Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: How Nick Saban has managed to evolve and keep Alabama on top of the College Football world.

Coaches, be it at the pro, college, or even high-school level for the most part run a “system” that they become more or less known for running.  Phil Jackson is synonymous with the Triangle offense, Mike Leach is known as an air-raid aficionado, and Barry Switzer is rarely mentioned without the word “Wishbone” coming soon after (Unless you’re discussing Ole Barry outside of the context of football, whereas the chances of one hearing about a different “bone” are equally as high.  I mean, just look at this cat).

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There’s a 100% chance your mom had a crush on Mr. Switzer in the 80’s…and a 100% chance your dad knew he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.  But that’s for another day.  Back to the task at hand.

Coaches have their systems that they have instilled in them, perhaps by their mentor, or maybe a previous coach they played under (think Kliff Kingsbury), or they might have just designed it themselves out of necessity (think Hal Mumme).  Regardless,  you rarely see a coach change up the system that they use.  Coaches in fact often become so steadfast in what they run that it often becomes a fault, as they refuse to adapt.  Systems can often become archaic and you will hear things like “The game has passed so-and-so by”, or a coach might move to a new part of the country where his system won’t be as effective against a new style of play (Think Bret Bielema at Arkansas).  Regardless of the reasoning, you too often see a coach go down with his ship so to speak because he either can’t or won’t change up what he has done for forever.

Over the past decade or so the spread offense and it’s seemingly infinite variations have revolutionized college football and the way the game is played.  Mike Leach brought these radical concepts to the Big-12 in the early 2000’s, and for the past ten years or so the league has had a reputation for shoot-out style football because nearly every team (besides Kansas State) has at least dabbled in some sort of spread offense.

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Stat lines like these are far from rare, and depending on your flavor of preferred football games like these are either phenomenally entertaining, or atrocities where you turn the TV off and go yell at kids to get off your lawn.  Regardless, it’s fair to say that spread offenses put up more points than your typical pro-style offense.

I’ve often said over the past 5-6 years that no one in the country can “Out-Bama” ‘Bama.  What I mean by that, is you are not going to beat the Crimson Tide by playing the same type of football that Alabama plays.  Grunt it out, smash-mouth,  “3 yards and a cloud of dust” football will not beat the Tide because frankly, Alabama is going to have better athletes that can play that style of football better than their opponent.  When you have top ranked recruiting classes year in and year out, you win those type of battles. Countless teams have tried recently to no avail.  Going back, the last time Alabama lost to a team playing that style of football was when we were all blessed with this doozy.

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“Game of the Century” my ass.

In perhaps the boring-est game of all time, LSU eeked out a victory in overtime on the back of 4 missed field goals from the Crimson Tide.  In the most over-hyped match up of all time, LSU out-Bama’d Bama.  That was in 2011.  It hasn’t happened since.  LSU tries to repeat that magical moment every year, and has indeed come close a few times, but has never come to fruition. (Sidenote: Remember when Leonard Fournette lost the Heisman because the Alabama defense abused him so much?).  LSU, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, and USC are among the foes that have fallen at the hands of the Tide because frankly, they were outmatched and outclassed physically and athletically.  Since that LSU loss, Alabama has lost 8 games including post-season play.  8 games in six and a half seasons.  The teams they lost to are as follows.  Texas A&M with Johnny Manziel, Auburn on a last second field goal return,  Oklahoma behind the most perplexing performance I have ever seen in Trevor Knight, Ole Miss twice, Ohio State when Zeke ran 85 yards through the heart of the south, Clemson with Deshaun Watson, and then Auburn again.  Really the only teams on this list who were comparable to Alabama athletically and physically are the Ohio State team and the Auburn team from this past year.  Unsurprisingly, these are the two games with the least amount of offense as well.  The rest of them became shootouts because it put a high powered offensive team against a team that could run right through the bad defenses that were in their way, such as Derrick Henry’s Bo Jackson-esque performance as a true freshman against Oklahoma.  The point though is, every team that beat Alabama during this time period used a schematic offense to their advantage,  as it exploited the Alabama defenses weakness.

In its origin, the spread was created to facilitate teams that could not recruit the athletes needed to be successful in a traditional scheme.  Teams like Texas Tech and Baylor (under Art Briles) for example have used this philosophy to raise their programs to heights unseen before.  The only problem though, was that when they were pitted against teams that could athletically limit the Spreads power, it could be slowed down enough for the opponent to eek out a win.  However, teams like the Manziel A&M team, Oklahoma, and the (illegally formed) Ole Miss teams had good enough athletes on their rosters to be able to expose the vaunted Alabama defense.  Danny Kanell is often criticized for his “hot-takes” but to be completely honest he is correct in that the “Vaunted SEC defenses” mostly get that label due to the fact that they predominantly play very basic offenses that focus more on ball control rather than putting up massive amounts of points.  This has proven true the past couple of years when Alabama has played teams with prolific passing attacks.

And Nick Saban has adapted, that rat bastard.

Once Johnny Football ran and threw all over his defense, Nick Saban noticed a chink in the armor.  When a guy in Trevor Knight, who wasn’t even named the starter until the day of the game, had a career day against his defense he realized that his defenses weakness had been exposed.  His defense was great at stopping offenses seen in the SEC at the time.  If a team could throw the ball around though, and had athletes that could be competitive with the Bama standard…His defenses were in trouble.

I went back and looked at the lineups on all of Alabama’s championship teams (including the 2016 team that lost to Clemson), and noticed a distinct trend on the types of defenders Alabama trotted out there.  The 2009 team that beat Texas, the 2011 team that beat LSU, and the 2012 team that beat Notre Dame had linebackers with average weights of 245.5, 253, and 250 respectively.  The 2015 team that beat Clemson, the 2016 team that lost to Clemson, and the 2017 team that beat Georgia had linebackers with average weights of 246.5, 241.25, and 242.75.  Looking at these numbers on the surface, one notices a difference, sure, but it seems insignificant.  That my friends, is why FreakyT never looks at something from merely surface level.  When you examine things closer, and look at specifically the INSIDE linebackers you notice a very stark difference indeed.  The 2009, 2011, and 2012 teams had inside linebackers weighing in at averages of 256.5, 252.5 and 245 respectively.  On top of that, they had safeties weighing in at 217.5, 215.5 and 209.5.  The ’15, ’16, ’17 teams? Inside Linebackers: 246.5, 230, 234.5.  A drop of over 20 pounds from the most recent teams to the earliest versions.  The safeties also were smaller coming in at weights of 195.5, 205, and 208.

LB AVG WEIGHT ILB AVG WEIGHT SAFETY AVERAGE WEIGHT
2009 245.5 256.5 217.5
2011 253 252.5 215.5
2012 250 245 209.5
2015 246.5 246 195.5
2016 241.25 230 205
2017 242.75 234.5 208

So what exactly does all of this mean? As good as big guys like Rolando McClain and D’onta Hightower are at coming downhill to lay the boom on a runningback; when you weigh 260 lbs. you are going to be a liability when you have to drop into coverage.  Mark Barron at safety was great in the box when he was functionally another linebacker to stop the run.  There is a reason he was almost out of the NFL though, before switching positions to linebacker. HE CAN’T COVER.  When a team throws out 4 or 5 wide and these players built to stop the run are forced to cover a tight-end or a slot receiver, the offense has the advantage.  So, instead of being like so many other coaches who try to fit a square peg in a round hole until they are fired, Saban adapted.  He found linebackers in the 230 range who are still big enough to be a force in the run game, but have the range to cover receivers and tight ends when necessary.  He got safeties that are actually built to cover and run with offensive skill players.  The need for them to do so was becoming a regularity across the league instead of a rarity.  Case in point is inside linebacker Reuben Foster losing over ten pounds between the 2015 and 2016 season.

As you look at Nick Saban’s career accomplishments, one marvels at all of the championships he has won.  The most impressive part, is not the fact that he has 6 of them.  Alabama routinely recruits the best players in the country, giving them an inherent talent advantage over just about every team they have played in the Saban era.  That is a fact.  The most impressive thing, is that he has won 6 championships in a time where more change has occurred in the sport since some guy decided he wanted to throw the ball forward.  In 2009, the spread was an exotic concept.  It had never won a national championship.  It was considered “soft” in most football circles.  The old-school mentality of defense wins championships and the offenses job is to “not fuck up” and wear a defense down was dominant.  In today’s football, the team that just won the super bowl runs the most recent en-vogue variation of the spread offense.  A league once known for its staunch defenses, In 2017, 7 SEC teams scored on average more than 30 points per game, the threshold for what I consider a prolific offense.  In 2009, only 4 teams met that threshold.  Teams across the conferences are evolving into a more offensive minded approach.  This year for perhaps the first time EVER the SEC flaunts probably the best QB roster across all conferences.  Instead of being an after-thought whose job was to throw a slant on 3 and 2 after handing it off for two four yard gains from an All-American runningback, Quarterback is becoming a strength.  In the constant evolutionary arms race across football, coaches have realized that if you spread defenses like Alabama out, you’re going to have more success.  You may not WIN, but you will have a chance.

Unfortunately for the rest of the college football world, Saban’s noticed.  And done something about it.  

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