On Monday, when Alabama kicks off against Clemson in the national championship game, it’ll be the ninth anniversary of Nick Saban’s first title as Crimson Tide head coach. That 2009 team is regarded as one of, if not the best, of Saban’s squads at Alabama; it went 14–0, holding opponents to just 11.7 points per game and putting up points thanks in large part to a relentless rushing attack anchored by the school’s first Heisman winner, Mark Ingram.
The Crimson Tide were anchored by their airtight defense. Offensively, they were pragmatic and conservative, chewing up yards on the ground—and not because they weren’t loaded with talent. Julio Jones was Alabama’s leading receiver that year, but in a bit of a down season, he finished with just 596 yards, averaging 13.9 per catch. That blueprint was one the Tide followed, more or less, for much of the next decade: bruising rusher, the occasional great receiver and a game manager under center.
Any claims of Alabama-Clemson fatigue—this will be the teams’ fourth playoff matchup in as many years—are valid only so far as the names and brands involved. When the teams match up on Monday, it’ll be a vastly different clash than it has been in any past matchup, wholly dissimilar from even a year ago. Clemson is still Clemson, albeit with a better quarterback, but Alabama has evolved mightily on offense into a high-flying machine under quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The defense is still great—it has allowed an average of 16.2 points per game (fifth in the FBS), along with just 307.9 yards per game (13th)—but the Crimson Tide’s offense has stolen the show.
This year, Tagovailoa & Co. averaged 527.6 yards per game, behind only Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson. Alabama put up 47.7 points, fewer than only Oklahoma, and it was dominant in both phases thanks to a trio of rushers—Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs—and five receivers who finished the season with more than 500 yards apiece. (Sophomore Jerry Jeudy led the group with 1,176 yards, and freshman Jaylen Waddle wasn’t far behind, with 823.) The national finalists of 2016 and ’17, which were led to the title game by Jalen Hurts until Tagovailoa took over in crunch time last year, averaged 38.8 and 37.1 points, respectively, but the vertical passing threat that Tagovailoa has raised this year’s offense to a different stylistic tier in addition to the extra 10 points per game.
Alabama’s quarterbacks had the best combined passer rating of any team’s signal callers (200.2), and with a four-score day in the Orange Bowl, Tagovailoa improved his yearlong tallies to 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions this season. Unlike in past years, Alabama’s offense has been unafraid to take deep shots; on passes that traveled farther than 30 yards in the air, Tagovailoa completed 32 of 57 attempts (56.1%), according to STATS. He was especially good on passes between 40 and 50 yards in length, completing three of four two touchdowns. (The sophomore attempted two passes of more than 50 yards, which didn’t go quite as well; he completed neither, and one was picked off.) Still, the big shots paid off for Alabama in 2018, and apart from that one turnover on a wild attempt, Tagovailoa was able to keep those long balls in the hands of his receivers.
This aggressive style of play translated into one especially lopsided metric: Alabama in 2018, through the Orange Bowl, has scored 90 touchdowns and kicked only 14 field goals. A year ago, it had 64 touchdowns to go along with 19 field goals on 25 field goal attempts. Joseph Bulovas has the best field goal rate (13-of-17, 76.5%) of any Alabama kicker since Jeremy Shelley’s perfect 2012, but he hardly gets a crack at the ball.
If Alabama wins on Monday (it opened favored by nearly a touchdown), this team will have an argument as the best of Saban’s tenure, an almost complete 180 from his offenses of the early 2010s. Sure, Saban conformed to the rest of college football, to productive, fast offensive schemes—but as usual, he did it better than everyone else.