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The End Of Sabanball: Details, Barbarians, And Precision

The Alabama machine can't be stopped, and Nick Saban has solved college football. What will it take for the Tide to be unseated?

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A football dynasty peaking has a sound, or at least one football dynasty did. Jacquez Green, running one of five well-plotted and endlessly rehearsed curlicue routes in Steve Spurrier's offense, went up for a ball in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and met the shoulder, rib cage, and transferred blunt force of a Nebraska defender. He also simultaneously met years of planning, tireless recruiting, program architecture, football instruction, player development, and practice. That is the metaphorical point here, but so is the horrendous impact, and the resulting noise of Green screaming as his hip was knocked out of socket as he hit the luridly green Arizona turf.

When a team decimates you that badly, the scoreboard is no longer really a concern. Did they kill 20,000 or 30,000 men? Did Tommie Frazier break one, two, or seventy tackles? (The conservative real number is seven.) Domination has its own laws of diminishing returns. Imperial Nebraska beat people by forty, which is not different from beating someone by fifty, or by thirty or sixty. You were not defeated so much as reduced to a nullity, prey, or cud chewed between unceasing teeth.

You died by halftime. Shock and a loss of consciousness followed.

From 1993 to 1997 Nebraska ripped an unholy swath through college football. They won 60 games and two national titles.* One of those losses came in the national title game in 1993. The other two came against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game in 1996, a game decided on a single 4th and short call for the ages, and against Arizona State on the road in a game of singular weirdness. I am not looking these up as I write them. If you can cite the losses of a program in detail without looking at a reference sheet, this alone is a fearsome testament to their power over a given timespan.

*Okay. Two and a half, because 1997 had the delightful split title with Michigan. Nebraska would have beaten then 24-17. We have nothing to support this assertion, and will defend it fiercely nonetheless because this is an imaginary debate, and thus the best kind.

The other 60 games they played were remembered by everyone other than Nebraska fans as one long red mist of football obliteration. Like all empires, It seemed to be both permanent and unassailable. It was not: it came from somewhere, was constructed, and then eventually fell apart. Humans made it. Humans wrecked it. Losing isn't forever, and neither is running the triple-option roughshod over everything in sight. These are things fans of bad teams should remember, and things fans of very good teams would very much like to ignore.


Turn your eyes to Alabama, this moment's Nebraska. Since Nick Saban's 7-6 reset year in 2007, Alabama has won 48 games and lost six college football games, with two of those losses coming to the eventual national champion. Another was a rematch opportunity against LSU they cashed in for their second national title in five years.

Every other game follows a similar pattern. Alabama snuffs out the run game entirely. Since 2008, opponents have gained an average of 83.64 rushing yards a game against the Alabama defense. Do not use them all at once, no matter how hungry you are, because that is all you get. LSU averaged 202 yards a game in 2011, and got 79 yards total in the title game. Everyone dies.

Once they eliminate the run, the pain begins. The defense knows your pass routes, because they are taught to pattern-read and pattern-read very well. Even with top-25 talent, their pass rush contains better developed, better-coached athletes than yours. What your quarterback actually gets out of his hand is batted away, thrown harmlessly underneath for two yards, or caught by someone wearing a Crimson Tide jersey. You might get sacked. If you don't fumble, smile! That is considered a good result here.

Then you punt, and Alabama's offense hammers away, chews clock, and attempts 15 to 20 very carefully chosen passes in an attempt to kick field goals or sometimes score touchdowns. They don't need many of either.*

*Cue LSU fan pointing to 9-6. You sit down, sir. You sit down with this gif of Jordan Jefferson and think about what you just said.

The point of this is pain. Inflict enough of it at every point on the field, and eventually the other team will turn to soggy wax paper. It is a long exercise in malicious control, and for the last four years or so has looked nigh-invincible in every facet of the game.

A lot of a team's peak form, the point at which temporary invincibility is universally granted, is ascribed to either strategy or recruiting. There are elements of both, to be sure, but Alabama's recruiting capabilities far exceed what the school's should be on paper as an institution. Tennessee as a state has more people, and yet its flagship university's football program has the highest recruiting budget of any school due to the "unique challenges of the state's geography." Meanwhile, Alabama hauls in the number one recruiting class in the nation despite having a third as many people in-state, and no clear advantage in terms of profitability.*

*Greater overall revenue, but expenditures are higher with similar overall net profits. Alabama spends almost twice as much, though, and that's a whole other column. Continuing this fun parenthetical! As a counterpoint, please see Texas and the relative squandering of talent they've managed over the past three years. Money, facilities, and recruiting muscle have gotten Mack Brown little despite having what is arguably the most advantageous hog-wallow in college football. Geopolitically speaking, Mack Brown is college football's Prince Jefri of Brunei, just buying supercar recruits and leaving them to gather dust on the shelf. )

That is deliberately leaving out part of the picture, just as citing strategy-as-paramount-advantage would be. Nick Saban runs an NFL-style defense with a playbook the length of half a Jonathan Franzen novel, but the basics are basic enough. Other NFL guys have tried to implement more complex systems at the college level on defense and offense, and the results have usually been a return to their dreams of running those systems with honestly paid athletes in the NFL. Nick Saban is the first to say that he is no defensive genius, and that he is simply running things someone else taught him.

This brings everyone in competition with Goliath to the question: what is the antivirus to the Saban Syndrome? The dull answer to this question for local SEC competitors has been a truly dull one indeed: hire his assistants or otherwise NFL up with coaching talent with NFL experience. In Tennessee and Florida's case, they went a step further and hired two former members of Saban's staff, effectively bringing more knives to Nick Saban's neverending stabbing party of a dynasty. Arkansas got Bobby Petrino, who thus far has had the very knotty issue of having beautiful schemes and skill players who get mangled at the line of scrimmage two out of three snaps.

