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Nick Saban and the Art of Eternal Evolution

The titanic Alabama coach is praised for his consistency: on the recruiting trail, in championship games, with his breakfast. But as the Tide’s stunning championship comeback against Georgia reminded us, that constant greatness stems from something surprising: a willingness to change.

Nick Saban raising his hand in the locker room Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nick Saban is a creature of habit. He eats two Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies for breakfast every morning. He puts a Coca-Cola bottle on the podium every time he holds a press conference. He sticks to a process, the Process, which has been imitated by countless programs across the nation, but has never adequately been replicated. Saban’s success represents college football’s truest constant — well, other than Bama never being able to rely on its kicker.

The secret to Saban’s sustained excellence doesn’t lie in his stubborn adherence to his system, though; it lies in his uncommon willingness to adapt. The guy who famously bashed the sport’s hurry-up, no-huddle movement by asking, “Is this what we want football to be?” has since worked to incorporate elements of that style into his offense. He’s strayed from his conversative ethos at key junctures and has been rewarded with titles as a result. On Monday night, he won his sixth career national championship — tying him with Bear Bryant for the most all time — by doing something he never does: entrusting the season’s most pivotal moment to an 18-year-old true freshman who had yet to prove himself.

Saban’s decision to bench starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and insert Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the Crimson Tide’s 26–23 triumph over Georgia in Monday’s national title game was incredible for myriad reasons, namely that it took Tagovailoa barely more than 30 minutes of game action to cement his place in college football lore. He looked like a blend of Russell Wilson, Johnny Manziel, and Zeus as he clinically picked apart Georgia’s defense, unfurling one lighting bolt after another in orchestrating a thrilling comeback. Just so we’re clear: This was the quarterback who spent all season standing idly on the Bama sideline.

The significance of Tagovailoa’s heroics goes beyond the arrival of the heir apparent to the Bama throne, however. They also impart a lesson that should terrify everyone involved with the sport: Georgia did the impossible Monday night by out-Bama-ing Alabama, and it wasn’t enough. The Tide won.

Georgia thoroughly outclassed Alabama for the first half of the title game. The Bulldogs carried a 13–0 lead into the break, and the score alone doesn’t convey how uneven the contest was. Georgia outgained Alabama 223 yards to 94. It led the time of possession battle 19:23 to 10:37. It went 6-of-11 on third downs (even converting a third-and-20), and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Saban’s teams have long been known for suffocating opponents on defense and grinding them into dust on offense; Georgia was using that exact formula to relentlessly stifle the Tide.

Beyond that, Bama was making dumb, atypical mistakes. Remember how shocking it was when the Tide couldn’t get off a snap in their Iron Bowl loss to Auburn? The start of the national championship game was every bit as perplexing. Alabama was flagged for a false-start penalty that pushed back a first-quarter field goal try and was later called for a neutral-zone infraction that gave Georgia a first down. The problems persisted into the second half. Take this sideline meltdown involving Tide linebacker Mekhi Brown.

Alabama, the program making its sixth appearance in the national title game in the last nine seasons, looked ill-suited for the big stage. Georgia, the program seeking its first national championship since 1980, was poised to seize the moment.

But as soon as the Bulldogs had snatched away Alabama’s identity, Saban’s team adopted a new one. The Tide exchanged their ground-and-pound mind-set for an air-it-out mentality. And they subbed out veterans in favor of offering real playing time to the kids.

Tagovailoa was flanked by fellow freshman Najee Harris, who led the Tide with 64 rushing yards, and DeVonta Smith, who made the game-winning 41-yard touchdown grab down the stretch. With its young guys on the field, Alabama’s offense more closely resembled the prolific Oklahoma group that Georgia faced in the Rose Bowl than the unit that ran roughshod over a bunch of mediocre SEC defenses. Look at this scramble from Tagovailoa’s second series. This is a play that would make Baker Mayfield proud.

The prior Alabama quarterbacks to win national titles under Saban were more reliable than remarkable: Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, and Jacob Coker. They were ordered to direct college football’s most indestructible force and then largely stay out of the way. But sometimes even an army of former four- and five-star prospects is forced to resort to a backup plan. Saban went to his Monday — and it just so happened to be inserting a preternaturally gifted teenager who throws the tightest spiral in human existence.

Before second-year head coach Kirby Smart led Georgia to a 13–1 record and a berth in the national title game, the Saban disciple who’d found the most enduring success was Jimbo Fisher. Entering the 2017 campaign, he’d taken Florida State to five straight 10-plus-win seasons and captured the 2014 national title. The Seminoles played the Crimson Tide in Week 1 of this season, and the story line heading into that matchup was familiar: Would Saban ever lose a game to one of his former assistants?

Bama beat the Seminoles 24–7, pushing Saban’s record to 11–0. Florida State lost star quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending patella tendon injury, and the ’Noles collapsed in the ensuing months, dropping games to NC State, Miami, Louisville, and Boston College. Part of that was the result of backup passer James Blackman being nowhere near Francois’s caliber; part of it stemmed from Fisher’s unwillingness to change the things that weren’t working. The offense maintained a bafflingly slow tempo even as it stalled time and again. Fisher rarely opted to go for it on fourth down, electing instead to stick to the approaches that had worked in years past. The whole ordeal ended in divorce, with Fisher bolting for Texas A&M (and a contract worth $75 million guaranteed) after going a disappointing 5–6.

Though Fisher won the 2013 title, his FSU saga provides a window into why Saban’s Process has been so difficult to emulate. Saban’s first key tenet involves focusing solely on the factors within a team’s control, but the second is equally important: admit what you don’t know, and admit when you’ve failed. This is where the bulk of Saban impersonators have gone astray. It’s hard to admit that a plan is doomed. It’s especially hard when the plan is 25–2 as a starter, as Hurts was, and came within a second of winning the previous year’s national title game, as Hurts had.

Saban may appear set in his ways, and he can still be as cranky as ever. Yet he’s secured his spot as the greatest college football coach ever because he’s constantly trying to evolve. The latest development in Alabama’s evolution may have felt stunning in the moment, but that’s how all great advances feel as they’re happening. Jalen Hurts was the quarterback Saban needed to reach the championship; Tua Tagovailoa was the player he needed to win it.