A recent book excerpt brought some untimely credibility to the old "Nick Saban to Texas?" rumors with details on how Texas boosters pursued the coach in 2013. While Texas regents and boosters were publicly confident that they could land Saban, the book's key claim is that the coach was warm to the idea of rebuilding another traditional powerhouse.
Compare that to trying to maintain expectations at Alabama, where his brilliant run has included three Crimson Tide national championships.
"You come to a crossroads and the expectations get so great, people get spoiled by success and there gets to be a lack of appreciation," his wife, Terry, said in November 2013 when his Alabama contract extension was still famously unsigned.
A change of scenery would've offered Saban the chance to start over, which he chose to do at Michigan State and LSU and with the Miami Dolphins before taking over the Tide. But it would also have given him a chance to build a defense from scratch to handle modern offenses.
But there remains one other way for the 63-year-old to get his rebuild on. He can rebuild Alabama.
Remake might be a better term, as the heavy roster turnover of college football means teams are always rebuilding. But it might seem silly to suggest a team averaging 12 wins over the last seven seasons would be in need of either.
Mack Brown probably would have been similarly dismissive of a suggestion that his Longhorns needed to be rebuilt reaching 2009's BCS Championship against Saban. They'd brought in four consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, had won 10-plus games nine years in a row, and were returning a QB who came off the bench to keep them in it against Alabama. Texas hardly seemed on the verge of collapse.
Then the West Coast spread passing game fell apart without the Colt McCoy-to-Jordan Shipley connection, the staff didn't know how to rebuild the run game, and across the depth chart, talented youngsters failed to replace the leaders from the 2009 runner-up.
Over the next four years, they went 30-21 and Mack lost his job.
The situation in Tuscaloosa isn't dire, but neither was Texas' before 2010. Saban can not only avoid a similar fall with a proactive response, he can keep Alabama in the title hunt every year.
Saban's career has often been defined by defense, following what he did in the NFL with longtime mentor Bill Belichick. As Chris Brown has detailed, their inability to stop the Steelers' offense led to the development of pattern-matching techniques, changing how defense is played throughout the sport. But while Saban went on to dominate the SEC with defensive tactics, Belichick evolved his own grand strategy. He built the Patriots around championship defense, then rebuilt them around championship offense.
After winning Super Bowls a decade ago with DVOA top 10 defenses, the linebacker-minded Belichick shifted more around Tom Brady and pulled off 10 consecutive seasons of DVOA top 10 offense. His 2003 team won the Super Bowl with the No. 1 scoring defense and No. 12 offense; his 2011 AFC champion flipped those to No. 15 and No. 3, respectively. Building around spread formations, up-tempo attacks, and Brady flinging the ball around, the Patriots have enjoyed three more Super Bowl appearances since 2005, including a title 13 years after Belichick's first.
Alabama has hardly played bad offense -- its run of championships was powered by elite running and efficient passing -- but Saban has seen his defense start to yield ground as the spread's SEC introduction has prevented Bama from controlling tempo. It's forced Saban into shootouts, like last year's 55-44 Iron Bowl win. Winning shootouts is not what Alabama's championship offenses were designed to do.
In college football, you rarely get to build around a franchise-grade quarterback -- Bama's facing QB questions in fall camp for its second year in a row despite No. 1 recruiting classes for a half-decade -- but you can choose a new offensive system. So Saban brought aboard the controversial Lane Kiffin in 2014. As it turned out, the former USC coach brought an entirely new philosophy. It's likely to develop as Saban mimics Belichick's pivot from defensive perfectionist to by-any-means winner.
Saban's strategy included a process for defenders to make post-snap decisions. It was revolutionary. While Saban is known as something of a control freak, with an extensive playbook of sub-packages and precise instructions for players and assistants, his players have individual responsibility and command of what they do on the field.
The result? Tide defenders can always adjust their own coverages, fronts and blitzes on the fly. They build sound structures and force opponents to work down the field the hard way against some of the best athletes in the country.
The other major component has been multiplicity.
Many defenses rely on three-man or four-man fronts. The Tide play both, but with one-gap and two-gap techniques. Secondaries often specialize in cover 3 or cover 4, with defensive backs recruited to master one while the other serves as a change-up, but Alabama has a dozen varieties of each.
For years, all of this versatility and talent choked out SEC offenses with individually crafted game plans. But then Auburn's Gus Malzahn and his up-tempo company came around. One Alabama source says Malzahn, the author of The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle, is inside Saban's head. Malzahn is 2-2 against Saban in their last four meetings, counting his time as Auburn's OC, and his team is the media pick to win the SEC (with Bama somehow picked to win the SEC West, of course).
