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The lesson from Nick Saban's championship reign is to stop trying to copy Nick Saban

The only proven way to compete against the country's Alabama overlord is to take lessons from it while carving out your own path.

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Saban and Kirby Smart, now the full-time head coach at Georgia
Saban and Kirby Smart, now the full-time head coach at Georgia
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In last week's Podcast Ain't Played Nobody, my co-host Steven Godfrey railed against the Alabama dynasty, in part because of other schools attempting to imitate it.

Clemson needs to win this football game because we are allowing a certain settling, a certain malaise. It's almost a byproduct of the way that Saban teams win football games. This slow, dumb inevitability, a leaning, just a grinding down.

I'm exhausted by this concept of seeing "Nick Saban is the greatest coach in the world. Alabama has to be the blueprint." I'm convinced, and I'm backed up in this by talking to coaches and people in the industry, that this tree of his, which has not borne much fruit, is propped up and amplified. And these guys get job after job after job strictly because of him and nothing else. I feel like this is an infection that is just spreading across college football.

The idea that this is the only way to succeed, this is the only way to win, it's exhausting. It's terrible for the sport, and it's not because one team keeps winning titles, it's not because it's Alabama. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with this dead, wet blanket that falls over college football.

Leave aside the fact that Monday night's national title game, a wonderful 45-40 Alabama win over Clemson, included no inevitability. Alabama trailed in the fourth quarter of a game played at Clemson's pace and needed special teams breakthroughs to overcome rare disadvantages in the trenches. We'll come back to that.

Success breeds imitation in every industry. In football, when a coach figures out something, hoards of administrators notice. That's how ideas like the wishbone or the spread offense disseminate, and that's how we end up with the beautiful life cycle of ideas. Offenses come up with something new, defenses adjust, offenses adjust to the adjustment, etc.

With Saban, however, teams have attempted to copy without figuring out what they should be copying. They hire his assistants, hoping his influence rubs off. Sometimes it does. Former Alabama DBs coach Jeremy Pruitt became Florida State's defensive coordinator in 2013 and helped to boost the Seminoles to the national title under head coach and fellow former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher. Often, it doesn't. Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp took the Florida head coaching job three years after a Gator national title and won more than seven games just once.

SEC teams race to collect Saban DNA in the hopes of creating the next Saban in a lab. Georgia has won 50 games in five years, and Mark Richt had succeeded a level higher than UGA's legendary Vince Dooley, but the Bulldogs fired Richt because they wanted to land Saban's defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart.

A year ago, as Florida was replacing Muschamp with another former Saban assistant (Jim McElwain), Auburn's Gus Malzahn -- a man who had supposedly gotten into Saban's head -- hired Muschamp as his defensive coordinator.

Muschamp was then snatched away to become South Carolina's head coach despite the fact that he didn't engineer any improvement in Auburn's defense.

And then Malzahn replaced his not-so-successful, former Sabanite defensive coordinator with another one: Kevin Steele, who'd had a mediocre first year at LSU.

While the ACC was bringing in loads of high-caliber coaching talent, SEC teams were valuing Saban ties over all other characteristics. And hey, maybe Smart (who just named a three-time Saban assistant, Mel Tucker, his defensive coordinator) is the guy. Maybe someone from the Saban tree will finally take down the master. But they've rarely come close.

To imitators, Saban's Process™ seems to consist of strong defense and occasional offense. Because he is a former defensive coordinator himself, that is the product. But that isn't the Process. The Process is the path, not the style.

You must recruit.

To truly imitate Saban, you look first for someone who runs the most organized, effective recruiting operation on the planet (or at least, this side of Rupp Arena). To win five national titles in 13 seasons (one at LSU, four at Alabama), you must be able to craft a definitive talent advantage despite living in the 85-scholarship era.

You must develop.

Saban pushes a lot of kids out the door. If you do not fill a depth chart spot or fill a niche, odds are pretty good that you will be transferring. But many are willing to wait a couple of years for serious playing time because they know they'll develop.

You must deploy your talented, well-developed players appropriately.

