How Nick Saban's embrace of a modern offense taken to the next level by Steve Sarkisian kept Alabama on top
At his USC introductory press conference in December 2013, Steve Sarkisian presented a vision for the program's offense that touted its speed in general and power elements specifically. He shouted out the production of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and the honors for which running back Bishop Sankey was nominated stemming from Sarkisian's last season as Washington's head coach.
"We have evolved really well as a team. We are an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. We are a run-first team, but we strive for balance," he said on that day more than seven years ago. "It is one that will be predicated on speed and a power-running game."
Hitting such notes was imperative for the then-newly named USC head coach, taking over a role that came with certain expectations about how points were scored, not just that points came. After all, when the Trojans dominated the college football landscape in the 2000s — including for two seasons with Sarkisian as offensive coordinator — they did so implementing a power-run game, with the quarterback directly under center, all behind overwhelming offensive lines.
What's more, the sport's reigning dynasty in Tuscaloosa didn't need any new-fangled spread offense to win three national championships in just four years. The Alabama of the early aughts bore a striking resemblance to those USC teams both in results and scheme, wielding the offense as a blunt-force instrument that supplemented stifling defense.
As hurry-up and spread offenses gained traction as a counter to the styles USC of the 2000s and Alabama a few years later employed — Oregon notably leading a revolution in the Pac-10 — Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban asked an existential question.
"There's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?" Saban famously quipped in October 2012.
Eight years later, we can safely answer that rhetorical question with an emphatic yes.
After losing SEC games in 2012 to Texas A&M and rival Auburn the following season, Alabama's otherworldly defense gained intimate familiarity with the potential of fast-paced offenses. But it was the 2014 Sugar Bowl, almost one month to the day of Sarkisian's introductory press conference at USC, that changed the game.
"The one that got us was Oklahoma in the bowl game," current Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said in the summer of 2018. The Sooners racked up 348 passing yards on a defense that allowed just 180.3 per game that season, and Oklahoma rolled to a shocking 45-31 win over Alabama.
"Especially on third down, remember the big thing over there was matching personnel," Cristobal said, detailing how hurry-up substitution patterns created mismatches. "We're going to bring in what we call our Rabbits package, really got after the passer, Nickel and the Dime in play coverage. Well, on the transition [of substitions] halfway in, halfway out, these guys are going to 'Fastball' with four verts.
"They killed us. They killed us with tempo," he added. "We learned a lot from that."
Then an assistant of Saban's, Cristobal was in Tuscaloosa both for a period during which Alabama was "resistant to the change of [up]tempo football," and during the shift in 2014 that set the wheels in motion for the Crimson Tide's current offensive identity.
In that offseason, Saban hired as offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin — the coach Sarkisian was hired to replace at USC. In an ironic twist, Sarkisian's introductory promises of a power-based offense followed two seasons of Trojans faithful airing their frustrations with Kiffin's spread-influenced approach.
But Kiffin's use of no-huddle play-calling allowed Alabama to leverage some of the same advantages that hurt it in the Sugar Bowl to more effectively deploy elite talent. The old offense was designed, in no small part, as a supplement to the defense. Hurrying up on the offensive end can put undue stress on defenses, which is why Cristobal said Alabama welcomed in former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti in the 2014 offseason to offer insight on how a defense can complement an up-tempo offense.
Years later, with Alabama's offense hitting its statistical peak, those lessons still resonate.
"It's very helpful," cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. "Knowing the type of offense we have, we're not anxious or very upright at all, knowing what they can do and what they're capable of."
Adaptive defense plays as much a part in operating a successful quick-strike offense, in particular with turnover generation. In 12 games through 2020, the Crimson Tide have forced 22 takeaways: three more than in 13 games in 2013, and two more than in 14 games in the first year of the no-huddle experiment under Kiffin.
And while Kiffin's tenure at USC fell short of expectations, there was the undeniable truth that translated well at Alabama: Kiffin knew how to maximize the playmaking abilities of wide receivers. Robert Woods posted almost 3,000 receiving yards in three seasons under Kiffin and hauled in 15 touchdown passes in 2011. Marqise Lee brought in a staggering 1,721 yards with 14 touchdowns in 2012.
In his first season as Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama, Kiffin's offense produced a rare Heisman Trophy finalist receiver in Amari Cooper. Kiffin may have left for FAU's head-coaching vacancy, and done well enough to return to the SEC as head coach at Ole Miss, but this principle has remained a pillar of the Alabama offense into a new decade.
"The advent of the spread offense, more spread formations, four-open kind of formations spreads the field, which gives players on the perimeter a much better chance to make plays," said Saban on Jan. 4, ahead of the Crimson Tide's College Football Playoff Championship matchup with Ohio State.
Opening more of the field to give playmakers space to operate has reached a crescendo with DeVonta Smith. Like Cooper, Smith's a Heisman finalist — and should be the first receiver to win the award in almost 30 years. Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy may not have received the same individual accolades, but are further examples of Alabama unlocking the potential of the blue-chip receivers in the program.
The change in offensive philosophy has also been good for coaches. Replacing Kiffin in a prominent role for the third time, Sarkisian's successful implementation of an evolved offense landed him the head-coaching job at Texas. Sarkisian will coordinate the Crimson Tide offense one final time for the national championship, aiming to add an exclamation point to the greatest offensive season in program history.
Alabama heads into the title game averaging 48.2 points per game, 10 more than the 2013 team's already impressive output, and the third in a run of consecutive campaigns posting at least 45 per. Smith, Mac Jones and Najee Harris all are top-10 Heisman vote-getters (all finished in the top five), making this Alabama squad just the third team since 1973 to have three players finish as high in the balloting (h/t Craig Haley).
All the while, Sarkisian never had to pay public lip service to how the points would come. Jones has taken snaps primarily from the shotgun, just like Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Blake Sims before him, and the sun has risen still in the East the following day.
And as sure as the sunrise in Saban's tenure at Alabama, the Crimson Tide have remained the sport's benchmark through its offensive shift. A win over Ohio State would make three titles since Kiffin's hire, matching the total won when Alabama played a more old-school style.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.