"Being an old NFL guy, the way you play defense in the NFL is you play a lot of specialty defense because everything is based on situations," Saban, long a critic of rules that allow offenses to snap quickly, said this summer. "What pace of play has done to the college game does not allow to you do that. So you have to basically play the same players in every situation because, if you do play situation defense and you're allowed to sub in that particular situation, you can't get the players out of the game."
Alabama has struggled at times since losing defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt to the coordinator job at Florida State, which has in turn struggled since losing him to Georgia. After four straight top-seven finishes in opponent passer rating, all with Pruitt on staff, Bama has ranked No. 26 and No. 30 in his absence.
Auburn's smashmouth spread, Ohio State's similar attack, Texas A&M's and West Virginia's air raid ("You took 10 years off my life," Saban said to Kevin Sumlin after their second shootout) and other up-tempo systems have caused problems. The pace challenges Alabama's ability to always make the ideal call, and it tires the thicker bodies Alabama's strength program has provided players.
Then there are the run/pass option plays (RPOs) that are coming to dominate the game.
"Four years ago, 2011, that season we had [to defend] five run-pass option plays throughout the 800 plays. Last year's had over 120 run-pass option plays," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said this summer. "Obviously, the game has changed, the teams we're playing changed, and we've had to evolve."
Saban's anti-spread tactics have been consistent with the best practices around the country, but it's still the spread offense. By nature, it makes it impossible to avoid the offense isolating its best players against your weakest.
Remaking the roster to defend spread attacks is one piece, but Saban sees that his offensive philosophy will have to adapt to pick up the slack.
Since 2008, Alabama has never finished higher than 43rd in adjusted run-pass ratio. Saban's OCs have preferred to limit mistakes by pounding on the ground in a war of attrition. Saban claims that he has long "begged" his OCs for a wide-open offense, but if that's true, he didn't wield his authority as forcefully as he could have.
Alabama offense became synonymous with hammering your opponent with big formations. When Alabama did spread it out, it often looked like this:
The Tide would often use three- or four-receiver sets and run ball-control passing concepts like shallow cross. But here, against one of the better nickel defenses in recent history, they respond to the problem of secondary support outnumbering the run by asking their receivers to block.
If they got good blocking out wide, this could lead to big runs. But just as often, it would result in safeties and nickels reducing Alabama's offense to "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Handling DBs by blocking with big brutes, rather than receivers, would be more in the domain of pro-style offenses. Spread teams rely either on throwing the ball when the defense brings extra defenders, or evening out the numbers by using the QB in the option, which would've hardly been the best approach with quarterbacks like Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron.
In the play above, if the defense were to adjust to a run by sending DBs into the box just before or after the snap, the only solution for the Tide would be to take on the disadvantage, then look to make them pay later by calling a pass. That isn't a style that will often load up the scoreboard, and it's thus insufficient for dealing with Saban nemeses like Malzahn's Tigers or Urban's Buckeyes.
This also wasn't a philosophy consistent with Saban's preference on the other side of the ball, where defenders are flexible and versatile. Rather than being armed with a process for making ideal post-snap decisions, like on defense, the Alabama offense had been designed to avoid losing.
Kiffin's first Alabama offense introduced a few wrinkles, such as the tackle-eligible trick pass also seen last year at Belichick's New England. He lined up running backs as receivers and receivers as running backs to find mismatches.
But despite Kiffin's West Coast background and the fact that Alabama threw a few more times per game than usual, he didn't turn Bama into a passing team. Among top powers, Bama's offense was still among the country's most balanced.
He instead combined the run and the pass by embracing the RPO evolution, incorporating more of it as the season wore on.
Instead of having receivers like Amari Cooper constantly blocking, Bama ran routes Blake Sims could read and throw to if the defense packed the box with extra run defenders.
The linemen are still blocking zone, but the receivers are running a screen to one side and double slants to the other, each designed to keep the secondary from aggressively playing the run.
With RPOs, defenses often had to choose in real time whether to stop Heisman finalist Cooper or All-SEC T.J. Yeldon, with Sims punishing them for either choice.
Cooper saw his production go from 45 catches and 736 yards in 2013, while battling double teams and bracket coverage, to 124 balls for 1,727 yards, working against defenses whose attentions were divided.
Here's another way Kiffin divided and conquered. Cooper lines up as a running back, drawing an Auburn safety into the box to help stop the run.
Kiffin motions Cooper out wide, which threatens the perimeter with a quick screen. That would mean him running behind blocks by the two receivers already up there.
This accomplishes two things: it results in the boundary safety dropping back and giving away Auburn's coverage, and it removes him as an extra run defender.