You don't have to take many strategic risks when you've got a talent advantage in every game, but you need to make sure that these players belong to a system is built to defeat the opponents you will play on a yearly basis. And if your offense or defense gets a little staid, you must be willing to make changes.

You must be impossibly organized.

A place for everything, everything in its place. Every piece of game day has a routine attached, and God help you if you stray from it. Everything is analyzed twice. There is a process for every piece of the Process.


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You must learn to trust the people you yell at.

Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker was 12-for-19 for 158 yards and a touchdown. That's a solid 150.4 passer rating, but passer ratings don't include sacks. He'd been brought down five times for a loss of 31 yards, dragging his per-attempt average to a mediocre 5.3 yards.

Coker over the final 13 minutes: 4-for-6 for 177 yards, a touchdown, and no sacks. Passer rating: 369.5. Quarterback has been a bit of an issue for Alabama since AJ McCarron left two years ago. Blake Sims worked into a rhythm in 2014 but imploded in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. Coker took the starting job in 2015 but was unimpressive enough that Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin overthought and started backup Cooper Bateman in the loss to Ole Miss. But over the final five starts of Coker's career, he completed 73 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

Kicker Adam Griffith, most famous for either coming up short in the Kick Six game against Auburn in 2013 or starting this season 0-for-4 (and 6-for-12), not only finished the season by making 17 of 20 field goals, he made the kick that changed the title game.

Apparently, you must have huevos.

If, despite all that, you find yourself in a dogfight for the national title, you must have the guts to call for a surprise onside kick by Griffith with 10 minutes left in a tied game.

Saban told reporters, "I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it. I made the decision to do it because the score was 24-24 and we were tired on defense and weren't doing a great job of getting them stopped. I felt like if we didn't do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game, that we wouldn't have a chance to win."

The Tigers had gained just 15 yards in 10 plays and punted twice in their previous two drives, but Saban was right. Clemson would go on to gain 204 yards in 20 plays over its final three possessions, scoring 16 points. Without the extra possession, the Crimson Tide might not have scored enough to win.

We've seen a couple of Saban guys following portions of this formula. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator for five seasons at LSU and has won big at Florida State. Mark Dantonio was Saban's defensive backs coach for six seasons at Michigan State, then spent three under an even more offense-restrictive coach, Ohio State's Jim Tressel. As Michigan State's head coach, he has taken the Spartans to heights unseen since the 1960s. Granted, he doesn't recruit top-flight classes (in two games between Michigan State and Alabama, the Crimson Tide have won by a combined 87-7), but he's done really well.

Until Fisher is able to sustain his current level of success (one national title, four straight years of 10-plus wins), we don't know that he will. And if he does, he'll be the first.

The teams that find a way past Alabama do it by following a path that isn't Alabama's.

  • Before Monday night, Saban's Alabama had played in three national title games and outscored opponents by an average of 33-12. Clemson became the first team to truly throw a title-game scare, and the Tigers did so with a combination of stud recruits, great quarterback play and spread-offense principles.
  • A year ago, Ohio State eliminated Alabama in the semifinals with a combination of stud recruits, great quarterback play and spread-offense principles.
  • Besides Ohio State, the only team to beat the Crimson Tide over the last 29 games is Ole Miss, which has done so twice with Hugh Freeze's combination of stud recruits, aggressive defense and spread offense.
  • Two years ago, Auburn topped Alabama, taking the Crimson Tide's spot in both the SEC and BCS title games, not by Saban's system but by a spread offense designed to frustrate it.
  • The year before, Texas A&M nearly knocked Alabama off of its title path because of great quarterback play in a spread system.

The spread isn't even the point. Saban and his charges have adapted to what used to work against them.

In recruiting well, developing players, figuring out unique ways to deploy talent and adapting, those teams actually did a better job of imitating Saban than those who were hiring Saban assistants.

This sport requires you to learn the right lessons when you fail, lest you be doomed to fail even more. Those who attempt to imitate Saban have already failed. There is only one Nick Saban.