This story appears in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
College football is a game of mercurial bounces, tip-of-the-finger deflections and freak injuries, and it requires good fortune as much as good fundamentals to navigate through a season undefeated. Just ask Kansas State, the reigning Big 12 champ, which lost 24-21 at home last Friday night to a big-hearted team from the backwaters of the Football Championship Subdivision, North Dakota State. The sport is riveting not just because Davids can beat Goliaths, but also because that one loss can crushed a title contender's hopes -- even if that contender is littered with five-star recruits on its third string.
Which brings us to the question that hangs over the nation as the 2013 season gets under way: Can anyone take down No. 1 Alabama?
The Crimson Tide's opener last Saturday no doubt emboldened those who say yes. In the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, Alabama looked mortal, allowing Virginia Tech to sack AJ McCarron four times and rushing for only 96 yards. But for those who say no, there was this: Christion Jones emerged as a star, and 'Bama won 35-10, evaporating the Hokies' dreams of an upset by the second quarter. The next big referendum on coach Nick Saban and Co. will take place on Sept. 14. That's when they travel to College Station to face Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, which last November became only the fifth team to beat the Tide in the last four years, during which they have won three BCS titles.
Even before the Virginia Tech game several rival coaches, a few ex-Alabama staff members and some former Tide players -- all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Saban -- thought 'Bama would lose at least once this autumn. "You have to play a near-perfect game, but they have some vulnerable points," says a coach. "This giant can be slayed."
Those coaches and former players went on to lay out a daring game plan for attacking Alabama. Based on their inside information, SI put together an eight-step, how-to guide for any team hoping to keep Saban and friends out of the national championship. Of course, executing any of these steps is a challenge, and pulling off enough of them to down the defending champs is something few have accomplished -- including some of those offering up the advice.
Have a quarterback who can make plays with his feet and complete at least a few intermediate and deep throws
In the summer of 2011, on a languid, lemonade-sipping kind of afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Saban sat in his wood-paneled corner office on the second floor of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and described the thing that haunts him most: a talented dual-threat quarterback.
"Even when you've called the right defense and your defense does everything right, that kind of quarterback can still beat you by improvising," he said. "It's the stuff you can't really plan for that always brings a high level of concern. I mean, it can drive you crazy as a coach."
The reason for Saban's fear? Of the five teams that have beaten Alabama since 2010, four had quarterbacks who were dangerous on the ground as well as through the air: LSU's Jordan Jefferson in 2010 and '11; Auburn's Cam Newton in '10; and Manziel last season. (The one exception was South Carolina's Stephen Garcia in '10, but even he rushed for 20 yards on the Gamecocks' second scoring drive en route to a 35-21 victory.)
"Coach Saban always got really worked up over those fast, shifty quarterbacks," says a former Alabama player. "If a guy like Cam Newton got out of the pocket, our linemen would get tired as hell chasing him around, and it basically took away the physical advantage we had over their offensive linemen because we'd get gassed."
The quarterback that worries Saban the most is, naturally, Johnny Football. After sitting out the first half against Rice on Saturday -- Manziel was suspended by the NCAA for allowing his name to be used for commercial purposes -- the Heisman Trophy winner showed improved pocket awareness and arm strength, completing 6 of 8 passes for 94 yards and three touchdowns in the Aggies' 52-31 victory. In the 29-24 upset last year in Tuscaloosa, Manziel was magical, throwing for 253 yards and two touchdowns and running for 92 more while showing off the kind of improvisational playmaking that Saban dreads.
Saban spent the offseason mining the brains of other college and NFL coaches for clues about how to stymie mobile quarterbacks. Alabama is off this Saturday, giving Saban an extra week to prepare. He has continually reminded his players of what Johnny Football did last fall: During the spring and summer a video of the loss played on a loop in the Tide's weight room.
Challenge the inexperienced defensive backfield
Senior cornerback John Fulton, who has started only two games, was beaten deep twice against the Hokies. (Both passes were overthrown by QB Logan Thomas.) Nickel corner Geno Smith, who was suspended for the Tech game after being charged with DUI on Aug. 18, has just two career starts. "The weakest position group is going to be the secondary," says a former Alabama staffer. "It's imperative that you take advantage of those kids back there. Nick personally coaches the defensive backs, and the playbook is incredibly complicated. So I can almost guarantee you that you'll see a lot of confusion."
