ATLANTA -- In many ways, this was the same. On Saturday Alabama's players and coaches celebrated in a mosh pit at the 50-yard line of the Georgia Dome. They grabbed iPhones and took selfies and tackled each other, all while buckets of blue and yellow confetti sprinkled down from sky. Those rooting for the Crimson Tide had seen this movie before, not that they minded a re-run. It was just the latest chapter in one of the most successful team stretches in SEC history.
Saturday’s 42-13 win over Missouri gave Alabama its third conference crown under coach Nick Saban and delivered the program’s 24th league title overall. So, it’s easy to understand why this scene looked familiar: A Saban-coached team rolled behind a roster of Saban-recruited players using the Saban-preached process. Rinse and repeat.
Still, despite how it appeared on the surface, this one wasn’t the same. This version of Alabama dominated the regular season in an entirely different way. That’s why this third SEC title meant a little more to the Crimson Tide’s coach.
“I've never wanted a group to have as much a chance to be successful in a game as I did tonight in winning the SEC championship,” Saban said.
Perhaps the most impactful figure in Alabama’s new process stood about 20 yards from the midfield celebration on Saturday night. Lane Kiffin, the Crimson Tide’s first-year offensive coordinator, stood quietly with his arms crossed and watched as players exchanged hugs and high-fives. Kiffin wasn’t joining in on the euphoria, but anyone who has watched Alabama this fall knows he could have been leading the charge. The former USC coach helped bring an explosive offense to Tuscaloosa, an evolution that helped Alabama rise to the top of the rankings once again.
Saban’s previous Alabama offenses had a simple blueprint: They were run-first attacks with game-managing quarterbacks (see: Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron) and ultra-effective smashmouth rushers (see: Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy). Up-tempo offenses may have captivated the rest of college football, but for years Saban stuck to his principles. He constantly railed against the no-huddle trend. "I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, is this what we want football to be?" he told reporters in October 2012.
For whatever reason, that approach changed this offseason. That might have had something to do with consecutive losses to Auburn and Oklahoma at the end of the 2013 campaign. Yet Saban earned a lot of headlines by bringing in Kiffin, who was tasked with retooling an offense that lost McCarron as its starting quarterback.
Fans and media clamored for Saban to tab Florida State transfer Jake Coker as McCarron’s successor. But Saban opted for redshirt senior Blake Sims, and the Kiffin-Sims experiment took a while to take. The offense struggled in victories over West Virginia, Florida and Arkansas, and the Tide lost 23-17 at Ole Miss on Oct. 4. Many wondered if the window to Alabama’s dynasty was closing.
But Saban, Kiffin and their coaching staff knew things were only beginning to set into place. Alabama routed Texas A&M 59-0, overwhelmed Tennessee 34-20 and topped Auburn 55-44 in the Iron Bowl. Suddenly, this newfangled offense was clicking, and Saban credits Sims for the unit’s eventual cohesion.
“We toyed with it early in the season, and we were a little bit of a work in progress getting to it, but because he executes it so well and makes really good reads, it's been very, very beneficial to us,” Saban said of Sims. “He's the reason that we do it, because it's what he does best, and the rest of our players really kind of fit in that too with the kind of team we have.
“And if we didn't do it, I don't think we'd be here where we are right now.”
On Saturday Sims went 23-of-27 passing for 262 yards with two touchdowns. With his 58-yard touchdown pass to DeAndrew White in the second quarter, he moved ahead of McCarron to become the program’s single-season record holder for passing yards (3,250). Sims and receiver Amari Cooper (12 catches, 83 yards) have formed the SEC’s most lethal aerial combo, and the offense had Missouri on its heels all Saturday long. The Tide ran 76 plays and recorded 28 first downs and 42 points, all single-game highs for the program in an SEC title game.
“When they get rolling, they get rolling,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “That’s what coach Kiffin brings to the table. He’s able to get the ball to his athletes, and at the same time, there’s still that mixture [of run and pass]. That says a lot about our guys out there in space, they know what they have to do.”
It’s not unreasonable to say Saban has done his best coaching job during the 2014 season. He diagnosed his team with complacency after a 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl last January, and numerous issues have surfaced throughout this fall, too: in the secondary, on special teams, along the offensive line. Alabama hasn’t taken the same road to the top, but the destination has been the same.
An SEC title is in hand. Two potential College Football Playoff games remain. The journey wasn't conventional, but this iteration of the Crimson Tide is now in a very familiar place: They're ready to compete for another national title.
“I always believe in this group,” Saban said. “I always have believed in this group. I just asked them questions, and I asked the question after the Ole Miss game, ‘How are you going to respond to a loss?’ We've only had one team that didn't lose a game. That's a very difficult thing to do. And I think they responded the right way.”