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How Nick Saban won his latest title with something old and something new

Unstoppable defensive tackles? Standard. A freshman QB taking deep shots? OK, that’s new.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For all that was ho-hum about this latest Alabama title, there was a lot to it that was unique, particularly how Nick Saban pulled a veteran quarterback and running back and plugged in true freshmen at quarterback, left tackle, running back, and receiver to pull off a comeback against Georgia that featured drop-back passing.

At halftime, the score was 13-0 in Georgia’s favor. QB Jalen Hurts was 3-of-8 passing with 21 yards, good for 2.6 yards per attempt, plus his normally solid six carries for 47 rushing yards. Alabama was both struggling to run and to match Jake Fromm’s throwing.

1. Other than a handful of plays, Alabama’s defensive front dominated.

The Bulldogs couldn’t really get anything going on offense, save for Fromm throwing with varying efficiency or catching Alabama by surprise with handoffs on passing downs. The Dawgs ran for 133 yards on the day, but Sony Michel had four carries for 50 yards on third-and-long. Other than those runs that caught the Tide in preventative defenses, Georgia had 28 runs between its two main backs for 73 yards, or 2.6 yards a carry.

The problem was Alabama’s tandem of Da’Ron Payne and Raekwon Davis, who savaged the Georgia interior line against both the run and the pass. Beyond the obvious impact of the interception and return by Davis — Georgia was sitting on a 20-7 lead and coming off a bad interception by freshman Tua Tagovailoa when that play occurred — these two repeatedly destroyed Georgia’s plans.

The Bulldogs still had a 20-10 lead going into the fourth and were finally running with some success. Going into a second-and-3 play, things soured when their need to double team Payne and Davis cost them in the form of a inside blitz and an unblocked defensive back:

Throughout the first half, Davis and Payne made stops at the line, but here in the crucial moments, the Dawgs were determined to keep them doubled. Other Bama players were able to step up. That set up a crucial third-and-4 ...

... in which Davis was one-on-one with redshirt freshman guard Ben Cleveland. The quick pressure killed the drive and set up a Bama drive that would end in a field goal, making it a one-score game.

2. Meanwhile, the original Alabama game plan was having even less success against the Georgia front.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the failure of their QB run game against the Dawgs’ line and star lineacker Roquan Smith. Early on, Alabama attacked with some of their favorite “bash” or “back away” runs that muck up linebacker reads by having one key — the offensive line — tell them the ball is going one way while the back goes somewhere else. Georgia split its defense apart on these concepts, having the line focus on its counterpart while Smith ran after the running back.

Even doing it this way, most linebackers would struggle to recognize a running back sweep and run the back down before he’d won the edge, but Smith is different. It’ll be interesting to see how Georgia fares without him next season, if he declares for the draft.

On its next drive, Alabama tried to convert a third-and-3 by having Hurts keep the ball on the same play concept:

The Tide were done in by what might have been an auto-blitz by Georgia and the defensive line blowing up blocks. Alabama was struggling to run, and its QB wasn’t strong enough in the drop-back game to unleash its skill athletes, relieve pressure off the run game, or score quickly enough.

3. So Saban called on his freshman trump card.

Saban’s teams have blue-chip recruits who have to be immersed in “the process” before emerging to prominence as upperclassmen. Until then, they are rarely better than the blue-chip upperclassmen ahead of them, particularly in Saban’s detailed and perfectionist tactics.

But Hurts was only a sophomore himself, who’d emerged as a freshman due to his turnover avoidance, unflappable mentality, and dominant athleticism. However, against a top defense like Georgia, that had already successfully defended several other top spread-option offenses, Hurts’ limitations as a passer put Alabama in a bind, particularly playing from behind.

So Bama turned to Tagovailoa in the second half, one of the biggest risks of Saban’s career, and looked to attack Georgia’s aggressive, run-stopping tactics. Namely, one-on-one matchups outside against man coverage. The Tide’s first drive with Tagovailoa consisted of a simple zone-read play, a quick checkdown, and then a drop back foiled by a Smith blitz. The next drive, Alabama went all in, even without left tackle Jonah Williams, who had just gone down on the previous drive.

This drive finally injected some life and included several run/pass options, plus a few off-schedule scrambles and runs by Tagovailoa. This “glance” pass option against man coverage outside was a game changer that presented clear problems to the Dawgs.

The Dawgs had to back off a bit up front — including on their fateful final defensive call — and the Tide built four scoring drives in the half. Tagovailoa burned the Dawgs just by presenting the threat of the deep pass, which landed a few shots but opened up the run game and led to some easy checkdowns.

Finally, Tagovailoa’s ability to push the ball deep allowed for the amazing overtime sequence of events, in which the freshman roller coaster gave up a sack and then executed this bomb:

The call is four verticals, which is designed to stress deep-zone defenders by overloading them with deep routes. Georgia’s cover 2 was susceptible to it, and its execution was too poor to survive narrow margin for error.

It’s clearly a route combo and read that Tagovailoa was comfortable with (here he is making a similar play in high school), as Alabama had already called it multiple times in the game for him, including on a pass earlier in the game that drew an iffy defensive pass interference call. Tagovailoa’s comfort with reading the rotations of the deep defenders and stepping up to fire on time to a streaking wideout — in this case, another freshman — is on a whole other level from Hurts.

Saban has won titles in a variety of ways.

Winning with overpowering defensive tackles is standard practice, but winning by asking freshman to read deep safeties and push the ball down the field is pretty new. At this point, maybe our offseason conversations should just be speculation on which way Saban will find to win next.