The Saban Gambit

Nick Saban has built one of the greatest dynasties in college football history, the main tenets of which are a suffocating defense and a ball control offense that relies heavily on the run. Even casual fans of college football could probably tell you that.

Saban will always talk about being balanced but when push comes to shove his teams generally rely on a strong run game and quarterback who “manages” the game with timely throws and few errors. Yet in some of the biggest games of Saban’s tenure, Alabama has outflanked their opponent by coming out with a pass first attack, and it’s worked every time.

Just look at the history.

In 2009, the year of the first championship of the Saban era, the Tide were breaking in a new QB in Greg McElroy. McElroy was pretty much the template for game manager. He ended the year with only 4 interceptions by routinely taking sacks instead of forcing the ball into coverage. Alabama ended up running the ball 526 times that year and throwing it 343 times. During one stretch of the season, in the meat of SEC play, McElroy threw for 148, 154, 92, and 120 yards in successive weeks. In the second half of the South Carolina game the offense went entirely to RB Mark Ingram in the Wildcat formation and he closed out the game. McElroy watched from the sideline.

McElroy started to pick it up near the end of the 2009 season, leading a game winning drive against Auburn to advance to the SEC Championship Game. In that game they would face Florida for the second straight year and contend with the juggernaut that Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow had built. The rhetoric entering the game was clear. Can Alabama stop Tebow? Can Florida shut down the ‘Bama run game and force McElroy to beat them?

‘Bama came out in the first series in a 3 receiver set, and Mcelroy hit Julio Jones for about 15 yards. The Tide ended up throwing it 5 times on the first drive which resulted in a field goal. On the next drive McElroy hit Colin Peek for a 30 yard gain on first down. After that, the play calling became more of a 50-50 split until the Tide took control of the game at which point the attack went back to more of their traditional run heavy style, but a seed was planted that night.

In 2011, Alabama was once again breaking in a new starter, A.J. McCarron.  McCarron appeared to have more natural talent than McElroy but, true to form, Saban held the reigns pretty tight on him. Saban preferred to rely on his superstar running back Trent Richardson (you might remember him as disastrous NFL flop Trent Richardson but I assure you he was actually awesome in college). Of course, Saban also relied on one of the best defenses in the modern era of college football.

Over the course of that 2011 season Alabama ran it 456 times and threw it 346 times. In their regular season meeting with LSU, the only loss of the year, Mccarron threw it 29 times, completing 16 of those attempts for 96 yards. The next game against MIssissippi State he was 14 of 24 for 223 yards. Going into the National Championship game, a rematch against LSU, the Tide had thrown it more than 30 times on just three occasions and two of those were vs. Kent State and Vanderbilt. They didn’t rush it less than 30 times in any game the entire season.

Entering the epic rematch vs. LSU, the narrative was familiar. Can LSU stop the ‘Bama rushing attack and force A.J. Mccarron to beat them? With the kind of NFL talent LSU had on defense  – 14 (!) LSU defenders who played that day were eventually drafted – if the Tigers wanted to commit extra players in run support they were most likely going to be successful stopping the run.

On the first drive ‘Bama started with a play action bootleg pass, easy for McCarron. Next play, another easy play action pass. The next play was an inside hand off, and then it was back to the pass, two in a row before the drive stalled. Next drive, deep in LSU territory, started the same way, a play action pass. The whole game played out in similar fashion, with McCarron making all the big plays on offense. The running game only took over once the game was in hand.

McCarron ended up throwing 34 passes, completing 23 for 234 yards. They ran it 35 times for 150 yards. Once again, Saban and his offensive coaches anticipated the defensive plan, conceded that the defense would be able to stop the run if they wanted to and switched the game plan to a pass heavy attack.

Cut to 2015. Once again Saban is breaking in a new quarterback, this time 5th year transfer Jacob Coker. During the season Coker has proven even less useful than McElroy and McCarron. Consequently, the offense has leaned even more heavily on Heisman tailback Derrick Henry.

This year, prior to the Michigan State game, the Tide ran it 481 times, and threw it 389 times. Towards the end of the season the balance really shifted towards the running game. The last 4 real games Coker threw it for 184, 144, 179,  and 204 yards while the team ran it for 250, 235, 286 and 233.

Going into last week’s Semifinal the narrative was (and stop me if you’ve heard this) Can Michigan State stop the run and force Jacob Coker to beat them?

Once again, Alabama and Coker come out throwing the football. Coker threw it the first five plays. He threw again on first down the next drive, and after Alabama ran the ball twice, Coker then threw or dropped back on the next two plays. On the Tide’s first touchdown drive Coker threw it 4 of the first 5 plays.  On and on this went, until the game was well in hand. Coker ended up throwing it 30 times, completing 25 for 286 yards.  Alabama ran the ball 35 times for just 154 yards but won the game 38-0.

Over and over, in the biggest games, Alabama under Nick Saban has broken trend and become a pass first offense. Saban and his Offensive Coordinators slowly build the confidence and work load for their QBs throughout the season and then eventually put it on their shoulders to win in the biggest games.

I’m not trying to overstate this strategy, it’s not revolutionary. It’s basically second level thinking. You think I’m going to do X so I do Y. Nevertheless it’s been an effective strategy that no defense has really adjusted to. Perhaps it’s hard to adjust to as it would be pretty easy for ‘Bama to switch course if they started to see good looks to run into, but it is curious that no team has come out anticipating this adjustment from the Crimson Tide.

Clemson would be well advised to pay attention to history as they game plan for the Championship Game.