Open for scoring: How Nick Saban's evolution changed Alabama

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Pete Thamel
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – A decade ago, Alabama completed an undefeated season with a national championship victory over Texas, Nick Saban’s first as the Crimson Tide’s coach. That 2009 Alabama team relied on a formula that defined much of Saban’s coaching career – defiant ball control, a dominant defense ranked No. 2 nationally and a risk-averse offense that ranked No. 92 in passing.

Quarterback Greg McElroy was straight out of game manager central casting, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram churned both yards and the game clock, and the Crimson Tide relied on a bruising defense that saw four players selected in the top 60 of the 2010 NFL draft.

On Monday night in Northern California, Saban will attempt to win his sixth national title at Alabama. The tactics on display illustrate an evolution under Saban bordering on a revolution, the football strategy equivalent of the Crimson Tide running out of the tunnel in florescent pink uniforms.

Alabama brings one of the most aggressive and explosive offenses in college football to the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s matchup with No. 2 Clemson. A decade after Saban’s first title, this Alabama team is outscoring his first title team by more than two touchdowns more per game (averaging 47.7 points to 32.1 in ’09), has passed for 1,900 more yards and is averaging nearly two more yards per play (7.89 to 5.96).

Once so famously resistant to the high-flying offenses in college football that Saban declared, “Is this what we want football to be?” in response to the surge of no-huddle attacks, his Crimson Tide program has transformed into the type of offensive juggernaut he once derided. Alabama finished No. 2 nationally in scoring offense this season and broke school records in virtually every major team category: scoring (668 points), yards per game (527.6) and passing touchdowns (50).

“I think he’s as smart as they come,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of Saban. “I think he said, ‘These are the things that hurt us, so let’s do it to them.’ ”

Alabama coach Nick Saban throws oranges to the crowd after the Crimson Tide beat Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal. (Getty)
Alabama coach Nick Saban throws oranges to the crowd after the Crimson Tide beat Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal. (Getty)

When Crimson Tide assistant coach Joe Pannunzio arrived for his first stint working for Saban in 2011, there was a defined and unrefined offensive philosophy. “We ran the ball when we wanted to and where we wanted to,” he said. “It wasn’t quite Woody Hayes, but it was more of a grind-it-out mentality.”

Alabama has won 16 consecutive games and is playing in its fourth consecutive national title game. The most informative way to understand how Alabama evolved to win with the second-ranked scoring offense in college football is to understand the losses that got Saban to change his football DNA from I-Formation to a modern RPO machine.

[Offense wins championships: College Football Playoff teams show how scoring is imperative to win]

Since winning back-to-back BCS titles in 2011 and ’12, Alabama has lost just seven games in the subsequent six seasons. The teams they lost to – Auburn (twice), Ole Miss (twice), Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma – all relied on variations of what Saban had resisted. Auburn, Oklahoma and Ole Miss used tempo and the quarterback run game, Ohio State ran a power spread offense and Clemson utilized a bevy of RPOs out of a spread. “If you can’t beat em, join them,” said former Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage, the general manager of the Arizona Hotshots in the Alliance of American Football.

That happened in steps, of course. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as the offensive coordinator in January 2014 marked a clear pivot point into modernization. Kiffin brought some tempo, the quarterback run game and more opportunities for receivers in the passing game. As Alabama’s offensive numbers spiked, despite modest quarterback talent like Blake Sims, Jake Coker and Jalen Hurts, Alabama began to lure better skill position players. “He’s always been able to go sign any defensive player in America, but he’d struggled to sign the national five-star quarterback,” Kiffin told Sports Illustrated in December 2016. “Now that’s different.”

That included Tua Tagovailoa, who committed in May 2016, and his unique skill set and ability to push the ball down the field has taken this Alabama offense to its latest paradigms. Tagovailoa enters the College Football Playoff title game with 41 touchdowns, four interceptions and a completion rate a shade under 70 percent.

Oklahoma assistant coach Bob Diaco was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator when they got blown out by Alabama, 42-14, in the BCS championship title game following the 2012 season. He pointed to just what Kiffin projected – better depth of skill and elite quarterback play – as the difference in this edition of Alabama. “There’s a balance to the formations,” Diaco said. “They’re creating problems across [the width of the field] now. They’d always been a problem before at the point of attack and over your head. Now they’re presenting some ‘race for space’ plays.”

[How the combination of high school offenses and 7-on-7 have changed football]

After Alabama gave up 42 points to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the 2014 season, Saban went directly to the source. He called Ohio State offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, who’d accepted the head-coaching job at Houston. Herman flew to Tuscaloosa for a visit, and Saban later sent Kiffin and the offensive staff to Houston for a clinic. What impressed Herman the most was how a coach as accomplished as Saban was so open to listening and learning. “He wanted to know from an offensive coach’s perspective, ‘How does all of that work? What do you see?’ ” Herman said. “He wanted to know what we try to glean from film and all that.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow.’ Here’s a guy with multiple national championships that wants to open himself up to self-evaluation of his defense. But also an evaluation of where offenses are heading.”

Prior to this season, Saban predicted Alabama would have a “different kind of team.” Who knew they’d end up the ones being studied for where offenses have evolved to? Few have better perspective on the change than McElroy, the game-managed quarterback from a decade ago. “You have to empower your offense,” he said, “to win shootouts occasionally.”

That occasion may just come on Monday night. Don’t be surprised if Alabama wins by scoring in a manner no one could have expected from Saban a decade ago.

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