasons with first-year coordinators on both sides of the ball are in bold.
Offensive coordinatorDefensive coordinatorRecord (Postseason)2007Major Applewhite (1st)Kevin Steele (1st)7-6 (W Independence Bowl)2008Jim McElwain (1st)Kirby Smart (1st)12-2 (L Sugar Bowl)2009McElwain (2nd)Smart (2nd)14-0 (W BCS Championship)2010McElwain (3rd)Smart (3rd)10-3 (W Capital One Bowl)2011McElwain (4th)Smart (4th)12-1 (W BCS Championship)2012Doug Nussmeier (1st)Smart (5th)13-1 (W BCS Championship)2013Nussmeier (2nd)Smart (6th)11-2 (L Sugar Bowl)2014Lane Kiffin (1st)Smart (7th)12-2 (L CFP Semifinal)2015Kiffin (2nd)Smart (8th)14-1 (W CFP Championship)2016Kiffin (3rd)Jeremy Pruitt (1st)14-1 (L CFP title game)2017Brian Daboll (1st)Pruitt (2nd)13-1 (W CFP Championship)2018Mike Locklsley (1st)Tosh Lupoi (1st)14-1 (L in CFP title game)2019Steve Sarkisian (1st)Pete Golding (1st)11-2 (W Citrus Bowl)2020Sarkisian (2nd)Golding (2nd)13-0 (W CFP Championship)2021Bill O’Brien (1st)Golding (3rd)13-2 (L CFP title game)2022O’Brien (2nd)Golding (4th)11-2 (W Sugar Bowl) Candidates for the openings
The internal promotions of Locksley and Lupoi for the 2018 season were obvious for Saban on the heels of the program’s 2017 national title. But the list of internal candidates is less appealing this time around after consecutive non-title seasons. BamaOnLine’s preliminary hot board for the OC position lists only 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 since Pruitt worked eight years under Saban in various on and off-field roles across two stints in the past. But there could be hurdles to overcome before a reunion is practical with Pruitt, whose program at Tennessee was accused of 18 Level I NCAA violations.
Saban should have no trouble attracting talented coaches to work for him, but it’s possible he could have to go outside his current staff or past tree of coaches for one or both coordinator hires, and that would only add to everyone’s learning curve in the months ahead.
Alabama’s next offensive coordinator will be its ninth of Saban’s tenure and the program’s sixth of the past eight seasons. O’Brien departs after two seasons in the role as the first offensive coordinator to serve more than one season under Saban without winning a national title.
Adding to the significance of the offensive coordinator hire for Saban is the program’s uncertainty at quarterback entering the 2023 season following Young’s departure for the NFL Draft. After backing up Mac Jones as the Crimson Tide won the 2020 national championship, Young stepped in and became a star for Alabama 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 Milroe, is set to return for his redshirt sophomore season after flashing a mix of promise and worrisome decision making 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 season in 2022. The Crimson also signed four-star QB prospect Eli Holstein in their 2023 recruiting class, and he has enrolled for the spring semester. Developing a quarterback will be a critical responsibility for whoever Saban tabs to replace O’Brien.