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The candidates to replace Nick Saban

In the past, coaching searches for the Alabama football head coach’s job have drawn out over weeks (or months) and have involved a list of names the approximate length of a grocery shopping list at Thanksgiving.

TideFans.com does not expect this coaching search to take very long at all. As of this writing (approximately 9 p.m., Jan. 10), we would not be surprised to see Alabama fill its vacancy by the coming weekend.

Here are 13 names, in order, of who we are hearing will be connected to the job, with a distinct drop-off after our No. 6 name in terms of likelihood of being hired.

1. Dan Lanning, head coach, University of Oregon

Word broke Wednesday evening that Lanning might be in Tuscaloosa at the moment, either for an interview or maybe something more permanent. We believe Lanning is the top candidate for the job and given how fast Alabama has to move to avoid a mass transfer of players – with Saban leaving, the transfer portal opens up for all Alabama players for 30 days – a quick announcement would not surprise us. Lanning’s positives are that he was a graduate assistant at Alabama in 2015, worked as Kirby Smart’s defensive coordinator for three years and has had two successful seasons as Oregon’s head coach, with a 12-2 record in 2023 that featured a pair of losses to the eventual CFP runner-up Washington. The negatives? He’s only had two seasons as a head coach. Lanning is 37 years old and is regarded as an energetic, effective recruiter who has developed a fast familiarity with the transfer portal and can navigate the NIL landscape. His prior working experience, both in the Southeast in general and specifically with Nick Saban’s defensive systems, would make the transition period exceptionally short. Lanning’s contract with Oregon stipulates a $20 million buyout, a figure Alabama could pay if it wants badly enough to do so, but it’s still a significant figure.

2. Lane Kiffin, head coach, Ole Miss

Every living Bama fan knows exactly who Lane Kiffin is, and who Lane Kiffin was at one time in his career. He’s the former head coach of Tennessee – a fact that gets strangely forgotten from time to time – and his tenures with Southern Cal and the Oakland Raiders didn’t end well. One could argue that Kiffin has had one very good run as an Alabama assistant coach (2014-2016, which still ended with him separating from that job prior to the CFP championship), and nothing else until he – by his own admission – matured prior to taking the Ole Miss job. Kiffin’s record in Oxford has been outstanding by Ole Miss standards (33-15) and he is a bona fide offensive guru with an established track record of developing quarterbacks, even when everything else around him was breaking down. Kiffin has been at the forefront of utilizing the transfer portal to his advantage, but his prep recruiting is often erratic. Even though Kiffin is one of the most experienced coaches on this list, his boom/bust quotient is through the roof.

3. Kalen DeBoer, head coach, Washington

DeBoer got everyone’s attention when he took the Huskies to the CFP Championship Game, but he cut his teeth in lower levels, winning three NAIA championships and four Great Plains Athletic Conference championships. There has been a growing call in recent years for FBS teams to give more opportunities to coaches who have proven successful at lower levels, rather than to continue to hire and promote solely from the equivalent level of competition. DeBoer has a gaudy 104-12 overall record and yet would be just 49 years old at the start of the 2024 season. He has worked under respected coaches like Jeff Tedford and Chris Creighton. The negatives here are, primarily, that DeBoer has zero experience coaching in the South – the farthest south he has come so far was at Indiana as QB coach and offensive coordinator – and that his high-flying passing offense might not be physical enough for the SEC. Washington didn’t run the ball well at all in 2023 and barely played defense in several games. There is also the question of how much of DeBoer’s success at Washington was due to having Michael Penix as his quarterback. But he did beat Dan Lanning’s Oregon team twice during the 2023 season.

4. Steve Sarkisian, head coach, Texas

If you’re going for big names at big schools, Steve Sarkisian is probably the biggest of those considered to be mobile. Texas pays a lot and Sarkisian’s record up to this point has been surprisingly mid, but he is widely considered the best offensive coordinator Alabama ever had and the Texas job carries with it a lot of baked-in booster craziness that even Alabama’s legendary supporters can’t gin up. Sarkisian also won a head-to-head matchup with Saban in Week 2 of the 2023 season, a performance that was clearly personal and impactful to Sarkisian and may have served as a de facto job interview. The question here is whether Alabama would want to get into a bidding war with Texas boosters, and to what extent would Sarkisian encourage it.

5. Dabo Swinney, head coach, Clemson

Swinney will always be the beneficiary of hometown bias, given he graduated from Alabama and was an assistant here under two different head coaches. Two national titles – both coming against Alabama – cemented his reputation as a solid head coach, if not something even more. However, Swinney’s recent seasons have been plagued by bad press for some of his political or spiritual choices – neither of which is really any of the media’s business, but that didn’t stop it from becoming such – and far more importantly, his distaste for the transfer portal and NIL in general. While Swinney has since mellowed on his NIL stance, he either doesn’t understand the transfer portal or intends to be the one guy who tries to make a living without it. This is somewhat akin to trying to win with the wishbone offense in the year 2024. Unless or until Swinney takes a new approach to transfers, it’s hard to imagine him a legitimate contender for this job, despite his career record and local ties.

