Empire Strikes Back: How Nick Saban adapted to help Alabama get Iron Bowl revenge

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – If you could tap into Nick Saban’s fondest football dreams, you’d probably find the Alabama football coach fantasizing about shutouts and cartilage-rattling tackles and a relentless pass rush.

Touchdowns would be down the wish list.

But on a surreal November night when the Iron Bowl scoreboard read 55-44 – an abomination to the Pat Dye generation – Saban could deal with it.

Because his team had the 55, and Auburn had the 44. His team has the Southeastern Conference Western Division title, and the Tigers don’t. His 11-1 team should still be No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, and 8-4 Auburn will be well down the list.

Those are the overarching truths that make the discomfort of winning this way tolerable.

The Crimson Tide gave up more yards than it ever has before (630) on more plays than it ever has endured before (90). The Tide withstood a barrage by Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who set school records for total offense (505 yards) and passing yards (465). When a reporter tried to tap dance around those facts when asking Saban about a defense that “seemed” to struggle, the coach called him on it.

“There wasn’t any seemed like it,” Saban said, poking at the stat sheet before him. “You’re not going to hurt my feelings. They passed for 465 yards. I’ve got it right here on paper.

“The way we’re headed in college football, there’s going to be games like this and we’re going to have to win games like this.”

Alabama players celebrate in the closing seconds of the Iron Bowl. (AP)
Alabama players celebrate in the closing seconds of the Iron Bowl. (AP)

In point of fact, Saban now has won two games like this recently. Last year, Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel put up the previous all-time high in yardage against the Tide (628) but lost to Alabama, 49-42, in a revenge game. Now Auburn has been paid back in a shootout that outdid even that one.

This is instructive. One of the reasons Saban is the most successful coach of his generation is because he is flexible enough to adapt. He will still win the slugfest games – 20-13 over LSU, 14-13 over Arkansas – but like his friend and former NFL boss, Bill Belichick, he will win the shootouts, too.

He has been dragged into a no-huddle, spread-it-and-sling-it, light-up-the-scoreboard era – and as it turns out, an old defensive coach who loves ball control can win the modern way, too.

In a development that has enhanced what already was the sport’s best rivalry, Gus Malzahn has arrived at Alabama’s biggest rival as Saban’s stylistic opposite. He is America’s foremost practitioner of fast football, a slick offensive play caller who prefers track meets to trench warfare. They don’t have much in common, other than an obsessive brilliance.

In two memorable meetings, Malzahn has schemed Saban out of his comfort zone – but he has only managed to split the two games, despite throwing a powerful scare into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.

One year after shocking ‘Bama on the 109-yard kick six that decided the SEC championship, heavy underdog Auburn appeared poised to deliver another gut shot. The Tigers ran an air raid on the Tide, dropping bomb after bomb on a bewildered secondary while racing to a 33-21 lead early in the second half. Sammie Coates had 153 receiving yards and two touchdowns at halftime, as Marshall just reared back and chucked it for the freak athlete to retrieve.

In an attempt to match points, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims was folding under the pressure. One of the surprise stars of the sport in 2014, Sims threw three interceptions in a span of 10 passes in the second quarter and early third, and after the third pick backup Jacob Coker started warming up on the sideline.

Alabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn shake hands after the Crimson Tide's win. (USAT)
Alabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn shake hands after the Crimson Tide's win. (USAT)

The nausea sweeping through the massive stadium was contagious, and damn near palpable. This was a blooming disaster – for Alabama and for the SEC, which would face the very real possibility of being left out of the four-team playoff if the Tide followed Mississippi State’s defeat earlier Saturday with a loss of its own.

Yet as hope soared in Fort Worth and Waco and Columbus, Ohio, ‘Bama regrouped.

“This is kind of a gut check as to what kind of heart you have, what kind of character you have,” Saban told his team at halftime.

Then the coach stepped further out of his comfort zone and got more aggressive.

Trailing 33-21, Saban went for a fourth-and-3 from the Auburn 42. It was less a vote of confidence for his offense than a vote of no-confidence in his defense, at least at that particular moment. Sims and receiver DeAndrew White rewarded the gamble by barely converting on a swing pass to the sideline – and on the next play, Sims hit the transcendent Amari Cooper wide open down the middle of the field for a 39-yard touchdown.

Right then and there, the game swung irrevocably in favor of Alabama.

After holding Auburn to a field goal – the Tigers kicked too many of those, stalling repeatedly in the red zone – Sims fired another touchdown bomb to Cooper. This time it was a 75-yarder that made the score 36-34, and it was a byproduct of Saban bugging offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to go for the jugular.

“We didn’t throw the ball downfield very much in the first half,” Saban said. “The one time we did was a touchdown. I kept saying to Lane, ‘We’ve made a lot of explosive plays throwing the ball down the field [this year], let’s take some shots on these guys and see if they can cover us deep.’ They [were] certainly doing that to us and we were not having much success. I think a couple of the big plays really changed the momentum of the game.”

They triggered a Crimson Tidal wave. Three more touchdowns followed in succession, as Sims quit making mistakes and what had been a sketchy Auburn defense most of the season reverted to form and eventually collapsed.

It took a while, but Alabama got its payback for the Kick Six.

“I can’t lie,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “You’re not supposed to say it, but everyone thought about last year. It was personal.”

It was personal, and it also was surreal. The Iron Bowl has never been a 99-point offensive orgy, and Nick Saban has never been wired to play this way.

But if that’s what it takes to win and keep Alabama’s quest for a fourth national title under Saban alive, bring on the touchdowns.