Alabama Football: Lane Kiffin’s greatest contribution to the Crimson Tide

Bama Saban And Kiffin 2016
Bama Saban And Kiffin 2016 /

Lane Kiffin changed Alabama football but his coaching acumen was not his greatest contribution to the Crimson Tide.

The surprise hire of Lane Kiffin as Alabama football, Offensive Coordinator forever changed Tide offenses. In Kiffin’s three Crimson Tide seasons, Alabama football won a National Championship and three SEC Championships.

Changes in SEC football offenses lagged behind other Power Five conferences. When Nick Saban brought Kiffin in as a consultant after the 2013 regular season, it was because the defense-first head coach saw college football offenses changing. Saban realized a strong defense with a traditional pro-style, power football offense might no longer be enough to win National Championships.

Kiffin came to Tuscaloosa just days after the Crimson Tide lost to Auburn. He stayed over a week. Kiffin analyzed everything about the Tide’s offense and found it lacking. His conclusion was the offense was too predictable and too infrequently explosive.

Nick Saban hired Kiffin as OC a month later. Some Alabama football fans were not pleased. To them, Kiffin’s reputation as a bright offensive mind was overshadowed by character issues. It was feared he would be more disruptive than constructive.

What mattered most was Nick Saban trusted Kiffin’s ability to design a new Tide offensive system. Saban made the right choice. The three SEC Championships were led by three different quarterbacks, one of them a converted running back. As Crimson Tide Quarterbacks coach, Kiffin deserves additional credit.

The combination of Saban’s defensive genius and Kiffin’s offensive genius worked well; until suddenly it didn’t. While Lane was in favor, he convinced Saban to hire Steve Sarkisian as an offensive analyst. The two shared offensive football ideas going back to their time as USC assistant coaches. Sarkisian needed to rebuild his reputation and Nick Saban had a track record of helping coaches do just that.

When Sarkisian abruptly replaced Kiffin, prior to the 2016 National Championship game, many Tide fans were wary. Losing to Clemson turned the wariness into worry. Then Sark suddenly exited to be the Offensive Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Some media sources claimed Saban and Sarkisian disagreed over offensive philosophies.

The hiring of the next Tide offensive coordinator hire, Brian Daboll, suggested Saban wanted an explosive offense built through a more traditional offensive scheme. It worked well enough to win another National Championship. But without Tua Tagovailoa, that system might not have been enough.

The following season, with Tua’s exceptional talents, Saban fully embraced hurry-up and RPO. Mike Locksley’s offense was potent but stumbled in the National Championship game.

When Locks left for the Maryland head coaching job, Saban looked back to Sarkisian. If he had reservations before about philosophic conflicts, they were resolved. Maybe Saban had bought into college football’s changes slowly, but the 2018 National Championship game and the 2019 season showed change was needed. Alabama football needed to become more than a trend follower, it needed to become the leading edge in college football offenses.

Steve Sarkisian is accomplishing that goal. The 2020 Crimson Tide offense is unlike any before it. That was proven by a Crimson Tide explosion against a very good Georgia defense. Against Sarkisian’s system, defenses play catchup. The Crimson Tide’s new alchemy mixes, speed, finesse and precision, with an ability to revert to power football on any snap. Opposing defenses struggle with reads, resulting in exposing weaknesses. Sark’s play-calling frequently attacks those weaknesses.

There is nuance and subtlety in Sark’s system. Formations that line-up and plays that begin certain ways look familiar to defenses. The variations from these familiar looks catch defenses out of position and vulnerable. Crimson Tide fans rightfully rave about Mac, Smitty and Waddle, but without the consistent pass protection afforded Mac, results would be different. The Crimson Tide has the players needed to execute Sark’s schemes.

No system is unstoppable. Flaws in execution are always a risk. Turnover errors can stymie any offense. But Steve Sarkisian has created what Nick Saban has been seeking. It is arguably the most lethal offense in college football. And had Lane Kiffin not persuaded Saban to hire Sark, it is unlikely it would have ever happened.

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Like Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian will use his Crimson Tide success to land another college, head coaching job. When that happens, he will not be easy to replace.