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Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer is playoff matchup to watch

Nick Saban, left, and Urban Meyer will meet Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. USA TODAY Sports, Icon Sportswire

When Urban Meyer took his mini-sabbatical from coaching after the 2010 season, there were a couple of givens.

One, he wasn’t going to stay away for long.

Two, his and Nick Saban’s paths were sure to cross again on a big stage.

It’s taken four years, but here we are, and it’s only fitting that they would meet up again in such a historic setting -- the first-ever College Football Playoff.

In this era of college coaching, Meyer vs. Saban might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Borg vs. McEnroe, Bird vs. Magic. They are the two preeminent coaches in the college football ranks and have combined to win six of the past 11 national championships.

As the Jan. 1 Alabama-Ohio State showdown in New Orleans has approached, they have both done their best to downplay what their roles will be in the game. Granted, as a rule, we probably all make too much of individual coaching matchups.

But in this case, who didn’t want to see Meyer and Saban match wits one more time?

Meyer has a keen understanding of what coaching in the SEC pressure cooker is all about. He was right in the middle of it at Florida and led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008.

But it also got the best of him. Realizing that he had to make changes to his lifestyle, Meyer walked away from Florida for good at the end of the 2010 season. He tried to do it after the 2009 season but changed his mind and hung around for another year.

What Meyer has accomplished at Ohio State is staggering. The Buckeyes have won 36 of 39 games on his watch and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game since he’s been in Columbus. As a recruiter, few are better than Meyer, and he has brought the SEC’s no-holds-barred style of recruiting to Ohio State.

As good a recruiter as Meyer is, he’s even better at assembling a staff. He has an eye for talent, period, both coaches and players.

Anybody who doesn’t appreciate the mark Meyer has made on college football has had his head in the sand for the past decade or so.

But it’s also true that Meyer’s last two meetings with Saban have ended badly. Alabama thrashed Florida 31-6 in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, one of the first signs that season that things might be getting away from Meyer in Gainesville.

Less than a year earlier, he ended up in the emergency room after losing to Saban and the Tide 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game, the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the teams in as many years. The morning after that loss, Meyer experienced chest pains.

Like so many coaches, he had placed football before his health and it caught up with him. He resigned a few weeks later to address his health problems and spend more time with his family, but he couldn’t stay away and came back for one final ill-fated season at Florida before resigning for good and spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth.

Not lost on anybody (Meyer included) is the perception that the rigors of the SEC, and more specifically Saban getting the best of him those last two meetings, was what ultimately drove him to the Big Ten.

How true that really is probably depends on whether you look at things through SEC glasses or Big Ten glasses. Either way, it’s not like coaching at Ohio State is akin to coaching the Sunday school youth league in kickball.

In fact, in a lot of ways, Ohio State is a Midwestern version of Florida. And Meyer has held up just fine.

But to genuinely erase that stigma that the SEC and Saban sent him packing for easier football pastures, Meyer could do himself some serious favors by beating Saban on this stage. He’s done it before when Florida beat Alabama 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game, but that was in Saban’s second season at Alabama and before he had won the first of three national titles in Tide Town.

The fact that Ohio State is even here is a testament to the job Meyer did this season. He lost his star quarterback, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, in the preseason to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and was shaky early, but he ended the season as one of the most dynamic players in the country.

The only problem was that Barrett went down with a season-ending injury just before the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes didn’t blink. They slid Cardale Jones in at quarterback and blasted Wisconsin 59-0 to secure their spot in the playoff.

Much like Meyer, Saban has also done some of his best work this season.

Alabama got here with a quarterback, Blake Sims, who nobody gave a chance to even be the starter, much less set an Alabama record for passing yards in a season. Beyond the uncertainty at quarterback, there were some serious questions about the Crimson Tide this year, particularly on the offensive line and at cornerback.

So as we embark on this unprecedented playoff era in college football, something says this won’t be the last time we see Meyer and Saban going up against each other in a playoff game.

The real question: How many times over the next few years will we see a playoff that either Meyer or Saban won’t be on the sideline?

It’s the coaching matchup we all want to see.