The better answer lies in an apocryphal quote from Andy Ludwig, the current offensive coordinator at San Diego State and a journeyman coach whose tenure included at stint with the University of Utah. Utah is one of two teams to beat Alabama by two TDs in Nick Saban's post-2007 Alabama career. At a coaching clinic where he and Saban were in attendance, Nick Saban complained bitterly that Alabama should have beaten Utah by two TDs.

This was allegedly Ludwig's response.

Former Utah OC Andy Ludwig was in attendance for Saban's lecture. Ludwig, who is now the OC at Cal, presented Thursday morning and took a little offense to Saban's remarks. Ludwig opened the lecture by saying "I try to keep everything simple. You know, I sat here last night and listened to a man say how he had 30 different ways to run cover 2, and I'm just sitting there thinking to myself, 'geez, I only have one way to run a dig route'. But you know what? That one way was more than enough to beat him." (he was talking about Saban)

Alabama lost due to many factors in that game, something you can say of any game involving 11 highly variable and flawed elements at a time interacting against another highly variable 11 elements. But the point should still stand: if everyone is going to recruit, and spend money, and hire talent for huge salaries, then the difference at the top will be what football types call "execution." An artsier person might call it craft, but it refers to the same concept of not doing what others do, but doing what you do with absolute precision and replication.

That replication and repetition across a long series of efforts is hard to find in college football period, but if someone wants to counter Sabanball. If you take all other things as equal, that answer is going to have to have everything Alabama has including that rarest thing of all: talent taught to perform with unvarying precision in a short period of time.

Remember the part about Alabama spending more than everyone? A good chunk of that goes to Saban, and it has been worth every dollar in football terms. Saban remains peerless on the defensive side of the ball, so much so that his draft picks have the unique problem of being labeled "system products" on defense. This is both the strangest insult ever offered a draftee and a jawdropping testament to Saban's assembly line of football robots.

There are suspects, however, and rakish ones at that. Lane Kiffin's USC teams could likely have a good run at them right now, since the scarce defeats of the Saban era have been marked by a breakdown of the "bumpers" Saban likes to install on the defensive perimeter. (See Cam Newton going deep to open the second half in the 2010 Iron Bowl against an ailing Mark Barron, or Stephen Garcia's improbably good fades to Alshon Jeffery in the same year.)

If quick precision, talent, and scheme are the ingredients, USC has them all in hand right now. Wideouts Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are both more than capable of doing that to anyone in the country, and Lane Kiffin has both the line protection, playcalling ability, and quarterback to pull it off. Add in a possible budding talent Nelson Agholor in the slot to go three wide and make things even more complex for an opposing defense, and you rapidly approach a ball of knives-level pain in the passing game. Now that he's slowed down the Adderall job-hopping routine of his youth, the mature Lane Kiffin appears to be the brilliant person the 30 year old Lane Kiffin was supposed to be.

The other possible external threat to Alabama's dynastic mode is currently sitting in West Virginia. While Dana Holgorsen can't bang with Alabama in terms of talent while coaching at WVU, he did take a wobbly crew of Air Raid n00bs and rip a school record passing yards out of LSU's hide in 2011's loss in Morgantown. The Mountaineers barely had a clue what they were doing in Holgorsen's offense and had to rely on Geno Smith running for his life half the time. They still managed to win nine games during the regular season, take the Big East, and then make billboard history.


This was before the Orange Bowl, and the extra zillion reps Air Raid QBs get in bowl practices, and the 70-point demolition of Clemson. Holgorsen's scheme is no gimmick, since at this point the Air Raid is practically conventional as an offense, and certainly diverse enough to encompass several different species of Air Raid. It's not the scheme, though. It is the replicability of Holgorsen's particular Air Raid experiment that gives it weight, something he has done everywhere he has been as an offensive coordinator and coach.

As with Nick Saban, you don't buy a playbook when you hire someone like Dana Holgorsen. You buy someone capable of making the same excellent thing over and over again no matter the change in ingredients or circumstances. Someone may very well do that with Holgorsen before too long provided WVU's upward trajectory continues, especially if he shows the other elements of the rare highly compensated and successful college coaching formula like management, recruiting, hiring great assistants, and not getting thrown out of institutions of gentlemanly gaming. It likely won't happen at West Virginia due to size, facilities, and money, but make no mistake: it could happen somewhere else.

Otherwise, failing the hiring or development of someone to counter the threat, you wait for time and tide to erode your opponent while taking your beatings with dignity. Assistants get hired away. Age dulls the ambition. Presidents meddle in otherwise functional athletic departments. Other programs hire great talent to beat the good, and transformative athletes look elsewhere for their Shaolin football training.

In Nebraska's case, this took quite a while, a long decline happening in several painful phases. Did it culminate in 2001's 62-36 loss to Colorado? Or the loss to Miami in the 2002 BCS Title game, a 37-14 elimination where you thought for the first time that perhaps this team did not belong anywhere near the top 25? Were you one of those people who woke up one day and realized that Nebraska gave up 76 points to Kansas? The Kansas Jayhawks, playing with a dwarf quarterback?

Maybe it took you a while, but people who notice the details are rare, and therefore valuable. That's how empires fall. Precision fails. Details slip by the wayside. One day the mail shows up a little late, and then five years later there's a Visigoth sleeping on your doorstep. (Sometimes he's wearing a Kansas jersey. Visigoths are weird.)