Five years ago, when Alabama and LSU met in the “Game of the Century,” the 9-6 LSU win was a shoutout to old-school, smashmouth football.
The way the game should be played.
A true representation that the definition of championship football was a two-back power-rushing attack combined with a big, physical defense.
Alabama has changed that definition.
“Saban has gotten it down to a science,” said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who co-hosts The Opening Drive on WJOX in Birmingham. “He’s recruiting the right guys for the right positions and putting them in positions to succeed.”
How many teams can boast a defense that shuts down traditional offenses like Arkansas and USC, as well as exotic ones like Texas A&M? How many teams can score 12 times on defense and special teams in two months? How many teams can combine that defensive success with offensive flexibility that’s in the top 20 nationally in yards per play, total offense and scoring offense?
“Saban 2.0” has transformed Alabama into an old-school monster with a new-school twist—something that’s incomparable in college football.
The 2016 version of the Crimson Tide that will head to Baton Rouge this weekend to take on those same LSU Tigers has evolved into a 900-pound gorilla that’s capable of winning that same, traditional style of football when asked, but it can also flip a switch and become as new-school as any team in the country if necessary.
It started with the offense, which has evolved into a tempo-based, zone-read monster first under Blake Sims in 2014 and now with true freshman Jalen Hurts in 2016. That offense, led by coordinator Lane Kiffin, thrives by creating eye conflicts on the defense, stressing different defensive players on each play and using run-pass options with the quarterback.
You know, all of the things that Saban publicly rallies against but is smart enough to use to his advantage because he can.
“For us to not use those plays is a disadvantage for us,” Saban said at SEC media days. “So even though we may not philosophically agree that this is the way football was meant to be played or should be played, if it creates issues for the other team and for the defense—and pace of play has been something that I think has done that, so have all of these run-pass option plays that people run—then we need to use those things, too, or we’re creating a disadvantage for ourselves.”
The ability to swallow his pride and evolve with the sport has further solidified Saban as the best in the business.
“He kept the process in place that made him successful and kept the philosophy in place that made him successful—running the football,” Barker said. “They’re still doing the things that made him successful, but they’re getting to it in a different way.”
It’s not just a skeleton version of an exotic offense that Saban and Kiffin have unleashed. This offense is a well-oiled machine that has taken the skills Hurts came to Tuscaloosa from Texas with and created the most versatile offense in the country.
“The crazy thing to me is how they’ve been mixing and matching the run game on a week-to-week basis,” said former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic, a sideline analyst on SEC Network and host on WUMP 730 in Huntsville. “Against A&M, they’re running the zone read where the quarterback is reading the backside 3-technique. The week before, they basically reverse the blocking scheme on zone reads where the quarterback is reading the front-side defensive end. They’re taking away the ability of defenses to scheme against what they do.”
Because of the ability of Kiffin and Saban to diagnose and attack a defense’s weak spot in a variety of ways, the Tide offense has become its defense’s best weapon.
“It puts a lot more pressure on the opposing defenses and actually takes a ton of pressure off his own defense because they’re able to score more points, move the ball, sustain drives and do the things that he wanted to do out of that I or power formation early on and at LSU,” Barker said. “This is that same style, but getting different and better results.”
The Tide are even getting creative when it matters most.
“When did you think you would see a Saban team in shotgun on the 3-yard-line?” SEC Network’s Booger McFarland said. “But hats off to them, because when you have the best athletes, you put them in space and let them make plays.”
The switch to a more dynamic offense is something that has been years in the making.
When former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel led his Aggies to a 29-24 win over the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa in 2012, Saban had a realization that his old way of doing things—while effective—wasn’t the best way.
Not just for his offense, but his defense.
“He looked at things and said, ‘One, we’re going to have to score points, but two, we’re going to have to defend it,'” Barker said. “The only way to do that is to practice against it each and every day. They changed the mentality on what they want to do, but kept the core beliefs intact.”
That evolution on the defensive side of the ball meant one thing: speed over size.
“No longer is it about size, speed and athleticism,” McFarland said. “It’s just about speed and athleticism. Bama got smaller on defense at the defensive line and inside linebacker position.”
It started with the 2013 recruiting class, which featured current defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Eddie Jackson (who was injured Oct. 22 and is out for the season). Those three players—front to back—brought more speed to positions where size used to matter.
Allen is a 6’3″, 291-pound defensive end who can stretch the field side-to-side even as an end in a 3-4 scheme. It was apparent early on just how fast he was when he tracked down former Auburn running back Tre Mason 40 yards downfield in the 2013 Iron Bowl.
Foster first made an impact on special teams and as a reserve, and has thrived as a senior with a team-high 53 tackles.
“They’ve got 300-pounders, but they look like they’re 280,” Barker said. “They’re built so good and they can run. Jonathan Allen is just amazing with everything he does—and really that entire defensive front. Reuben has even shed some weight.”
Because of that, Foster is quicker than he was coming out of high school and able to make plays like the one Cubelic pointed out on Twitter:
On the back end, Jackson moved from corner to safety before last season and became a star prior to his injury. That move—which was an indicator that Saban needed more “corner speed” at the safety spot—also helps his team deal with exotic offenses that test defenses from east to west.
As a result, the staff has a better idea of how prepared the defense is when getting ready for those offenses.
“He thinks that the change in offense has improved his defense as much as his offense,” Cubelic said. “He gets to see it every day, and they get to go up against it every day.”
That doesn’t mean his fight to make college football old-school again is gone. Anytime he’s asked about run-pass options, tempo and other principles his offense thrives with, he’ll more or less say he reluctantly entered the sport’s new age.
“Behind the scenes, I think he truly is worried about how the game is changing and how we’re taking some bigger guys out of the game in place of more athletic players,” Barker said.
The ability to swallow his pride is exactly what has Saban on the brink of being the best head coach in college football history.
“He’s a forward thinker. He’s progressive. That’s one thing that he’s always been great with,” Cubelic said. “He’s always found the next trend or found the curve that will help him become more successful.”
Because of that forward thinking, Saban has created a monster.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.
Read more Alabama Crimson Tide Football news on BleacherReport.com