Saban, Alabama looking to thwart Texas A&M's growing SEC threat
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Each week, Alabama invites a sportswriter to take to the air with Nick Saban during his weekly radio show. The hope is that if things go a little off track, host Tom Roberts can tap the sportswriter on the arm and get a relevant question or two about the Crimson Tide's upcoming game. Thursday, that sportswriter was me.
Unfortunately, I couldn't compete with a caller named Yvonne who asked Saban if Alabama might ever consider a crimson-and-white field to compete with Boise State's Smurf Turf. Yvonne sounded as if she was kidding, but the crowd at the Buffalo Wild Wings where Saban's show originates booed her anyway. At least Saban could easily answer that question. "That's somebody else's decision," he quipped. The answers didn't come so easy when fans asked about defending Texas A&M's rapid-fire offense and Johnny Manziel, the quarterback who can break a defense on a broken play.
"He's impossible to simulate in practice," Saban said, and then he rattled off the reasons why. Manziel, who is on pace to break Cam Newton's SEC total offense record despite playing one fewer game than Newton did in 2010, scrambles so well that he can keep plays alive for eight or nine seconds -- nearly twice as long as the average play. That means defensive backs have to cover longer, linebackers have to keep Manziel in front of them and defensive ends can't sacrifice contain to attempt a tackle if they don't have help from their teammates. Manziel has improved as a passer, and he has reliable, sure-handed receivers Mike Evans and Ryan Swope, who are masters at settling into an open spot as Manziel evades rushers. Manziel's speed makes him a threat every time he drops back to throw. What might be a sack against another quarterback could become a 50-yard touchdown with Johnny Football on the field.
Saban sounded legitimately worried as he explained that the Aggies have an excellent offensive line -- led by tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews -- and two quality backs (Christine Michael and Ben Malena) that can hammer defenses with a between-the-tackles run game that takes advantage of the defense's fear of Manziel and the passing attack. This could be gamesmanship, of course. Saban probably has the nation's best defense. Even after a lackluster-by-Alabama-standards performance at LSU, the top-ranked Crimson Tide still are No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (9.1 points a game) and No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense (66.3 yards a game).
But maybe Saban's concern is genuine. He understands the game better than almost anyone. He knows everything is cyclical. The Crimson Tide won't rule the college football universe forever. Some program will find the magic bullet to beat them, and then that program will rule for a while until someone develops an even more brilliant scheme. That's how it always works. For example, Steve Spurrier brought the Fun 'n' Gun to Florida in 1990 and dominated the SEC for a decade. When Saban arrived at LSU in 2000, he learned through two early whippings that he had to create a defense that could stifle an offense as explosive as the Fun 'n' Gun. Spurrier left the league before Saban had the Tigers at full power, but by the time Spurrier and Saban were both coaching in the SEC again in 2007, coaches such as Saban, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Saban's LSU successor Les Miles had built smothering defenses that could overwhelm almost any offense.
It seemed Urban Meyer's spread option at Florida might finally tilt the advantage back to the offense, but Meyer left the league before he could prove the Gators' offensive success wasn't a direct result of two dynamic players (quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Percy Harvin). Besides, stifling defenses were just as responsible for Meyer's two national titles at Florida as Meyer's offense.
Maybe Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has found that magic bullet with the help of offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and Johnny Football. Sumlin has proven this year that he can adjust his offense to suit the strengths of his players. When Sumlin coached Houston, Case Keenum stood almost still in the pocket and racked up thousands of passing yards. Manziel, meanwhile, is third in the SEC in passing (280.8 yards a game) and leads the league in rushing (102.4 yards a game). Someone will eventually create a way to beat Alabama and LSU, and, looking down the road a few years, it just might be the Aggies. They have a dynamic head coach who runs an exciting offense, and they sit in one of the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds.
Maybe that's why Saban criticized hurry-up offenses last month. "It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game," Saban said. "With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it. ... I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?" Saban rarely offers such a strong opinion without a specific purpose. When he said those words, he had just faced an up-tempo team (Ole Miss) that played Alabama closer than anyone did until LSU. Saban knows a threat to his football way of life when he sees it, and a team that can run an up-tempo offense with blue-chip players -- as Texas A&M should be able to do on a consistent basis given the Aggies' recruiting base -- poses a major threat to Saban's football way of life.
The best way for Saban to squelch this threat is by preparing his defense to stone the Aggies' offense this Saturday. That won't be easy, but Alabama has the team speed to run with the Aggies. The Tide used backup quarterback Blake Sims, a dual-threat quarterback like Manziel, to portray Johnny Football against the first-team defense. The scout team ran Texas A&M's plays, but it also played a little of what Saban calls "yard ball." Coaches ordered the offense to improvise just as Manziel and his teammates will Saturday, and offensive players probably had a blast running playground plays during an elite program's practice. The exercise forced defenders to be patient and taught them not to abandon their assignments when plays break down. "The players learn," Saban said. "Early in the week, they give up big plays. As the week goes on, they sort of get used to those plays."
One factor that should help Alabama this week is that spread offenses get a healthy dose of linebacker C.J. Mosley. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Mosley plays less against pro-style offenses such as LSU's, but Mosley spends most of the game on the field against spread teams. Mosley leads the Tide in tackles with 69, and Saban said the junior sits atop Alabama's defensive production points chart.
But Saban isn't content to merely have his most productive defender on Johnny Football duty. Thursday night, he pulled a page from Texas A&M's playbook and tried to recruit a 12th Man to help eliminate one of Sumlin's most effective schemes. "There is one aspect of this game that nobody has said anything about," Saban said. "These guys have a hard count, and they've gotten the other team to jump offsides an average of at least four times a game. One time at Houston, they had [an opponent] jump offsides 11 times in a game. Now, they don't just get you to jump offsides. When you jump offsides, they do what Sam Wyche used to do at Cincinnati. Everybody runs a takeoff. So they throw the flag. The defense is offsides. The defensive players stop. Everybody takes off. Free play. And they throw it up. Three or four times a game. ... These guys have to communicate some kind of way. They can use hand signals. We can make it difficult for them. Those kind of things affect them as well create a lot of passion and enthusiasm for our players with the kind of atmosphere we create in that stadium Saturday. I'm telling you, this is the most important one of the year from that standpoint."
If the cheer from the standing-room-only restaurant crowd is any indication, the Aggies should not have a chance to run any hard-count, all-go free plays. That doesn't mean Saban won't worry until kickoff. He sees the threat building in Aggieland, and he knows his team must play its best to keep it at bay. After the show, I wished Saban luck on Saturday. "We're going to need some, I believe," he replied.
I believe he believes it.