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Friends to foes: Jimbo Fisher, Nick Saban square off in marquee matchup

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Andrew Whitworth saw the competitive streaks of Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher firsthand as an offensive lineman at LSU when Fisher’s offense would go against Saban and the defense.

Fisher roamed the sideline with Saban for five years, working as Saban’s offensive coordinator in Baton Rouge. Now, for the first time in their careers, they square off as head coaches when Fisher’s third-ranked Seminoles take on Saban and top-ranked Alabama in Atlanta.

The stakes are huge.

 It will mark the first opening week matchup of top-three teams since the AP started its preseason poll in 1950.

“I’m looking forward to it because I have a lot of respect for both,” said Whitworth, now an offensive lineman with the Los Angeles Rams. “But there’s no question those are two guys who are as competitive as competitive gets.”

Saban and Fisher, who have a 14-year age difference, grew up less than an hour apart in West Virginia. They didn’t meet for the first time until 1999, when Saban took the LSU job after five seasons at Michigan State and interviewed Fisher to be his offensive coordinator.

In their five years together (2000-04), Saban and Fisher led LSU to a 48-16 record, two Southeastern Conference titles and the national championship in 2003. Since going their separate ways, they have built championship programs and are the winningest college football coaches since 2010.

Over the past seven seasons, Saban has 86 wins and has led Alabama to four national championships. Fisher has 78 victories and one national title.

Saban said earlier this week that Fisher is the closest of all his former and current assistants in terms of philosophy and temperament.

“Jimbo was always in my mind always one of the best play-callers, one of the best assistant coaches relating to players, teachers, that we’ve ever had on any of our staffs,” Saban said.

Fisher said he learned a lot of football under Saban, but has done things his own way.

“We saw it very similar in a lot of ways philosophically with how players are coached, how their sizes or the dimensions of things you need to be successful and the things you have to have to be successful,” Fisher said. “But I never really copied off anybody. I just learned from people and then formulated my own ideas.”

Whitworth got a glimpse of how competitive Saturday’s night should be.

On the practice field at LSU, the talented units on both sides of the ball were extensions of their coaches and battled to gain the upper hand. Eighteen of the 22 starters on the 2003 offense and defense played in the NFL.

“Those practices were really competitive and led to success we had,” Whitworth said. “Seeing coach Saban get in a bad mood when we had success on offense because Jimbo found an answer to something Nick had was fun.

“There were a couple times when coach Saban thought we were reading his script.”

During one memorable time during team drills when Fisher changed from running zone-read options to run-pass options. Saban was more worried about how well both sides could block until a turnover happened, which caused him to throw what he calls a “Nick fit.”

Fisher said the practices were always about preparing each unit, not just pitting offense against defense. But there were certain times when things needed to be tweaked to see how each side measured up.

“We played to each other. I always tried to understand as a head coach, which I always thought I looked at, that was one of the things I thought we did very well,” Fisher said. “But every now and then, you have to do something because they were good and we were good.”

Fisher might need every trick in his playbook to get the win on Saturday.

Saban is 10-0 against his former assistants and has won by an average of 30 points. Fisher has one win over Saban, albeit not as a head coach. In Saban’s first season at Alabama in 2007, the Seminoles beat the Tide 21-14 when Fisher was Florida State’s offensive coordinator.

Whitworth believes Fisher has the best chance of being the first Saban disciple to beat him.

“I think this is the best and most stable of a program that he has faced. Both are moving in the right direction and are prepared,” he said. “Nick does a great job of preparing that you have to spread the field on him some. You look at the teams that have been successful against Alabama it has been because players make big plays.

“You don’t see teams outscheme Nick Saban.”

Fisher said the last time he saw Saban was during the NFL draft in Philadelphia in late April. He said he expects to see Saban a couple more times before pregame warmups.

After that, pleasantries will be put on hold for at least three hours.

“I’m great. I’m nice,” Fisher said. “When it’s time to keep score, we’ll keep score. Until then, we’ll be nice.”

Whitworth said Saban and Fisher recognize this isn’t just another season opener.

“Both guys are saying it is only one game but it means a lot,” he said. “They would be lying if they said this wouldn’t be a big win.”

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