TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – You are not going to beat Nick Saban on the recruiting trail – he'll get better players than you. You are not going to beat him in the film room – his gameplan will trump yours.
You are not going to beat him in preparation or inspiration.
And now you can't even beat him in trickeration.
In a tie game and a tense atmosphere Saturday night against an LSU team that had things going its way, tricky Nick pulled a fast one on Mr. Wildcard himself, Les Miles. Saban ordered up a fake punt that changed the game, spurring Alabama to score the final 21 points in a 38-17 beatdown of the Tigers.
And now the Crimson Tide is another big stride closer to a three-peat national championship. There is a pair of low-stress games – Mississippi State and Chattanooga – between now and an Iron Bowl showdown at No. 9 Auburn. It would be a spectacular shock if Alabama were not still unbeaten and No. 1 heading to the Loveliest Little Village on the Plains on Nov. 30.
Saban's vaunted "Process" is relentlessly on task and fastidiously on schedule. But it took an unconventional play and an undeniable gamble to jump-start the Tide on Saturday night.
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LSU had just made a big short-yardage stop on a third down in the third quarter and was about to get the ball back, just a few plays after tying the score. Momentum was trending the Tigers' way.
Facing a fourth-and-2 at its own 41-yard line, the Alabama punt unit was on the field when the Tide suddenly called timeout. The reason: ace special teamer Landon Collins was late coming off the sidelines and lining up for the punt. That turned out to be a fortuitous brain freeze by Collins.
During the timeout, Saban and his staff told the punt team to run a fake if LSU lined up in a way that left the play open. Star senior linebacker C.J. Mosley, one of the upbacks in punt protection, surveyed the Tigers' alignment and called the fake.
"I trust C.J. to do anything," Saban said. "Watch my kids, take care of my home."
And execute a fake punt. The ball was snapped to Mosley, who handed it to safety Jarrick Williams, who ran off the right side of the line for six yards and a game-changing first down.
"I saw an open opportunity," Williams said. "C.J. handed it off to me and I'm still mad I didn't break it."
He broke it enough to break LSU's back.
Eight plays after the fake, T.J. Yeldon scored a touchdown. Then Alabama forced a punt and methodically marched for another Yeldon touchdown. School was out at that point, but the Tide added a third straight score on the subsequent drive for the emphatic final margin.
"We probably played our best half of football," Saban said. "There was a lot of character out there in the second half."
It started when the coach acted out of character by dialing up the fake punt. Miles is the guy you can usually count on for the daredevil decision in a big game, but he was outmaneuvered by Saban.
"We didn't want to give them the ball back," Saban said. "Our defense wasn't playing real well at that point."
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The situation was ripe for a fake. Alabama only needed two yards, and it had just called a timeout. CBS analyst Gary Danielson predicted the fake was coming on the air. Tide offensive tackle Austin Shepherd did the same on the sideline.
"It felt like the moment," Shepherd said.
Obvious as it was, the moment somehow eluded Miles and his punt return unit. If anyone on the Tigers sideline was screaming "Watch the fake," the players on the field clearly didn't hear them. Alabama easily converted, and Miles was left to absorb a third straight loss to the guy he succeeded as coach at LSU.
In his last 62 games as coach in Baton Rouge, Miles has only lost twice by more than 10 points.
Both to Saban.
"They played extremely well," Miles said. "I'm really not prepared for this. This kind of felt like we played better. Two quality teams played and that Alabama team separated themselves from us tonight."
After using subterfuge to get the initial edge, the Tide reverted to the familiar script to achieve separation. They beat the opposition to a pulp in the trenches. The Tide pounded the ball right through LSU's flagging defense, and teed off defensively.
The Tigers ran 21 second-half plays for 52 total yards. Alabama ran 35 second-half plays for 179 yards.
"I'd say we changed the way they thought," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "They said they were going to be more physical than us, and we changed that."
"It's a good feeling," Mosley said, "when you can see them breaking."
For the past five years, Alabama has left a litany of broken teams in its wake. They have hammered so many running backs, hounded so many quarterbacks, haunted so many offensive coordinators with their relentless defense. They have punished so many defensive linemen, befuddled so many defensive backs, exasperated so many defensive coordinators.
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They never stop coming at the opposition, and they never break down.
Well, check that. There was the famous breakdown last year at this time, the one that jeopardized Alabama's shot at a national title until Oregon and Kansas State let the Tide back into the picture. Woozy from a crippling LSU hangover after a thrilling battle in Baton Rouge, 'Bama was shocked by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel the next week.
"We hold our destiny, basically," said Mosley, who added to his All-American credentials with 12 tackles and two pass breakups. "We can take the momentum and ride out November, or we can stumble like we did last year."
Saban alluded to that stumble Saturday night.
"Last year we didn't handle the week after this game very well," he said.
Expect Alabama to handle it a lot better this time around. Expect a very focused Tide team visiting Mississippi State on Saturday.
But just in case 'Bama comes up flat in Starkville, tricky Nick Saban isn't averse to taking a gamble to change the course of a game.