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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel and Alabama coach Nick Saban see the SEC very differently

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If you’re in dire need of a reminder that two successful coaches can be polar opposites, take a look at Josh Heupel and Nick Saban.

In all fairness, the term “successful” has to be adapted a bit in order to fit both parties. Heupel, now at Tennessee, is one of the most exciting young coaches in the nation with an offense that seemingly never quits. Saban, long at Alabama, is one of the most decorated coaches in team sports’ history and it seems he may never retire. Success can come in different forms. Heupel isn’t nearly Saban’s equal, but they both should be considered successful. That doesn’t mean they always agree.

Take Heupel’s latest comments into consideration when asked about Alabama via Sports Illustrated: “We’d love to play our historical rivals every single year. It’s important to our fan base. Players want to play those games when they come to Tennessee. I don’t know what the scheduling model is going to look like, but we want to play our historic rivals.”

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That sounds far different than when Saban spoke out against potential scheduling changes that might occur once the SEC finally adds Texas and Oklahoma in 2025. Saban wasn’t real keen on having Auburn, LSU and Tennessee as permanent opponents. That’s understandable. That’s no easy trio of teams.

It’s hard to argue against Auburn as an annual foe. That’s one of the best rivalries in sports. The Bama-LSU series has had its heyday as well. And, Alabama-Tennessee is one of the strongest rivalries, historically, in college athletics. So, Saban really didn’t have much of a beef. Saban can say he was looking out for Alabama even after he’s done coaching, but his actions following his public comments throughout his career don’t quite say as much.

Saban was against uptempo play, then adopted it. Saban has publicly been against NIL and the transfer portal. However, he’s used both to his benefit.

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For the record, Saban’s thoughts on the Vols being a permanent opponent were a bit different went Jeremy Pruitt was Tennessee’s head coach. In fact, Saban was all for keeping the rivalry going. 

“I think the rivalry between Tennessee and Alabama is one of the old great rivalries in college football,” Saban said in 2021 before playing the Vols. “It goes way back. I know it means a lot to a lot of people in our state. It certainly means a lot to me.”

While Saban comes across as a man who has an agenda that would make a politician blush, Heupel just seems to be himself – naturally. Heupel also seems a bit smarter in the permanent opponent debate as Alabama and Tennessee have remained a rivalry despite a sometimes one-sided affair. Heupel must know that there will be a deeper playoff and a loss, two, or maybe even three, will still allow a team to get into the postseason. Maybe Saban hasn’t thought about that. Or maybe he’s just looking our for his own best interests.

Heupel has also shown that he “gets” Tennessee, the SEC and what storied traditions are made up of. As much as any coach, he could rail against the Bama rivalry. After all, both teams have other teams worthy to choose from and, as mentioned earlier, the series can lack for drama for years on end.

However, Heupel knows that in this ever-changing world of college football, there will be one thing that will always outpace change: tradition.

Heupel has seen what it’s like to coach at Central Florida, which essentially has no tradition. He’s now seen what it’s like to coach at Tennessee, which has plenty of tradition. Alabama and Tennessee can become doormats of the SEC and the Third Saturday in October will mean something. In that regard, Heupel is wise beyond his years.

There may come a day in which Saban will sit down with a reporter, look back over his career and share which of his public stances were genuine and which were just selfish. Ah, probably not. Heupel won’t seemingly need a chance to clear the air. He seems perfectly fine just saying what he thinks, which just happens to be best for Tennessee’s football program.

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