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Alabama Returned to Glory by Becoming the Thing That Nick Saban Hated Most

In 2012, Saban asked whether unstoppable offense was “what we want football to be.” In 2021, he won his seventh national title behind one of the most unstoppable college offenses of all time. While that evolution once may have seemed unlikely, it explains everything about Saban’s dynastic run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nick Saban won his record-setting seventh career national championship on Monday, and smiled his fourth career smile. Saban typically celebrates victories by criticizing the minute flaws in his team’s execution, but after Alabama demolished Ohio State 52-24 to win the College Football Playoff, he dropped the facade. He even let offensive lineman Landon Dickerson carry him around the field. “I enjoyed the ride,” Saban said, referring to the experience of being toted through a confetti shower by a man twice his size, and also to this undefeated Alabama season.

As Saban basked in the moment, it was hard not to think back to 2012. Back then, the Crimson Tide head coach was asked about the proliferation of high-scoring, uptempo offenses in college football. The question struck a nerve. Saban launched into a rant, casting doubt on the fairness of no-huddle offenses and speculating that they could lead to an increase in player injuries. He famously asked: “Is this what we want football to be?”

At the time, I thought Saban was just scared. He seemed worried that the sport’s offensive revolution could derail his defensive dynasty. But now that rant comes across differently. I don’t think Saban was fearful; I think he was issuing a threat. He was asking the rest of college football, Are you sure that you really want this? When the answer came back with a resounding “Yes, yes, of course we want more points,” Saban set out to revamp the Process that had brought him a fistful of championships. Eight years after lamenting the rise of high-octane offense, Saban now coaches the highest-octane offense of them all.

Saban doesn’t run one of the no-huddle offenses he was once up in arms about, but his team does feel like a version of that boogeyman. In feigning concern for the future of football, Saban said offenses would be too powerful if they were “scoring 70 points and averaging 49.5 points per game.” This season’s Alabama squad never hit 70 in a game—it got to 63 twice—but averaged 48.5 points, almost exactly the number that he raised a stink about. In the 2011 season, Saban won a championship with a team that allowed just 8.2 points per game, the lowest mark of the 21st century. This season, he won a championship with a team that broke the SEC record for points per game set last season by LSU. Bama scored 52 points in the damn national title game.

Alabama has long had the most talented players in the sport. When it combines that overwhelming talent with a decisive schematic advantage, it’s virtually unstoppable. That was evident on Monday. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith—who won every best-player-in-college-football award, including the Heisman Trophy—ran plays that were dialed up by Steve Sarkisian, who won the Broyles Award given to the best assistant coach in college football. Sometimes, it was obvious how Sark’s calls maximized Smith’s impact. You can tell this play, where Smith fakes an end-around before changing directions and reeling in a screen pass, was a nightmare for defenders not fast enough to keep up with Smith horizontally.

Sometimes, the effect is more subtle. On Alabama’s biggest play of the night, Smith torched Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland for a 42-yard touchdown. That happened not because the Buckeyes’ game plan called for a linebacker named “Tuf” to cover a Heisman-winning receiver. It happened because Sark’s play call forced precisely that matchup.

Smith finished Monday’s game with 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns despite missing almost the entire second half with a dislocated finger. He routinely got so wide open that it appeared Ohio State just forgot about him. Smith capped his legendary season with 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. For comparison, the last two wide receivers to win the Heisman—Notre Dame’s Tim Brown and Michigan’s Desmond Howard—combined for 1,831 yards and 22 touchdowns in their respective Heisman campaigns.

This iteration of Alabama was a brilliant team that broke football. It had more touchdowns (84) than field goals, punts, turnovers, and turnovers on downs combined (62). It never trailed in the fourth quarter of a game, and trailed in the second half only once, against Georgia. (It won that game by 17 points.) Nobody could keep up. Brian Fremeau’s website calculates two unique efficiency-based stats, points per drive and offensive yards available percentage; the Tide appear to have set the records in both. And they did this while playing the sixth-toughest schedule in college football, according to ESPN’s FPI. Because of this season’s unique schedule constraints, all 13 of Bama’s games came against power-conference opponents, none of whom ranked lower than 70th in ESPN’s SP+. This group has a strong case to be considered the best offensive team of all time.

