Nick Saban is a creature of habit, and his rigid adherence to repetition have made him one of college football’s greatest coaches. Saban should now accept that it’s time for a change.
In Alabama’s last two games, they were completely outplayed and outcoached by teams employing a no-huddle offense that exploited Saban’s method of reading offensive sets and making adjustments before the snap. Auburn’s misdirection offense made a star out of suspect passer Nick Marshall, and Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight had a career night against the Crimson Tide.
While it’s true that the Crimson Tide offense has its own set of issues that need to be fixed, Saban’s calling card has always been a stifling defense. But the currently fashionable hurry-up spread offense has left 330-pound defensive lineman gasping in the dust, and the defense as an immovable object is – at least temporarily – becoming a relic of the leather helmet days.
College referees are also having trouble reacting to the shift, blowing calls due to the constant motion and not applying the current rules correctly or consistently. And with the casual football fan enjoying XBox-style, high-scoring games more than an exhibition of defensive strategy, there won’t be a huge push from above to correct the officiating.
And so the man who ritualistically eats the same meal every single day will have to change.
Another man whose intransigence was legendary is the one whose statue is just down Alabama’s Walk of Champions from that of Saban.
After consecutive five-loss seasons, Alabama played to a tie in the Bluebonnet Bowl in 1970. A missed field goal robbed the Crimson Tide of a victory in what was then a mid-level bowl game.
The team Alabama played was, ironically, the Oklahoma Sooners.
On the plane back from Houston, Bryant sketched out his plans to install the wishbone offense, then a radical departure from what Alabama had done up to that point under Bryant.
“We don’t awe anyone now,” Bryant said prior to the 1971 season. “We are back among the ordinary folk, and I don’t like it.”
Bryant’s decision to change paid immediate dividends. Alabama stunned the top-ranked USC Trojans in the season opener, winning 17-10 on the way to an 11-0 season. Alabama played for the national championship that season, losing to Nebraska.
Bryant’s decision to make a change in philosophy would add years to his career, and propelled Alabama to 123 more wins under Bryant and three national championships.
Defenses eventually figured out the wishbone and it went out of fashion, as did the Steve Spurrier-era fun-and-gun. So too, teams will eventually figure out a way to negate the no-huddle spread. But this will require a change in style, and an emphasis on recruiting a different type of player than Alabama has been pursuing the last several years.
In short, it will require a change in the Process.
Given the success of the spread against Alabama, fans can expect more teams to throw the kitchen sink at the Crimson Tide defense in an attempt to have the same success. The spread offense isn’t going to die; defenses will have to kill it.
Which will require the one thing Saban seeks to avoid in his daily process – change.
Alabama fans are incredibly lucky to have had two of the sport’s greatest coaches leading the Tide. They also have seen the results of one legendary coach accepting and embracing change.
The jury is still out on whether we will see it again.