Playoff picture looks like, top two … and then who?

Rob Oller
FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2018, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talk before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game for the NCAA college football national championship in New Orleans. Swinney and the Tigers play in their third national championship game in four seasons next Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, against top-ranked Alabama. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

With Urban Meyer taking his talents to Venice Beach or thereabouts as a Fox Sports studio host, the trio of college football’s best coaches is now a duo.

Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, come on down.

I rank the Alabama and Clemson coaches 1 and 1A, with Saban getting the top nod because of his six national championship rings to Swinney’s two. Saban also won titles at two schools: Bama and LSU, which is a rarity. Just ask Urban.

>> Read more: Previewing Ohio State's season

Saban and Swinney both are characters, though vastly different in their approach. At least publicly. Dabo is football’s aw-shucks John the Baptist, openly sharing his faith, which attracts a certain type of recruit — quarterback Trevor Lawrence, like Swinney, is a billboard born-again Christian — and oozing a downhome Southern charm.

Saban is known in circles outside Tuscaloosa as Nicky Satan. I’m not sure if the nickname came about based on his general demeanor — there is more acid in Saban’s stare than in the cans of Diet Coke he consumes daily — or if opponents have had a devil of a time dealing with him.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

In reality, the two men are tough nuts with tender trappings; it’s just that Swinney’s soft spot is external and Saban’s internal. But if you want to see another side of Swinney, much darker, read Will Leitch’s profile of the Clemson coach in August’s New York magazine.

Titled “College Football’s Real Evil Villain,” the piece takes Swinney to task for, among other things, choosing not to give quarterback Kelly Bryant — who started four games for the Tigers last season — a national championship ring after the QB transferred to Missouri.

My take? The great ones usually have some SOB in them. Saban does. Meyer does. Woody did. Dabo has enough.

Saban is the most interesting of that crew. He comes off unrelentingly stern, but listen closely and you see why he is a master recruiter. Few coaches can spin a yarn without coming off overly oddball (Mike Leach), sappy (Mike Gundy) or polished (James Franklin).

It’s not often you see the Saban behind the curtain, but Maryland coach Mike Locksley gave a glimpse last month during Big Ten media days in Chicago when he shared what it was like to work for him the past three seasons.

“It starts with consistency, with how he communicates his message,” Locksley said. “It’s clear and very concise. He’s very demanding, which I have no problem with. It was the best three years of my coaching career.”

Another key to Alabama’s success?

“I witnessed great players come there and humble themselves, put individual goals aside for the team,” Locksley said. “Nick has this ability to get guys to come there who have had their butts kissed since the eighth grade. And they end up being unselfish.”

A chicken-or-egg question: Do teams win because of great coaching, or do winning teams create great coaches? At the college level, I vote the former. Remember that the coach deserves credit for recruiting the talent.

With that in mind, instead of the usual method of ranking teams based on roster talent, my four playoff picks are based on coaching results.

1. Saban/Alabama. It’s trendy to put Swinney ahead of Saban, but not until he wins at least one more national title. Saban is 2-2 against Swinney, but 237-63-1 (.789) in a 23-year career that includes stints at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and Bama. He has taken the Tide to the College Football Playoff all five years it has been in existence.

2. Swinney/Clemson. Swinney is 116-30 (.795) with two national titles in four trips to the playoff. It took Saban 10 years before winning his first national championship. Swinney has won two in 11 years with the Tigers.

3. Lincoln Riley/Oklahoma. Riley took over for Bob Stoops in 2017 and led the Sooners to the playoff his first two seasons. Riley, who worked under Stoops and also under Leach at Texas Tech, has been so successful at Oklahoma (24-4) that he was a template for Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith in plotting the succession plan from Meyer to Ryan Day.

4. A tough one. Something tells me Ohio State will make a strong push for the playoff, but based on coaching record I can’t pull that trigger. Day is too much of an unknown to place him and the Buckeyes ahead of … Chris Petersen/Washington.

Again, my rankings are based on the coach more than the program, and Petersen’s 139-33 (.808) record is better than anyone not named Riley who has at least two full seasons of experience and a legitimate shot at the playoff.

Saban, Swinney, Riley and Petersen. Sounds right to me. What say you?


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: