Sports

Nick Saban Warned Us That He Was About to Break College Football

We didn’t listen.

Nick Saban looks into the distance as confetti swirls around him.
Head coach Nick Saban looks on following Alabama’s College Football Playoff National Championship game win over Ohio State on Monday. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Alabama Crimson Tide screamed past Ohio State in Monday’s national title game, 52–24. The Buckeyes, fellow blue-blood titans and the only team with enough raw talent to even theoretically slow down Bama’s offense, gave up 621 yards. Heisman winner DeVonta Smith caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Before halftime.

There’s a fair argument that this was the greatest offense in college football history, with running back Najee Harris and quarterback Mac Jones joining Smith among the top five Heisman vote-getters. The Tide posted 48.5 points per game against a pandemic-adjusted schedule of nothing but power-conference teams, including blowouts of final No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Texas A&M, No. 5 Notre Dame, and No. 7 Georgia, plus a 52–46 shootout win over No. 13 Florida.

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Based on average opponent, it was arguably a tougher schedule than Joe Burrow’s high-flying LSU team faced a year prior. (Counterargument: Alabama did not have to play Alabama; LSU did.) You could also argue that a bunch of older teams had the best offense ever, especially if you adjust for era.

Regardless, the point is this: Nick Saban oversees college football’s most terrifying offense. That’s a statement that would’ve been totally unthinkable more than a decade ago, back when Saban’s defense-first Alabama was still the best team in college football.

Compare 2020 Bama’s gleeful slam dunk mixtape of a season to Saban’s first championship at Alabama.

In 2009’s title game win against Texas, Bama QB Greg McElroy threw 11 whole passes for 58 yards. The Tide ranked No. 32 on the year in yards gained per play, winning by such somber scores as 22–3, 20–6, and 12–10. Saban had applied a sleeper hold to college football.

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Two years later, LSU beat the Tide 9–6 in the regular season before Alabama got its revenge, 21–0, in an unwatchable title game that featured five field goals and one touchdown. (Bama missed the extra point.)

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That 2012 title broke the sport in at least two ways. The widely reviled all-SEC championship game was the last straw for the BCS, resulting months later in the announcement of the College Football Playoff.

And by then, the hideous nature of Bama’s defense-first dominance had driven every alleged competitor in one of two directions: either hiring a Saban assistant and hoping for Saban-like results (a strategy that usually fails), or going counter-Saban and playing up-tempo, risky, option-heavy, offense-first football.

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Bama’s state rival, Auburn, chose the latter. In 2013, they hired Gus Malzahn, the coordinator who’d been in charge of the Tigers’ title-winning 2010 offense (a job that basically meant letting Cam Newton do everything) and former popularizer of a no-huddle offense at the high school level.

Everyone remembers how Malzahn’s debut season ended—with the Kick Six, the shocking takedown of No. 1 Bama that vaulted Auburn into the SEC Championship Game and nearly to a national title—but what we didn’t realize at the time was that the game’s most important play had happened 32 seconds prior.

Late in the fourth quarter, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, a converted defensive back, chose to keep the ball instead of handing it off, running what appeared to be a standard read option. But right at the line of scrimmage, he lofted the ball to an uncovered receiver for the tying touchdown.

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It was far from the sport’s first run/pass option, but the big stage meant lights going off in the heads of every coach in America. Months later, the Seattle Seahawks had Russell Wilson throwing RPOs, and Pete Carroll credited Malzahn’s Auburn for the idea.

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It’s an old idea, using option tactics to make one defender wrong no matter what, modernized by incorporating the passing game. Finally, the Saban-countering gimmick had arrived.

“Is this what we want football to be?” Saban had asked in 2012, complaining about the hurry-up revolution even before he’d beheld the extent of Malzahn’s blasphemies. “I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety.”

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At the time, everyone understood this to be a gripe, a stodgy former defensive back and defensive coordinator lamenting the coming extinction of his brontosaurus, whining about the challenge of stopping dual-threat QBs, and worrying about his privileged perch atop the sport’s hierarchy.

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Well, it turned out that popular assessment of Saban’s comments was way off.

It wasn’t a gripe. It was a warning.

A year after Marshall’s RPO, Saban hired Lane Kiffin to update the Tide’s offense. In 2014, Kiffin found an option QB in former running back Blake Sims. In 2015, he picked up the pace and spread the offense wider and wider. In 2016, Bama handed the keys to dual-threat freshman Jalen Hurts. In 2018, Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa set the record for single-season passing efficiency. And as of 2020, that mark is now owned by Tagovailoa’s successor, Jones.

The conversion is more than complete. It’s overkill.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that Saban could build any sort of behemoth he wanted at Bama, not just a ground-and-pound gruntball unit. This is quite possibly the greatest recruiting run in college football history, certainly the best of the modern era. For years, the Tide have had blue-chippers on the bench at nearly every position while providing just one bit of comic relief: being pretty bad at kicking field goals. So if the team that gets first dibs on five-star prospects simply elects to become Wide Receiver U, what is anyone else supposed to do about that?

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I don’t want to say Saban just chose to have the best offense instead of the best defense, as if such a thing could be so simple, but … well, that is literally what happened.

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” he said this past October. “I don’t like it. But we just have to make sure we have an offense.”

Saban has now broken a tie with Bear Bryant for the most No. 1 finishes in the AP poll, winning six such titles at Bama and one at LSU. He’s winning in ways we long swore he couldn’t/wouldn’t, giving up 48 points to Kiffin’s Ole Miss while enjoying 63 of his own. And, wonder of wonders, the all-business cyborg who once moaned about a national title cutting into his recruiting time is even out here doing emotions!

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For years now, college football fans have wondered what more Saban can do to prove himself as the greatest coach ever. How could he possibly challenge himself?

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He’s now won a title in the weirdest season ever, playing an extended SEC schedule and navigating all of 2020’s logistical absurdities. We just went through all the depraved drama of a totally unnecessary college football season, and it somehow just made Saban more powerful.

He’s won multiple titles each in the BCS and playoff eras. How many can he win once the playoff expands beyond four teams? Can he win a title in whatever follows that era, when he’s 80-plus years old?

He did just sign his latest No. 1 recruiting class, you know. It’s seen roughly equivalent to the 2017 class that included Tagovailoa, three other 2020 first-round picks, and this season’s Heisman crew. The final boss might not have even reached its final form yet.

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Or could he do this elsewhere, somewhere without Bama’s demented institutional commitment? Could he pull a Reverse Bryant, leaving Bama for Kentucky and winning a football title at the basketball school? Could he make the playoff at the helm of a nonpower like UCF or Cincinnati? Could he win literally anything at New Mexico State?

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Or is there truly just one challenge left, one old demon left to slay?

Now that Saban has demonstrated absolute mastery of the lessons from the play that preceded the Kick Six, is it time to avenge the kick itself? Is it time for Bama, the nearly perfect program that has won with defense and offense but is somehow typically mediocre at special teams, to right its only remaining wrong?

Coach Saban, can you win a national title while forsaking touchdowns for an entire season, kicking field goals on first down in every red zone trip? Your current kicker, Will Reichard, made all 14 of his tries this year, coach. Think about it. Tempting, right?

Coach, that is now what we want football to be.

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