TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban is known as a more defensive-minded coach. The first three national championships he won at Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012 were all led by defensively dominant teams and steady, but not flashy offenses.
College football began to change and evolve with the emergence of the hurry-up-no-huddle offense, dual-threat quarterbacks and RPOs (run-pass options.) Instead of stubbornly sticking with the style of football he knew would win games, Saban was willing to learn and listen to others to grow with the times.
One of those voices he learned from was Lane Kiffin. He is now the head coach of the No. 12 Ole Miss Rebels, Alabama's opponent for the week, but Kiffin served as Crimson Tide offensive coordinator from 2014-16 and changed the Alabama offense in the process.
"We kind of took on the task when he came here of changing the whole offense to be more spread, more RPO-oriented and to use motions and formations to create issues and problems for the defense," Saban said. "He did a marvelous job of that when he was here. He's continued to build on it, but I'd say I learned that from him."
Saban called Kiffin a very bright guy, a really good playcaller, and said he has done an outstanding job with the Ole Miss offense. The current Alabama offense still builds on things implemented from when Kiffin was the offensive coordinator.
"I learned a lot of offensive football from him," Saban said.
In Kiffin's first season as OC, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims passed for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns, the most passing yards for any QB under Saban up to that point.
To see how much the Alabama offense has evolved under Saban, one can compare the passing yards from his first championship season to his most recent. In 2009, Greg McElroy had 2,508 passing yards in 13 games. In 2020, Mac Jones had 4,500 passing yards in 13 games against an all Power Five schedule.
Obviously, Kiffin was not still coaching Alabama in 2020, but what he started with Sims in 2014 grew into what Jones did last year.
Alabama's scoring offense jumped from 64th in Saban's first season in 2007 to the top 15 under Kiffin in 2014 and 2016.
Current Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was in middle school when Kiffin was the coordinator, but the style of play that Kiffin installed had a domino effect in getting West Coast guys like Young and Tua Tagovailoa to Tuscaloosa.
"I wasn't here when Coach Kiffin was here or was being recruited when Coach Kiffin was here, but I've heard a lot of things as far as being in the offensive room, in the quarterback room, I've heard a lot of positive things about the stuff he brought while he was here, and the stuff he contributed to the offense," Young said.
Young said he is happy with where the schematics of the Alabama offense are now.
A former Saban assistant has yet to beat the head coach, but Kiffin and his "outstanding" offense will certainly present a challenge for the Crimson Tide this week.
"This is one of the best offensive teams in the country, no doubt," Saban said.