Nick Saban is going for his third national title in four seasons, but he didn't beat Chris Redman and Ron Cooper in 1996.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They say there is nothing in college football more difficult than beating a team coached by the unflappable Nick Saban. Surely you have heard the talk. Even Howard Schnellenberger thinks Saban is the most meticulously prepared coach in the game.
Las Vegas appears to agree. Saban's Alabama team remains an unshakable 9 ½-point favorite to defeat unbeaten Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game in Miami Monday night. Schnellenberger does not believe it will be that close.
"Notre Dame is big," Schnellenberger said. "Alabama is big and fast. Saban knows how to take advantage of that."
I have no reason to dispute that. It sounds absolutely reasonable to me.
But every time I hear about the inevitable invincibility of St. Nick there is one football score that I cannot shake out of my head:
Ron Cooper 30, Nick Saban 20.
Saban and Michigan State were beaten by a redshirt freshman quarterback from the University of Louisville named Chris Redman, then a pup from Male High School. True confession: Redman now admits that he was so shaken by the first offensive snap he was supposed to take that he lined up behind a guard instead of a center.
"I tried to make it look like I was calling an audible, but my teammates had to be wondering what was going on," Redman said.
It happened Sept. 21, 1996. There is video evidence.
Louisville, a team coached by Cooper, trailed Michigan State, a team coached by Saban, 10-0, after 30 minutes of football. Then the Spartans knocked Jason Payne, Louisville's starting quarterback, out of the game.
Enter Redman. Cue the second-half route.
Consider it early evidence that a frisky quarterback who throws lasers can take advantage of a Nick Saban defense – in a way similar to the manner Johnny Manziel did when Texas A&M took down the Crimson Tide this season. That is also likely what Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson will have to do Monday night if the Irish expect to topple Saban's favored team. You don't run on Saban.
"Saban obviously wasn't the legend then that he is now," Redman said. "But I remember going into the game knowing that his team was very sound, very disciplined and very athletic. They were a good team and Michigan State was a tough place to play your first real game."
In his first extensive playing time for the Cardinals, Redman passed for 325 yards, 255 in the second half. Three of his 18 completions were for touchdowns. Cooper and his offensive coaches utilized Sam Madison, the team's all-American defensive back, at receiver for several plays. Madison caught two passes for 122 yards. Donnell Gordon ran for another 83 yards.
It was one of those days, especially for a Louisville team that had lost two of its first three games and was considered a 5-point underdog. The only touchdown Michigan State generated in the second half came with 43 seconds to play.
"It was one of the most memorable games of my entire college career," said Redman, who still holds a string of Louisville passing records.
What is the connection between a 16-year-old Louisville football victory and the BCS title game?
Cooper only won 4 of his next 18 games at U of L and was fired after the 1997 season. He coached in the NFL this season. Saban stayed three more seasons in East Lansing before moving to Louisiana State. He won one national title there. Now he's primed to win his third in four seasons at Alabama. Remarkable. Historic.
Unless, of course, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Golson and the rest of the Fighting Irish offense can create ways to score points on Saban's defense the way that Chris Redman and the Cards scored them back in 1996.
"Alabama is probably the better team, but you never know how guys are going to show up and play," Redman said. "Haven't we already seen that a few times during this bowl season?"