Elephant in the Room: Alabama Football’s problem with the run


When you think of Alabama football, you think of the power run game. From Bear Bryant and the wishbone formation, all the way down to the punishing styles of Derrick Henry and Najee Harris, Alabama has always been synonymous with a smashmouth, physical, down your throat running attack. Even when the Tide struggled, they at least had “Darby up the middle!”

This has changed slightly over the last 10 years as Nick Saban has attempted to keep up with an ever-evolving landscape of explosive offenses. Lane Kiffin, Mike Locksley, and Steve Sarkisian brought in spread formations and a horizontal passing game in order to stretch and threaten modern defenses. Instead of relying solely on the power run game, it was paired with RPOs and screens to create an offense that made the defense wrong all the time. For better or worse, Alabama football under Bill O’Brien has had a decidedly different approach from his predecessors. Focusing on a sophisticated drop back passing game and pairing it with a horizontal running game based on creating seams rather than physically dominating the opponent.

What’s happened to the Run Game??

It’s not as if Alabama has abandoned the run entirely under O’Brien. On Saturday the Tide was fairly balanced from a play-calling perspective. Alabama threw the ball 37 times and had 27 carries. While this is a bit of a shift towards the passing game, some context is needed. The Tide averaged over 7 yards per attempt through the air while managing only a paltry 1.1 yard per carry on the ground. It’s not that the Tide isn’t running the football, it’s that they aren’t doing it well.

Some of this can be chalked up to scheme as the Alabama run game continues to shift to a pro style that focuses on running the wide zone. This is an explosive play when run well, particularly with Gibbs in the backfield, but it’s a boom or bust style of play. Either the back finds the cutback crease, or he’s tackled for little to no gain. The power play conversely does not always provide a home run shot but can consistently pick up a few yards due to being a north and south run rather than east to west.

An Alabama Football Issue or a Choice?

Alabama Football is built differently in 2022. The offense is designed to flow through Bryce Young in a truly NFL style. Jahmyr Gibbs was brought in just as much for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as he was to carry it. Even the offensive line is different, with a focus on athletic guys who can move rather than big hulking road graders. Much like bringing Lane Kiffin in was a conscious choice to adapt to the spread, bringing in O’Brien was another decision to evolve with the times. As NIL and player compensation becomes increasingly more influential in college athletics, recruiting becomes about one thing and one thing only: Can you get me to the league?

O’Brien’s scheme mirrors the NFL game better than anyone in college football today and has helped to bring some quality talent to Tuscaloosa. It can also be argued from a statistical standpoint that his offense has been successful as well.  According to the NCAA, Alabama currently ranks 5th in the nation in total team offense at 43.1 points a game. What remains to be seen is if this brand of Alabama football can win a league title let alone bring another national championship trophy home to Tuscaloosa. A more balanced approach and getting back to playing a more physical brand of football may be necessary if the Tide is to meet its own lofty goals.