The Process Strikes Back
Alabama Reaches the Summit Again
Much ink has been spilled about Alabama’s dominant victory Monday night in the national championship game over Ohio State. Immediately, the chattering classes want to debate if this is the best team of all time, how it compares to last year’s LSU 15-0 squad (which I think has a strong argument) and even other Alabama championship teams. To me, however, what’s most impressive about the 52-24 victory for Alabama’s SIXTH national title since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa (and his 7th as a head coach) is how it is the culmination of, really, the third reinvention of the program since it really took off in 2008 – after a reset year in 2007. Let’s break it down:
The Original Rebuild:
Nick Saban’s arrival and attitude adjustment to the Alabama program and booster class (worthy of it’s own off-season column perhaps) led to three national titles in four years (2009-2012) with a suffocating defense, powerful running game and effective, clutch but not superstar QB play. It really was a program makeover in mentality.
The Kiffin Reboot:
Following a disastrous end to 2013 (the Kick Six and Sugar Bowl losses followed by massive graduations and early entries to NFL), Saban hired Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator. He realized that he needed an offense to take advantage of the rules that were allowing offenses to give HIS defense so much trouble. Kiffin wasn’t a spread OC, he was considered “pro style” but he developed a blended system that took advantage of no-huddle, a little zone read with QB Blake Sims, and some early RPO principles while still powering the football with backs like T.J. Yeldon and then Derrick Henry. Saban also, at the same time, began recruiting right-sized defensive players with more speed, particularly linebackers, to compete with spread offenses at Auburn, Texas A&M and Ohio State -who beat the Tide in the 2014 semi-final.
The 2015 title – where Alabama outlasted Clemson and Deshaun Watson in an amazing shootout (seriously, watch it sometime) was the end result. The Tide had probably an even better team in 2016 but just narrowly lost to Clemson in another classic championship game – the difference there was experienced Watson versus freshman Jalen Hurts at QB.
2017’s National Championship – the famous “2nd & 26” game – was a bridge between the 2015 team and this current one. Tua Tagovailoa, inserted into the game for the second half brought the Tide back using high-flying, four vertical spread offense…but it was an old-school, defensive struggle still against Georgia with a 26-23 final score.
So that brings us here – to 2020. Make no mistake, Tua’s bursting onto the scene (along with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and some guy named Devonta Smith) had a huge impact on Alabama’s evolution into being this high-flying, big play offense. But this season rose out of the ashes of the 2018 blowout championship loss to Clemson in what many writers thought was finally the point where they dynasty would fade, and the injury-riddled 2019 that relegated the Tide to the Citrus Bowl. What a ride for Alabama fans (like myself, an admitted Alabama homer who lived through the bad times post-Stallings and pre-Saban). The Crimson Tide were only significantly challenged – by that I mean the game was in any real doubt into the fourth quarter - in two games, Ole Miss – where Alabama scored at will but couldn’t stop the Rebels for awhile – and the SEC title game against Florida.
The offense was other-worldly, scoring less than 38 just once – in the national semi-final against Notre Dame where they held a 31-7 lead until the final minutes of the 4th quarter. The defense really improved over the second half of the year and was better than Alabama fans will give it credit for. They were not dominant but they made plays when they had to…and they rarely had to. Perhaps the only real moment of adversity where the game was in the balance, the Tide sacked Kyle Trask to end the SEC Championship game.
The 2020 National Championship Alabama Crimson Tide was the full iteration of the latest Nick Saban evolution…it was basketball on grass, an attitude that we will score using a whole variety of means and, while we will work hard on defense, we will score 40-50 while you score 24-31.
As far as the future goes, you never know when the ride will be over. Alabama will lose a lot of offensive playmakers off this team and some on defense but overall the defense will likely be stronger next year as the offense is certain to take a step back – it would have to. There’s hand-wringing about the state of competitiveness at the top levels of the sport but you have to admire the greatness. Here’s to a bizarre, amazing and weird 2020 college football season. I look forward to doing some more analysis and historical breakdowns in the coming weeks as we head into the off-season. As always feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter @readycfb.