What an Iron Bowl could look like without Saban at the helm

It’s one of the most anticipated matchups of the year. But without a head coach, can the team deliver?

The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers will meet for the 85th time Saturday. But for the first time in 14 years, a new head coach will be calling the shots from Alabama’s sidelines.

This will be the first time in his 15-year tenure that head coach Nick Saban will have to sit out the Iron Bowl. He has the second-most wins against Auburn with eight, trailing Paul W. Bear Bryant who has 19. 

The Crimson Tide has everything to lose this weekend. College football playoff rankings released on Tuesday put Alabama on top of the charts. And, like Alabama, Auburn fans and the team judge their seasons by championships, not positive records. This year, Auburn is out of playoff contention, so the only way to salvage this season is to upset Alabama and ruin their ability to control their bid to the playoffs. 

Saban will not be allowed to coach in this game for the first time in his career with Alabama. Saban began isolating Wednesday morning after testing positive for COVID-19 a second time this season.

The first positive test came in early October during the week before Alabama’s matchup with Georgia. Saban did not show any symptoms and tested negative for COVID-19 three consecutive times following his positive result. The medical staff for the University’s Athletic Department and the medical team for the SEC ruled Saban’s initial result a false positive, and Saban was eligible to coach on the sideline for the Georgia game. 


This week, Saban showed mild symptoms, and both the team and the SEC are treating this test like any other positive test. Saban will not be allowed to coach the game from his home, according to NCAA rules, so Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will take head coaching responsibilities this week. Saban said during his multitude of press conferences on Wednesday that the most important part of the game to him was being with his players. 

“The biggest thing I’m going to miss about it is being with our players, being a part of our team and helping those players have the best opportunity to be successful,” Saban said.

Regardless of where they stand in championship contention, both programs see the Iron Bowl as one of the biggest matchups of the season.

“I think what the players need to understand is, their energy, their [ability to keep their eye on the play], the preparation they have for a game like this is really, really important to having the right mindset,” Saban said. “In rivalry games, a lot of times, you beat yourself because you can’t maintain focus, and you need that in preparation because that really helps you when you get there.”

Saban’s positive test didn’t change the team’s practicing schedule. Team meetings are over Zoom, and Saban was able to watch practice from his house this week and give his feedback to the rest of the coaching staff. 

The challenge, however, will be on the field today, when Steve Sarkisian and the rest of the coaching staff can’t communicate with Saban at any point during the game or halftime. 

“You can’t see much on TV so I’ll have the same film that we take of the game, which is the film that we watch on Sunday, so I’ll be able to see a little bit more of what’s happening, kind of like if you’re in the press box type of thing,” Saban said. 


In a season of turmoil, some things have stayed the same. Just like every other year, the Iron Bowl marks senior day for the Crimson Tide’s players. Saban had nothing but praise for the 17 seniors on Wednesday. 

“Their record is 45-4 in the last four years with a national championship in 2018 and an SEC Championship in 2018,” Saban said. “They’ve done a great job of being great ambassadors for the University on and off the field, in the classroom, and most are on track to graduate, so we’re very proud of that.”  

Senior running back Najee Harris returned to Alabama to win another national championship for the Crimson Tide. Harris is on pace to break Derrick Henry’s all time records for career rushing yards and touchdowns. He currently is trailing by roughly 400 yards and six touchdowns. During his appearance at a Zoom press conference this week, Harris reflected on his time at the University. 

“It’s been a good ride,” Harris said Tuesday. “This will be my last game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But I’m not gonna play any different. I’m gonna play how I always play in each game. I’m happy for the time I’ve been here and playing at Bryant-Denny. It’s been good. I’ve had some fun moments, some fun experiences.”


Harris and the rest of the team seemed to be more focused on playing in the Iron Bowl this week. Saban reiterated that message Wednesday.

“We want everybody to be playing 100 percent – in terms of their effort, toughness, the discipline, focus – to execute all the intangible things that you can play with,” he said. “So, you can’t ask for more than that.”

Both Harris and Saban mentioned that the top 20 rated Auburn defense is the challenge that could stand in the way of an Alabama victory. 

“They’ve got a lot of good players,” Harris said. “Their front, D-line is always good. Their two linebackers are good. They’ve got a lot of speed back in the secondary with [defensive back] Smoke Monday. Their corners are really good. They’ve got a lot of speed in the secondary. They’re very physical, too, and they’re just always a good team on defense.” 

Saban complimented Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele who had been with Alabama off and on for four years in multiple roles. Since Steele took the job at Auburn, the team has a five-year 40-20 record, which is an improvement from 2011-2015, when the team went 38-27. 

“You win with execution. Their players really do a good job of executing whatever it is they do,” Saban said. “They make really good adjustments to take away what you’re trying to do. And the players play hard, and they play with a lot of toughness. I think those are all signs of Kevin’s leadership. But it’s always a challenge to play against him, that’s for sure. And I’m sure it won’t be any different Saturday.” 

Alabama will host Auburn in Bryant-Denny Stadium and the game will be featured in the primetime CBS slot today at 2:30 p.m.