It’s quite simple, really. Except it’s not, so don’t try, rest of college football.
Undeniably, Alabama represents the premier dynasty of modern college football. Coach Nick Saban and Co. (Aside: When will Nick Saban become “Coach” colloquially in the national consciousness? Probably after one more ring.) have notoriously snatched four of the last seven national titles and overcame a pesky playoff last year, just to prove to all the haters that trying to legislate deterrents into the system is utterly futile.
Somehow, in the age of spread offenses and pistols, Alabama wins by going back to the basics: running the football and locking their opponents down with other-worldly defense. Offensive coordinator and consensus son-who-disgraced-his-illustrious-father Lane Kiffin has tried to introduce elements of new wave college football into ‘Bama’s patented offensive attack. However, Saban’s authoritarian tendencies will never permit a full-scale revamp. And can we blame him?
It’s difficult to label Saban as a “system coach,” given his chameleonic inclinations on defense. But over the course of his nine years at the helm in Tuscaloosa, a distinct blueprint has emerged for the Crimson Tide’s success:
Perhaps the most common theme throughout Alabama’s reign of terror is their interior superiority on both sides of the ball. Saban builds his team from the inside out, with careful attention paid to the roles served by each position on the defensive and offensive lines:
Tackles: ‘Bama’s protectors on the outside possess an uncanny combination of athleticism and brute strength. They open holes on the outside for toss sweeps, and provide their quarterbacks with ample time to throw in the pocket. The Tide have never needed a mobile QB because their protection has remained consistently strong for the past decade. Prototypicals: Cam Robinson, Cyrus Kouandjio
Guards: Otherwise known as maulers. These are overweight humans who go after their counterparts across the line of scrimmage with the tenacity of 1,000 honey badgers. Usually (read: always), this results in the carnage of opposing defensive lineman strewn across Bryant-Denny Stadium after the first quarter. ‘Bama’s guards unlock the offense by creating gaping holes for their running backs, which in turn opens up a deadly play-action passing game. Prototypicals: Chance Warmack, Arie Kouandjio
Centers: This is the cerebral hub of the ‘Bama interior. Saban’s centers manage blitz assignments and ensure the Death Star continues to run like a well-oiled machine. Prototypical: Barrett Jones
Nose Tackles: Similarly massive humans, the Tide’s nose guards serve a space-eating role. They help stop the run by closing the A-gap and freeing up holes for linebackers to shoot the point of attack. ‘Bama has served as an incubator for NFL-caliber nose tackles for the past decade. Prototypicals: Marcell Dareus, Terrence Cody
Defensive Ends: Since the Tide’s base defense is a 3-4, their ends play in a hybrid 5-technique role, which, translated, means they’re disrupters. They tend to do this job very well. Somehow, Saban manages to find nimble block-shedders who are equally talented at muzzling the run and pursuing the quarterback. If you were wondering who haunts Chad Kelly’s nightmares, look no further. Prototypicals: Quinton Dial, Jarran Reed
Of Game Managers and Bulldozers
Oddly enough, ‘Bama lacks what’s traditionally considered the most important position in the game. Not important. Saban has replaced gunslingers with game managers and proven time and time again, all you need is a freak of nature in the backfield to create a potent offensive attack.
Quarterbacks: One could make an argument — and a cogent one — that the Tide could win without a proper quarterback even stepping foot on the field. How difficult is it to hand the ball off to a Heisman-caliber back(s) 40 times per game behind an All-American O-line? Well, there’s more to it than that. To be even more specific, there’s not.
Look, a ‘Bama QB simply needs to have the ability to make safe throws from the pocket and the occasional 40-yard touch pass off the play-action. Nothing fancy, BUT IT NEVER FAILS. Prototypicals: Greg McElroy, A.J. McCarron
Running Backs: Powerful. Physically dominant. Punishing. All truck stick, all the time. But after fighting through 330-pounds worth of Chance Warmack, the last thing any defender wants to do is attempt to bring down 240 pounds of muscle (and in the case of Eddie Lacy, Big Macs). Prototypicals: Trent Richardson, Derrick Henry
Given ‘Bama’s generally conservative style of play, it’s easy to gloss over the talent they manufacture at skill positions on both sides of the ball.
Wide Receivers: When one can make Patrick Peterson look foolish, one has established oneself. And Tide wideouts have claimed the souls of far more corners than just Peterson. The recent lineage of ‘Bama wide receivers has grown prestigious, and it shows no sign of slowing down this year with Calvin Ridley. Prototypicals: Julio Jones, Amari Cooper
Linebackers: The strongest single unit on the Tide, they blend unprecedented size and speed into a swarming, relentless mob. Saban has undoubtedly turned ‘Bama into the new “Linebacker U.” Prototypicals: Reggie Ragland, C.J. Mosley, Dont’a Hightower
Safeties: Not only are they capable of playing down low in the box, they’re also instinctual ball-hawkers. The Tide’s two-deep coverage sets are perhaps the most difficult to solve in the country because they blend superior safety help over the top with an extremely effective four-man rush. Prototypicals: Landon Collins, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Eddie Jackson
Replicable? Think otherwise.
All this to say, “No, you cannot be Alabama.”
In theory, every position description listed above is attainable. But that’s all it is for the rest of the field: a theory. Because no other team has the pedigree the Tide have, whether speaking in terms of championships or NFL-caliber talent. ‘Bama has manufactured the most NFL draft picks of any collegiate program since 2010 (51), and it’s not really even close (Florida comes in second with 42).
When recruiting becomes routine, the cycle of dominance will keep spinning.
You might be able to swipe two stalwart tackles, or a punishing tailback, or maybe even a powerful linebacker, but definitely not all three. Most Power Five teams can’t compile any combination of the above, let alone a repeatable model for sustained success. The Tide are a complex unto themselves.
So yes, relish in Ohio State’s Big Ten revolution under Urban Meyer, laud Jim Harbaugh for leading an about face at Michigan, and sure, watch Dabo Swinney breathe fire back into the orange and purple at Clemson.
Just don’t forget who holds the crystal ball. Because odds are it’s not changing hands anytime soon.