Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, won’t coach Alabama in Iron Bowl vs. Auburn

By Matt Fitzgerald
Nov 21, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban reacts during a game against the entucky Wildcats at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

Alabama’s Nick Saban won’t coach in the Iron Bowl against Auburn after testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

The legendary leader of the Crimson Tide program will have to isolate and thus cannot be part of the epic SEC rivalry showdown on Saturday. Auburn is the last ranked opponent No. 1 Alabama must face before the conference championship game.

Nick Saban out, Steve Sarkisian in

According to multiple media reports including the one from Alex Scarborough ESPN.com, Nick Saban won’t be in action this coming weekend and is experiencing “mild symptoms”, which means offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will be tasked with overseeing the team in Saban’s stead.

Sarkisian was tabbed to do the interim coaching job when Saban recorded a false positive COVID-19 test last month. Once it was determined Saban didn’t in fact have the coronavirus, he was able to coach without missing a beat. Now, it seems like Sarkisian is in line to take the wheel of this Crimson Tide juggernaut in a pivotal matchup against the Tigers.

After stints as the head coach at Washington and USC, Sarkisian isn’t short on experience. He’s also overseen the development of quarterback Mac Jones over the past season-plus, which has resulted in the signal-caller becoming a Heisman Trophy contender in 2020. Nevertheless, instead of focusing on the offense exclusively, it’ll be important for Sarkisian to take charge, and he at least has a track record of doing so at other marquee college football programs.

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How Nick Saban’s absence will impact Alabama vs. Auburn

Nick Saban Patrick Surtain
Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Patrick Surtain II (2) reacts during the first quarter during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game against the Clemson Tigers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Saban has built his reputation around defense, and continually recruits NFL-caliber players on that side of the ball in particular. The fact that he’s done so well year in and year out with that unit — and with a savvy play-caller in Sarkisian at the controls for Jones and Co. — it’s no surprise he’s confident.

“You have to be able to deal with disruptions this year, and I think our players have been pretty mature about doing that,” Saban said, per ESPN.com. “[Auburn] has a very good team and they’re playing really well right now, so it will be a real challenge for us and we just have to continue to have great preparation.”

Indeed, that “Process” and preparation is what sets Saban a cut above everyone else in his profession. The 69-year-old still has plenty of fire to deliver national championships to Tuscaloosa, and while he did give the Tigers credit and they can never be discounted in such a heated rivalry, this upcoming duel is an indubitable mismatch.

Depending where you look, the point spread will vary, but on DraftKings, the Crimson Tide are a whopping 24.5-point favorite over Auburn. Their vaunted defense will be facing a Tigers quarterback in Bo Nix who is mistake-prone and threw three interceptions in a loss to South Carolina earlier this season. For further context, the Gamecocks recently fired their defensive-minded coach Will Muschamp for poor performance.

Nix is a threat to run the football, but as long as Alabama’s dynamic front seven can slow down Auburn’s rushing attack well enough, it’ll be up to the sophomore signal-caller to create magic through the air. Against a secondary featuring surefire first-round cornerback Patrick Surtain II, there’s a fat chance of that happening often enough for an upset to occur.

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Jones gives the Tide a clear edge at the most important position on the gridiron, and has a much more capable defense and offensive line to complement him.

More likely, the College Football Playoff rankings will continue to have the Crimson Tide in the top spot next week, and Saban will be back on the sidelines for the regular-season finale against Arkansas as Alabama quests for another national title.