Saban would have gone down as one of college football’s greatest coaches ever simply by virtue of the titles he won while building the sport’s best defense. But in the late stages of his career, he has adapted along with a rapidly changing game. Alabama used to win by pairing shutdown defenses and run-first offenses with game-managing quarterbacks who tried not to turn the ball over. It’s been stunning to watch it evolve into a program that not only keeps up with the sport’s most explosive offenses, but also innovates and exceeds them. This is the Process Saban warned us about.

It’s a bummer that there wasn’t a national championship media day this year. You’re probably familiar with Super Bowl media day, when German variety show hosts ambush bewildered defensive backs with questions about nonsense. The college football version of this actually serves a purpose: It’s the one day that Saban’s horde of assistant coaches have to talk to the press. For a full hour, reporters can bother the coaching world’s once and future stars with any questions they want.

Life was simple for Saban when he could win with defense. After all, he’s one of the most brilliant defensive minds in the history of the sport. While so much about football has changed over the past 30 years, coaches are still using the defensive schemes he cooked up with Bill Belichick while working for the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. For a long time, Saban signed the top defensive recruits, coached them up better than anyone else, and won. Great offensive players came to Alabama too—Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, and Trent Richardson among them—but they weren’t the focal point of Bama’s blueprint.

But now Saban has to win with offense. And to make that happen, he’s created a system that pumps out coaching stars at the same rate it pumps out first-round NFL draft picks. Let’s call it Extreme Makeover: Offensive Coordinator Edition.

When Saban won with defense, his former coaches rarely turned out to be stars. There were a few standouts—Jimbo Fisher and Mario Cristobal on offense; Mark Dantonio, Dean Pees, and Kirby Smart on defense—but most seemed like duds who only got bigger opportunities because of Saban. We’re talking about guys like Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley, Jim McElwain, Pat Shurmur, and Adam Gase. (I’m a Jets fan, and there is literally nothing about my favorite team that reminds me of Alabama.)

But recently the offensive branches of Saban’s coaching tree have blossomed. In 2014, Lane Kiffin came to Alabama after getting fired at USC. Now he’s head coach at Ole Miss, which ranked 14th in the FBS in scoring. In 2017, Saban hired Brian Daboll, who had disappointed in stints as the offensive coordinator for the Browns, Dolphins, and Chiefs. Now, Daboll is the mind behind a Bills offense that ranks among the best in the NFL, and is considered one of the league’s most sought-after candidates in this coaching carousel. To replace Daboll, Saban promoted Mike Locksley, who had a 2-26 record as head coach at New Mexico. After just one year, Locksley was hired to be Maryland’s head coach. This season, Saban’s offensive coordinator was Sarkisian, who was fired at USC and had an awful stint as Falcons offensive coordinator. On the heels of building a juggernaut led by Smith, Najee Harris, and Mac Jones, Sarkisian has been tapped to be the new head coach at Texas.

Every one of these guys made Alabama better. The 2016 Tide averaged 38.8 points per game under Kiffin, then the highest of any group in the Saban era. Daboll’s offense struggled at times, but when Alabama subbed in Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the January 2018 championship game, it suddenly had a unit capable of hanging 20 points in a half against a spectacular Georgia defense. In Locksley’s lone season as offensive coordinator, Bama averaged 45.6 points per game, Saban’s first top-10 scoring offense. And that number has only climbed under Sark.

There’s a pattern: Saban turns to men who were smart enough to rise to the top of their profession, but screwed up massively for one reason or another. These coaches get to rebuild their reputations while running an offense featuring the sport’s most talented players; Alabama, meanwhile, gets to obliterate its competition. Bill O’Brien may be a punch line now, but he might be the guy to get Alabama past 50 points per game.

It takes genius to build the best offense or best defense in a sport. Saban has now built both, which takes more than genius. It takes adaptability and a willingness to accept advice from others—things that the average genius often lacks after a lifetime spent being a genius.

What’s funny is this isn’t what Saban wants football to be. “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” he told ESPN in October. “I don’t like it.” But more than anything, Saban wants football to be a sport in which he wins the national championship. He did that Monday, and then smiled. He knew that he had turned Alabama into the thing he once seemed to fear.