While it was popular to proclaim the end of the Nick Saban era after Urban Meyer and a loaded Buckeye team dispatched Alabama in the 2014 Playoff, a closer look at that Tide squad revealed clear long-term trends. Saban was adjusting his strategies and roster to be competitive in the new spread-dominated era of college football.
This came to fruition this year when the Tide punished Michigan State for its aggressive style of run defense with a spread passing attack, and then survived and out-scored the up-tempo/spread Clemson Tigers. The most recent Playoff semifinals were two perfect test cases for Alabama's evolving strategies.
The results are in: Alabama isn't going anywhere.
Since the 2016 field looks stronger than the 2015 crop of nationally competitive teams, it's important that Saban's Tide are on their game if they want to stay in the national title hunt.
If you take a look at 247Sports' recruiting class rankings over the last five years, you'll get an even clearer picture of the dominance of the Alabama machine. While Saban has won three championships in that time, he's basically been undefeated on the recruiting trail.
Here's the last five years of recruiting class rankings for Alabama, those of the other three playoff teams, and those of the rest of S&P's top 10 in 2015.
Alabama has a serious talent advantage over the rest of college football, since Saban is picking and choosing which national recruits he wants on his team every single season.
Because of this inherent advantage, Saban's Alabama embraces simplicity over complexity in most aspects of strategy save for on defense, which is Saban's particular area of expertise. The offense joined the spread revolution last season as a simple way to ensure easy reads for the QB and one-on-one matchups for the top-rated skill players.
Lane Kiffin has been the perfect match for Saban thanks to his ability to scheme a few big-play opportunities every game while maintaining the simple, inside zone-based approach of the offense.
Against the Clemson Tigers, Saban and Kiffin had the team well set up to leverage its various athletic advantages and ensure a fourth Crimson Tide championship in the Saban era.
First we have to discuss the special teams plays that swung the game. While this phase of the game was a particular weakness for Clemson this year, it wasn't exactly a strength for Alabama either. The champs finished the year 83rd in FEI's special teams ratings while Clemson finished 89th.
Alabama yielded a long return to Clemson's Artavis Scott but generally won the field position battle. The Tide also got a 95-yard return TD from uber-athlete Kenyan Drake, and of course had the well-rehearsed onside kick that garnered them an extra possession in the fourth quarter.
If opposing teams aren't gaining field position advantages against Alabama's special teams, it's usually going to be a long day trying to out-execute five-stars.
In both Playoff games, Alabama featured offensive game plans that played things fairly simply for the most part but mixed in a few strategic playcalls designed to get after the opponent. The Tide got a ton of mileage out of moving TE O.J. Howard around, often catching Clemson in unsound alignments or simply unprepared to handle the seldom-used but explosive former five-star.
That included catching Clemson with a quick POP screen to Howard on what appeared to be yet another slice zone play. And getting Howard open down the seam with the same trips alignment and playcall that beat the Spartans deep a week previously.
Throw in the standard "oh crap, Derrick Henry found a crease and now he's going the distance" play that will inevitably happen, and the Tide were able to get 45 points on the board.
Although the Tide aren't always particularly aggressive about getting their playmakers the ball down the field, there's a certain inevitability to explosive plays when the offense is spreading the defense out and fielding talents like Henry, Howard, Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Drake. It's a similar effect to when Barry Switzer started using more explosive athletes in the fullback position in his Wishbone and won three championships at Oklahoma. When everyone on the field can score on a big play from anywhere on the field, some of them inevitably will.
Alabama still shares the same vulnerability as every other great team.
These days in the NFL, good defenses can always stop the run if they absolutely have to do so. The Super Bowl champion is rarely RB-centric on offense. The only major exception is the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, who opened up lanes for their RB by utilizing the QB in spread-option schemes.
At the end of the day, the running back is always going to get the ball at a fixed point on the field where he can be easily targeted by the opposing defense. But against the passing game, there's simply no defense for a team with phenomenal timing, ball placement and team speed. When you add in spread alignments that raise the stakes for every coverage matchup and unleash great athletes in space, defenses run out of answers. The target is always moving and difficult to bottle up. That's why the Patriots have been to six Super Bowls in the Tom Brady era.
At the college level there are multiple factors that make it much simpler to build a great offense year in and out at the major programs by recruiting the biggest, meanest OL and a bunch of great athletes and then running the ball early and often. Indeed, that's foundational to Alabama's strategy as well as the strategy of other uber-successful college powers.
That said, you can still find some exceptional passing attacks from year to year in college ball and Clemson had a pretty special thing in 2015 with dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson. The narrative that Saban struggles to stop spread offenses will still linger after Watson put up 478 total yards, 8.6 yards per pass attempt and four touchdowns on a particularly dominant Alabama defense.
Saban did all he could to contain Watson, but there's only so much you can do. The pass rush was slowed, and at times negated, by the fact that Watson could escape from the pocket and still deliver the ball down the field. The Tide really struggled in their base coverages because they'd end up yielding massive voids in the middle of the field when Watson left the pocket and the inside linebackers followed to chase him. When they'd blitz Watson, they became vulnerable to the quick passing game. Or worse, Watson escaped and was able to run wild on man-coverage defenders who'd turned their backs to him.
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If Clemson had a deep threat on its roster, the Tigers would have been pretty much unstoppable, even for the ultra-talented Tide.
Saban relied on dropping safeties on standard downs to keep Watson bottled up in the spread-option run game.
So even with an enviable pass rush, fantastic LBs, NFL athletes in the secondary and depth everywhere, a spread passing attack (particularly one facilitated by a scrambler) was still a bit too much for the Tide to keep under wraps. Again, this isn't a failing of the Tide defensive system, but simply the reality of modern football.
The million-dollar question is whether another team with NFL talent will have such a QB and passing attack in a given year. But the even more fearful question is what happens if Alabama is ever able to take advantage and get that player on its own roster?
Either way, Alabama is going to be a part of the annual playoff conversation for the foreseeable future.
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SB Nation presents: The official way-too-early 2016 college football top 10