Auburn's field safety drops down, where he'll be occupied by Cooper's route. He isn't in position to help against what's coming. But had this safety not responded to Cooper's motion, Sims could immediately throw to Cooper after the snap.
Alabama runs a zone read. Sims reads the unblocked defensive end to determine whether to keep the ball or hand off to Yeldon. With the secondary scrambling out wide to stop a screen pass, the end has to play contain and get the ball out of Sims' hands (Sims ran 83 times for 350 yards last year, both by far the highest for a Bama QB in the Saban era), allowing Sims to hand off.
Alabama is now running inside zone with five blockers to account for five defenders. The only DBs who can help are a cornerback playing man coverage and a deep safety who was backpedaling at the snap.
Alabama's line opens a crease, Yeldon finds it, and he picks up 16 yards before the secondary can track him down.
If Alabama can recruit the best linemen, backs and receivers in the country, what chance does anyone have of stopping them if they're able to get one-on-one matchups for multiple players on every play? The art of playing defense by taking away what the offense does best becomes exceptionally difficult when the offense can use RPOs like this.
This is no longer the imposition of will. This is a prepared process for attacking specific defenders. This is the offensive equivalent of pattern matching, giving the QB options after the snap to make sure he can always deliver the ball where his team is at an advantage.
Then there's pace. Kiffin has applied the lesson that the traditional powers should have learned from 2008 Oklahoma. When a team has as much NFL talent as Alabama does, it behooves it to create as many scenarios as possible in which opponents have to out-execute that talent. With every additional snap, Alabama reduces its risk of becoming a victim of chance.
At the Tide's pace in 2014, opposing defenses had five fewer minutes of rest per game than in 2013. Alabama reduced its average time between plays by more than four seconds. Tempo is the best friend of the RPO. It forces defenses to simplify responses and limit disguises. It allows the QB more chances to zero in on the conflicted defenders who have both run and pass responsibilities.
As difficult as it is to out-execute Saban's players, doing so with one hand tied behind your back is even more difficult. Add in the Tide's superior depth, and you have a monstrous unit.
"[Up-tempo offense] affects how you recruit [defenders]. You can't recruit as many specialty players," Saban said. "And you have to be able to match up in all circumstances and situations with teams that actually play that way, which is more difficult. I don't think there's any question about the fact that it's more difficult to play defense, and I think that's why you see more points being scored, and I don't think that trend's going to change any time soon."
One personnel solution is simple: get faster on defense.
"That  team was a big, physical team that was good at stopping the run, had two first-round corners," Smart said. "In recent years, the run-pass option has evolved to make offensive football better, and we've had to change with that."
This year, the Tide will field a nickel lineup that will be much lighter and quicker than previous groups.
|Cornerback||Tony Brown||6', 195|
|Nickel||Maurice Smith||6', 199|
|Strong safety||Eddie Jackson||6', 194|
|Free safety||Geno Smith||6', 196|
|Cornerback||Cyrus Jones||5'10, 196|
Barring some big summer weight gains, this will be Saban's first Alabama secondary to not feature a DB over 200 pounds. 2011 All-American safety Mark Barron had more than 20 pounds on most of these players.
The other solution is recruiting offensive players who force those same disadvantages on Bama's opponents. Spread option football works best when an offense has dominant linemen (of course), quick-moving and quicker-thinking quarterbacks, and explosive home run hitters at the skill positions.
In 2015, Alabama could feature FSU transfer Jacob Coker at quarterback. They've tried to simplify the system to enable quick decisions. They'll also be breaking in new receivers, with TE O.J. Howard and former five-star receiver Robert Foster standing to benefit the most.
But beyond 2015, Alabama is loading up on players who could thrive in this new paradigm. They'll still look to be pro-style with the ability to get into bigger formations (in which RPOs are just as effective), but they're also looking to add speedsters they can let loose on the perimeter as the qualities of a Saban-ball QB change.
Since losing the 2013 Iron Bowl, Saban has sought dual-threat QBs. That follows years of taking pro-style prospects, most of them from the Southeast. The rumor around coaching circles is that struggling with spread offenses has convinced Saban to just outscore those teams.
This was first made evident in 2015 with California dual-threat signee Blake Barnett. Then Saban landed Jalen Hurts, a Texan Trevone Boykin clone who had 2,500 yards passing and 948 rushing as a junior, for 2016. Bama just missed on grabbing a 2017 five-star dual-threat in Shawn Robinson, also from Texas.
Saban's final construction project will likely be in the same place as his previous one. But that's not going to stop him from applying what could have been a plan for somebody else as a fresh foundation at Alabama. He doesn't know any other way.