A strange thing happened in the town of Tuscaloosa on Saturday, and OK, maybe it’s way hyperbolic to liken it to the deep-fried iteration of Dylan going electric, but I do wonder if it marked the dénouement of a small revolution in college football.
On Saturday, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the most iconic and revered and successful program in the south, if not in all of America, defeated the Florida Gators 42-21. The victory, in and of itself, was not unexpected; Florida is a team in a perpetual state of angst these days, and Alabama was a two-touchdown favorite on its home field. For more than a half a decade now, the Crimson Tide have been the most domineering football team in America, winning three national championships by adhering to the capital-P “Process,” a term that was coined to capture the militant and fastidious nature of their Weather Channel-obsessed coach, Nick Saban.
Under the Process, Alabama won the old-fashioned way, by pounding the football with a cadre of bruising running backs, implementing the sort of impenetrable defense that elevated Paul “Bear” Bryant into sainthood within the state’s borders and employing the same largely unexciting quarterback (under different names) who did not ever make critical mistakes. But on Saturday, none of that really held true.
On Saturday, the Tide made copious errors. Their foibles were obvious and occasionally embarrassing, and they turned the ball over four times. Their defense was intermittently lousy, and their quarterback carried himself nothing like the Alabama quarterbacks of recent years, in that he looked to throw the ball downfield to the Tide’s best player, who is not even a running back, but a lithe and sure-handed wide receiver named Amari Cooper. And, when all else failed, this quarterback even took off running himself.
In the end, the quarterback, Blake Sims, threw for 445 yards – the most for an Alabama signal-caller since Saban took the job in 2007 – and began to make the “Roll Tide” faithful forget about power football. In the end, Alabama wound up with 645 total yards on offense, the most any team had ever put up against the Gators. For much of the game, this Alabama looked like nothing like the Crimson Tide we had come to know, a team that had been especially built to defy the bells and whistles of modern college football. Instead, they looked like a 21st-century squad, and this was both exhilarating and frightening, because if Alabama has now mastered this, too, what the hell are the rest of us supposed to do now?
The SEC has been moving in a more progressive direction for several years now, ever since it accepted Missouri and Texas A&M – two teams with fast-moving and wide-open offenses – into its midst, and ever since Gus Malzahn, a former high school coach, became the offensive coordinator and then the head coach at Alabama’s duopolistic in-state rival, Auburn. But until now, Alabama was the most conspicuous holdout, so much so that Saban spent a good part of the offseason lobbying to change the rules so that hurry-up teams like A&M and Auburn would be forced to slow it down.
But there was, it would seem, a re-thinking of the priorities at Alabama once the Tide got throttled in last year’s Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma. Soon after, Alabama’s largely staid offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, left to attempt to resurrect Michigan’s floundering program (good luck with that, dude), and Saban, in a move that almost seemed deliberately made to troll the Internet, hired ex-USC coach Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator.
If you are not familiar with him, here is all you need to know: Lane Kiffin is the Peter Principle come to life, Dan Quayle in a visor, the son of a longtime NFL coach who kept landing high-profile jobs even as he succeeded at none of them. He was fired for his utter ineptitude at USC last season, but Saban saw something in his abilities to reconstruct an offense, and so Saban brought him in, and the general thinking was that this was perhaps Saban’s last desperate attempt to keep up with schools like A&M and Auburn (which won the SEC title under Malzahn last season, and played for the national championship).
Except here’s the thing: The Lane Kiffin Experiment appears to be working.
Through its first four games this season, Alabama has put up an average of 42 points and nearly 600 yards; the Tide are averaging more yards passing than they are yards rushing, even as they remain a work in progress. Cooper, the wide receiver, is essentially uncoverable. Sims, in his first year as a starter after playing behind fixture AJ McCarron, is getting better every week. And this is where it gets frightening, because Alabama still has three devastating running backs that helped the seal victory last Saturday, and because Saban still has more pure talent to work with on defense than any other program in America. So what happens when the Process melds with progressiveness? What happens if Alabama continues with this obscene offense, and gets it act together defensively?
Back in 2012, faced with the encroaching monster that was the fast-paced spread offense, Saban famously grumbled, “Is this what we want football to be?” Two years later, realizing that the people have answered that question in the affirmative, Nick Saban finally decided to join us. And for those who thought the modern offense had ushered in a more balanced college football universe, that might be the most terrifying revolution of all.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb