Future Headlines: Potential Candidates to Replace Nick Saban at Alabama

by Connor Jackson

Photo courtesy of Alabama athletics

Earlier this month, Alabama head coach Nick Saban signed a massive contract extension, keeping him in Tuscaloosa through the 2028 season. Will he actually be in Alabama for the rest of the contract?

Who knows?

But he signed it for a reason. If Saban does coach the entirety of his contract, he will be the third-oldest coach in college football history at the end of his contract. Joe Paterno was 84. Bobby Bowden was 80. Saban would be 77.

With Saban getting older and Alabama continuing its dominance, the question lingering is how much more does Saban have to prove? Don’t be shocked if Alabama already has candidates lined up just in case. Don’t be shocked if some of them were on this list.

There is something important to know about the Alabama job. It is a very attractive job — probably the best in the nation. However, it comes with a lot of pressure.

Being the coach who follows Saban should be a great honor, but it is an even greater challenge. Most schools would be content with going 9-3 or 10-2 every year, but Alabama isn’t that school.

The Crimson Tide are used to winning, and doing it at a high level. They won’t have it another way. When the Tide start the vetting process for whoever their next head coach would be, the top priority should be finding someone up to the challenge.

Oregon HC Mario Cristobal

Mario Cristobal has been the most popular candidate for a few years now. Why? He has experience at Alabama and has had some success at a high-profile job like Oregon. Cristobal served as the offensive line coach under Saban from 2013-16.

There, Cristobal flashed his ability as a recruiter and won 247Sports National Recruiter of the Year in 2015. Under his control, Alabama’s offensive line also won the Joe Moore Award in 2015, which is credited to the best offensive line in the nation.

Before Alabama, Cristobal served as the head coach of Florida International, which didn’t end well. Cristobal won the Sun Belt Coach of the Year award in 2010, but was ultimately fired after the 2012 season. He finished his time in South Florida with a record of 27-47.

Cristobal’s best year at Oregon was in 2019, where the Ducks won the Rose Bowl to top off a 12-2 season. Cristobal followed up that year by winning the Pac-12 for the second straight year. Oregon has flown to the top of the league once again, and there are no signs of slowing down under Cristobal.

Still, Alabama is Alabama. For a guy who has already been connected to recent SEC openings, that would be a very attractive job. He knows how Saban ran the program because he saw it firsthand. Is he up for the challenge? Who knows, but don’t be shocked if he got the nod.

Texas HC Steve Sarkisian

This might seem like Alabama would be shooting for the stars, but why not? After all, it would be coming off the most dominant era in the history of the sport. Before Sarkisian left for the Texas job, there were rumors that he was in line to be Saban’s successor. Sarkisian has made two stops under Saban before, so there are connections here.

“Sark” hasn’t had the best of luck as a head coach. He has made some mistakes off the field, which ultimately cost him his job at USC and Washington. Regardless, one could argue that he is the best offensive mind in the game. Under his control, Alabama fielded a offense that was record-breaking, which was the main reason for its most recent national championship run.

Still, there are questions. Texas is one of the best jobs in the nation, and you could argue that it is the best. On top of that, the Longhorns will be in the SEC by time this coaching carousel rolls around.

Would he be willing to leave Austin for Tuscaloosa? This all weighs on how he does at Texas. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Ole Miss HC Lane Kiffin

Lane Kiffin has not been known to stay in one place for too long, but Alabama could probably change his mind. Kiffin has done a great job at Ole Miss so far, but he was even rumored to be flirting with the Auburn opening this past offseason.

There is somewhat of a rivalry between Kiffin and Saban. By rivalry, we mean Kiffin poking fun at Saban on social media and at press conferences. Coach Kiffin has always had a flair for the dramatic. Still, there is a mutual respect between the two of them, and Saban even credited Kiffin with some of the evolution in Alabama’s offense recently.

Kiffin has been successful recently at Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss. He might be a risky choice, but Alabama is Alabama and won’t settle for anything less than one of the best minds in the game. Kiffin has been that for his entire career.

Alabama OC Bill O’Brien

Often times when teams are replacing a long-time head coach, they promote from within. Current Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien would be at the top of that list. O’Brien isn’t a stranger to replacing long-tenured head coaches as he took over for Joe Paterno at Penn State in 2012.

O’Brien inherited an absolute mess at Penn State and still managed to finish with seven and eight wins in 2012 and 2013, respectively. His efforts at Penn State gave him multiple coach of the year awards.

After two seasons at Penn State, O’Brien decided to take his shot at the NFL by being named the head coach of the Houston Texans. O’Brien’s time at Houston was up and down. He finished with winning seasons every year besides two and finished last in the AFC South twice.

O’Brien was fired in 2020 after an 0-4 start. NFL failures haven’t scared Alabama before. Remember, Saban was hired after going 15-17 in two years with the Miami Dolphins.

O’Brien is a terrific coach who still has a lot more to prove. If he can prove his worth as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, maybe he can be the immediate successor to Saban down the road.

Carolina Panthers HC Matt Rhule

Speaking of the NFL, maybe Alabama tries to mimic what it did with Saban and bring in someone from the NFL. Rhule is entering just his second season with the Carolina Panthers, but has an impressive track record as a college coach. At Temple, Rhule bounced back from a 8-16 start in his first two seasons by winning 10 games in each of his final two seasons. That success eventually landed him at Baylor.

Rhule inherited a situation at Baylor where it was almost impossible to win. The Bears went 1-11 under his control, but quickly bounced back and finished with seven wins in 2018 and 11 in 2019. Baylor was an upset or two away from landing itself in the College Football Playoff in 2019.

The only knock is that Rhule doesn’t have any experience in the SEC. How much does that matter to a coach coming from the NFL? Probably not a lot. Still, even Saban had SEC head coaching experience when Alabama hired him away from Miami.

If Rhule is willing to leave the NFL and Alabama wants him, watch out. Granted, you could say that about a lot of people.

Louisiana HC Billy Napier

Napier was the wide receivers coach under Saban at Alabama from 2013-16. It was there where Napier flexed his muscles as a recruiter. Since getting his first head coaching job at Louisiana, he has been a hot name in basically every coaching search.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have been a consistent fringe top-25 team every year under Napier, and they’re only getting better. Napier took a broken program and turned it into one of the alphas in the Group of 5.

Napier has been linked to jobs like Auburn, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. So why hasn’t he taken a new job? Well, maybe he is waiting for a big fish like Alabama to come knocking.

Napier isn’t as proven as everyone else on this list, and is less experienced, but the risk might be worth the reward.

It is also possible that Saban’s replacement is someone completely off the radar. A lot of things can change in eight years, especially in the coaching world. Regardless, following Saban won’t be an easy task.

He has built a lasting machine that should help whoever follows, but the expectations are going to remain at a ridiculous level. Maybe Alabama has unofficially began the search, or maybe it hasn’t.

One thing is certain, it will happen. When it does, the college football world will never be the same.

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