6. Mike Norvell, head coach, Florida State

Norvell is viewed as one of the best offensive minds in the country, and has worked with coaches like Todd Graham and Gus Malzahn – and Dan Lanning. He directed Florida State to an undefeated regular season in 2023, a feat made difficult by the Seminoles losing multiple quarterbacks for multiple games. But he also was at the helm for a 63-3 defeat at the hands of Georgia in the Orange Bowl, and drew criticism for his tact and delivery while addressing his disappointment at Florida State not being picked for the CFP Final Four. His frustrations aside, Norvell should still be considered a rising star in the coaching ranks and if he stays long enough at Florida State, he could rebuild the program to at least where it stood at the zenith of Jimbo Fisher’s time there. Beyond Norvell, the chances that anyone else on this list is hired is exceptionally miniscule.

7. DeMeco Ryans, head coach, Houston Texans (NFL)

Like Dabo Swinney, DeMeco Ryans’ first connection to the job comes through his diploma. But Ryans’ first year in Houston was impressive, and his defensive pedigree, proven during a successful stint as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator, suggests he’s one of the best young coaches in the NFL. And that’s what hurts him most on this list – prestige, and also timing. NFL head coaching jobs are typically seen as higher-level than college jobs are, even Alabama’s. And in today’s NIL and transfer portal world, an NFL coach has far less to deal with than a college coach, who must balance coaching and recruiting along with what historically comes with a pro coaching gig. In the short term, timing is Ryans’ worst enemy, as Houston’s season isn’t over yet and taking the Bama job at the moment could be messy. We have no doubt Ryans has the tools necessary to become a successful coach in Alabama, but the pieces don’t fit together cleanly at the moment.

8. Mike Locksley, head coach, Maryland

If you’re looking at Nick Saban proteges exclusively, there are Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, both of whom may be married to their current jobs. The next-most impressive resume? Probably that of James Madison’s Curt Cignetti, who just recently took the Indiana job, and Mike Locksley. Locksley’s first head coaching assignment was at New Mexico, and it didn’t go smoothly over a three-year run. He was fired from that job, eventually rehabilitated his career as Alabama offensive coordinator, and has since returned Maryland to respectability. Locksley is a master of zone-read and RPO-based offenses, and has always been known as an effective recruiter. It’s that last trait that might have him in the mix in Tuscaloosa, if the top candidates passed on the job.

9. Tommy Rees, offensive coordinator, Alabama

This would be a hire based solely on potential, as Rees has many fans (including the coach bringing up the rear of this list, Brian Kelly). Rees’ first year in Alabama was seen as a modest success, as he helped the Crimson Tide return to a more physical style of football. But what Rees might do in the future, or what he did for Alabama in 2023, pales in comparison to the glaring negative: He has never been a head coach before, and this job has proven it needs an experienced hand. Rees is the only non-head coach we think could be considered a candidate, but we believe several candidates would have to drop out first. This would be a complete reach on the part of Greg Byrne.

10. James Franklin, head coach, Penn State

Franklin’s star has dimmed a bit since going to Penn State, but the Nittany Lions remain a respectable program. However, most of what gets Franklin onto this list goes back to his Vanderbilt days, when he proved the right coach could actually bring the Commodores up to the level of a tough out. Franklin was expected to recruit much better at Penn State than he has, however, and player development there has not been the best.

11. Deion Sanders, head coach, Colorado

Sanders is a dynamic personality, and his partnership with Saban in AFLAC commercials has caused many to speculate that there might be something more there than just two guys sharing an endorsement contract. Sanders did little to quell the speculation following a series of statements and tweets about his respect and affection for Saban. But Sanders’ first season in Colorado ended up being a tough one, as his plan to rebuild the Buffaloes’ roster almost solely through the transfer portal turned out to be a bumpy experiment. We actually believe Sanders has the ability to develop into a solid head coach, but he isn’t there yet – and at age 56, he’s surprisingly on the upper end of ages for this list of candidates. Time is running out.

12. Kirby Smart, head coach, Georgia

If you thought you could actually get Smart to listen, he shoots to the top of this list with a bullet. Smart has refined and modernized Saban’s defensive strategies to the point that they have a refreshed shelf life, and his recruiting is undeniably fantastic. But Smart is a Georgia grad, coaching at his alma mater. It probably doesn’t matter quite as much to him as it might others – Smart spent some time in Alabama as a boy, as his dad was a successful high school coach here – but it still makes him almost untargetable. Smart has himself been the subject of early-retirement rumors the last couple of years, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing regarding his place on Alabama’s list.

13. Brian Kelly, head coach, LSU

Kelly is thought to covet the Michigan job if Jim Harbaugh jumps to the NFL. While he’s a long shot under any condition for Alabama, Kelly is one of the best college head coaches not named Nick Saban, and is tough enough to take the heat of the environment around the Alabama program. Plus, getting a former LSU head coach two hires in a row might be more than the Tiger fans could stand. Kelly, however, has had issues recruiting certain positions on the team, and his portal evaluations haven’t been great. Mostly, though, he’s a northern coach who would probably prefer a northern school.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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