Alabama's offensive evolution: Why Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and the Crimson Tide are riding high into the SEC Championship Game.
The idea that Alabama would accelerate its offense was unusual, not least to Alabama’s players. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin arrived on campus in January, assessed the overall talent on hand and the capabilities of potential starting quarterback Blake Sims and then dropped a brick on the gas pedal during spring practice.
It was just a little bit of an adjustment. The Crimson Tide were accustomed to a huddle, to jogging to the line of scrimmage, to listening for checks from the man under center. Then they’d go about pummeling people.
“Now it’s get to position as fast as possible and get Blake more time,” junior center Ryan Kelly said. “If he sees a look he likes, we’re going to just run it.”
It has been a prolific rush game of an entirely different kind. The Crimson Tide play faster than they have since Nick Saban’s first year on the job, and everyone is in a hurry to applaud a flexibility in philosophy that has the program in another SEC Championship Game (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, CBS) and in the chase for another national title. No one jerked the emergency brake simply because riding a more traditional offense produced results in the past. Alabama has played to its talent and the preference of the guy calling the plays, and the result is more production than the team has ever seen.
Through 12 games, Alabama has averaged 72.7 plays -- up from 63.5 last year and the first time its offense has cracked the 70-play rate since Saban's debut season in 2007, when it averaged 74 snaps a game. That year the Tide managed less than 400 yards per game; this season they’re at 5,872 yards of total offense, averaging 489.3 per outing, a school-record pace. Alabama has hit 500 yards of offense seven times and 600 four times. When needed, the program has passed the dragged-through-mud tests it has passed before, like in the Arkansas game (a 14-13 win) and the LSU game (a 20-13 overtime win). The new arrow in the quiver is an ability to outrace and outscore the other guys, as evidenced in a record-setting 55-44 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl last weekend.
“Basically it started out this season because of the personnel we had,” Saban said. “The quarterback functions better that way. He’s functioned better that way all year. Because of that, our whole personality on offense has gotten to where we function better as a group when we play with some tempo and pace. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to do it. But it certainly has been something that is beneficial for us.”
The increased tempo has made for a slightly more efficient attack, if not a massively more efficient one. Per Football Outsiders, Alabama’s adjusted offensive efficiency -- its actual drive success against expected drive success, based on field position -- is .605, good for eighth nationally. It was .551 and ninth nationally last fall. Meanwhile, the raw scoring numbers for the Crimson Tide have actually dipped slightly: 36.7 points per game this year, compared to 38.2 in 2013 and 38.7 in ’14. All of which is to say there is more than one way to fleece a defense. This one just works for this group.
And that is to say it works better for Sims, the 6-foot, 208-pound senior running the offense this season. He is the FBS’ seventh-most efficient passer with 2,988 yards through the air with 24 touchdowns to seven interceptions, mostly because the offense moves too quickly to permit him to do anything but just play. “I’m not thinking as much and just reacting off what people do,” Sims said. “That’s what I’m best at.”
The benefit to Alabama, in Kelly’s estimation, is actually twofold: Sims has a little more time to examine the defensive look, but there often isn’t enough time for the defense to contrive an exotic scheme anyway. “It forces the defense we go against to play more basic fronts,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t give them time to check off things. It gives us an advantage on both sides.”
One of Kiffin’s primary tendencies as a play-caller -- put the ball in the hands of the most dangerous offensive player as often as reasonable -- carried over to Alabama. Amari Cooper is a Heisman Trophy candidate as a result, with school records for receptions (103), yards (1,573) and receiving touchdowns (14). But in going fast and going to Cooper a lot, Kiffin hasn’t sacrificed the balance that has characterized the Tide offense. Alabama has run 55.5 percent of the time this year. That's the second-lowest rate during Saban’s tenure, but it’s also effectively the same ratio at which Alabama went to the ground game in 2013 (55.8).
It’s part of the bigger picture that earned Kiffin a spot as a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant: He took Alabama out of its comfort zone but somehow kept things familiar enough for the personnel to thrive. “It was kind of foreign to a lot of guys at first,” Kelly said. “I think he knew that. He was really patient with us. It was just a different style of offense than we’ve had in past three or four years before that. Every week he’s put us in the best position to be successful.”
So, going into the SEC title game against Missouri on Saturday and a possible College Football Playoff berth beyond it, Alabama is in position to win either with bloodied knuckles or by causing defensive whiplash. “We definitely are ready for whatever in the postseason,” Crimson Tide safety Nick Perry said, and everyone will be able to calculate the truth of that very quickly.