Another coach suggests a strategy so simple it could be drawn in the dirt: Throw long early and often. "I'd call at least two, maybe three deep balls a quarter," the coach says. "Let's see if those kids are ready. Nick likes to mix up his coverages, playing two-deep zones and three-deep zones. But at critical times he loves to play man and bring pressure. So when those young guys are in man and on an island, take a shot deep."
Counter Alabama's D by spreading the field and playing fast
The Tide have finished first in the nation in total defense and scoring defense the past two seasons, and on Saturday they held Tech to 212 yards. "If you play a straight-up offense and just put everyone in the box, Nick's guys are going to outmuscle you and outrun you," says a coach. "But if you play it like A&M last year and spread it out -- you put three receivers on the outside and flex out your tight end -- it suddenly doesn't feel like you're operating against a brick wall. You feel like there are creases out there. Alabama has got to worry about a quick screen, about a throw down the field, and about the read-option with your one back and your quarterback who can run. You can even be below average on the offensive line and still have a chance if you spread them out because it's so damn confusing for the defense."
Another benefit of operating out of the quick-paced spread: It can help wear down the Tide's mammoth defensive linemen -- as long as drives can be sustained for more than three plays. Alabama's starters average 6' 4" and 297 pounds. "Instead of having a play come at them every 40 seconds," says a coach, "you need to snap the ball every 15 to 18 seconds. You gotta get those big boys up front tired."
Saban has complained that the hurry-up offense is dangerous -- he says it leads to more injuries -- but rival coaches believe that argument is a smokescreen aimed at concealing Saban's real concern: It doesn't give him time to substitute defenders and call the coverage he wants. To a coach like Saban, who craves autocratic control, this is maddening.
Slow Alabama's rushing attack
Since 2008, the Tide are 53-0 when they rush for more than 150 yards. In the championship seasons Saban has used two feature backs with different styles: One has been a power runner who takes on linebackers helmet-to-helmet (Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy), and the other is quicker and more elusive (Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon). This year Yeldon, who rushed for 1,108 yards last season, will likely be joined by true freshman Derrick Henry, a 6' 3", 238-pound block of muscle who broke a 51-year-old national record at Yulee (Fla.) High by gaining 12,124 career yards. Henry had only one carry for minus-three yards on Saturday because Saban chose not to showcase him -- yet -- but his role should increase in the coming weeks.
"The fundamentals of tackling change when you go from trying to tackle a wiggle guy like Yeldon to a bulldozer like Henry," says a coach. "You saw Notre Dame just whiff on Yeldon so many times in the open field in the BCS game because they had gotten used to trying to stop the power of Lacy. The key is to not let either of them get in the open field, and the best way to do that is bring an extra safety into the box, play eight close to the line and dare them to throw. Because if they get the running game going, the game is over."
Virginia Tech went one better, consistently jamming nine defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage. The strategy worked, as the Hokies limited Alabama to fewer than 100 yards rushing, the Tide's lowest total since LSU held them to 96 on Nov. 5, 2011. The tape of Tech's scheme -- especially the presnap movements and the slanting, gap-hitting blitzes called by Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster -- will provide many helpful hints for Alabama's upcoming opponents.
Contain Amari Cooper
The most explosive player on Alabama's offense is sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper. Last season the 6' 1" 202-pounder led Alabama with 59 receptions for 1,000 yards. His 11 receiving touchdowns broke a school record that had stood since 1950.
"Last year they'd throw a quick screen to Cooper, and then he gets 12 yards," says a coach. "They'd throw a six-yard hitch to him, and he turns it into a 16-yard gain. Then he's got the speed to get behind you on the play-action pass. So I'm going to play umbrella coverage on him. I'm going to roll up a corner to Cooper at the line of scrimmage and put a safety behind him. On the other side I'm going to take a chance and go man-to-man with no safety help against [wide receiver] Kevin Norwood or whoever is playing there. You just always must know where number 9 [Cooper] is located."
Facing frequent double coverage on Saturday night, Cooper dropped two passes and caught only four balls for 38 yards. But Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier unveiled a new deep threat against Tech: Jones, a junior wide receiver. Not only did he return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown, but he also caught a 38-yard scoring pass from McCarron. Still, the verdict from rival coaches is unanimous: Do what it takes to stop Cooper.
Challenge Alabama's young offensive line and make AJ McCarron beat you when he's on the run
Last season McCarron became the first quarterback in the BCS era to guide his team to back-to-back titles. No longer merely a "game manager" -- a label McCarron detested -- he led the nation in passing efficiency (175.28) and threw for a school-record 30 touchdowns. He also played behind a line that featured three All-SEC players (center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker) who are now in the NFL.
"The line had such good chemistry last year that it made AJ's job relatively easy," says a coach. "But they have three new starters" -- junior guard Arie Kouandjio, sophomore center Ryan Kelly and junior tackle Austin Shepherd -- "and I would give them three or four blitzes that I've never used in previous games, just to see if they're ready for something that isn't in their game plan. I'd blitz early on second downs and see if we can get them in third-and-longs. Then let's keep everything in front of us and see if AJ can throw it between our guys."
McCarron, who was sacked only 23 times last year, possesses adequate mobility. Yet like most quarterbacks, he loses accuracy when he's on the move. "You have to get to AJ's feet when he's in the pocket and have him thinking how he's going to get away," says another coach. "The key will be to challenge that new line and see just how well it can handle pressure."
Against Virginia Tech, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, considered by the Tide staff to be the team's top lineman, was consistently beaten around the edge by defensive end J.R. Collins and flagged twice for holding. As a result, McCarron completed only 10 of 23 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown. He also threw an interception and had a passer rating of 23.4 -- his lowest since the LSU loss in '11. "It was a bit sloppy," Kouandjio said. "We have a lot of things to work on, but we've got time to work it all out." Before the BCS championship, yes, but there were 13 days and counting to the Tide's trip to College Station.
Force Alabama to kick field goals
The model for this step was established in that same 9-6 loss to LSU in '11. The Tigers kept the Tide out of the end zone and forced six field goal attempts. Bama missed four, including three by current senior kicker Cade Foster. "It's clear," says a coach, "that Nick doesn't have much trust in any of his kickers."
Foster, who was 4 of 9 on field goals last season, has connected on only 13 of 27 (48.2%) in his college career. He didn't line up for a field goal on Saturday, and in July, Saban admitted he was "concerned" about his kicking game.
Play to make it to the fourth quarter
"On the Sunday before I played Alabama," says a coach, his voice rising with emotion, "I'd tell my team, 'Alabama is King Kong and Superman rolled into one, but let's just get the game to the fourth quarter. Let's be within three points or six points. That's when they'll start second-guessing themselves.' "
The Tide know how to finish teams quickly, as they did against Notre Dame in their 42-14 BCS title game victory. In 2012, Alabama outscored its opponents 153-26 in the first quarter. Several Irish players admitted after the game that they were "too emotional" at kickoff, which led to mental miscues. "The opening minutes are all about survival," says a coach. "Get your kids settled down and then, with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, be within a touchdown. That's when we'll find out about Alabama's nerves."
No team can pull off all eight steps, and there's no magic formula dictating how many are necessary and to what degree they must be carried out in order to succeed. On Saturday, Virginia Tech took steps four, five, six but still fell well short of victory. And those dreaming of Crimson defeat must expect Alabama to get better.
"I think everyone realizes that we need to improve," Saban said on Saturday night. "You play good opponents like this, it makes your players realize where they are, what they need to be committed to in order to play to the standard that it's going to take to beat good teams in our league."
The fear of losing -- far more than the joy of winning -- is what drives Saban. And there he was late on Saturday, the last Tide staff member stepping onto an idling team bus, his face still a portrait of midgame intensity more than two hours after the final whistle. He took a seat in the front row and as Trailways #99384 rolled into the Georgia darkness, Saban wore the concerned look of a man with a problem. Only 13 days remained until he came face to face with Johnny Football. Make no mistake: The best college football coach of his generation was worried.