Wednesday, May 6, 2009

of Saban and boredom

Like most 'Bama fans longing for a taste of football in May, I've wasted a great deal of time this offseason watching youtube videos from the 2008 season (I've posted a good many of them here — I highly recommend subscriptions to Tiderolls67 if you're into that kind of thing).

Hang on — here's one:

What struck me the most about this Alabama team: it was relatively boring.

Obviously, for Alabama fans like myself, the 2008 season was a revelation in every sense of the word — I spent a great deal of time on this blog gushing about this team and what it meant to us as Tide fans in November and December.
For non-Bama fans — people that want to watch an entertaining game — this version of Alabama didn't really oblige. They were solid. They were well-drilled. They rarely made mistakes.
And they weren't that much fun. There's a simple reason for that, and it's Nick Saban.

Think back to Saban's best teams at LSU, in 2003 and 2004. What typified them — even more than their boisterous fan base — was their business-like approach to everything. Unlike the high-wire act Les Miles took the LSU fan base through in 2007 — that team won the title almost in spite of itself — Saban's LSU title team was a picture of mundane execution.
I wrote about this after that '07 LSU team survived in Tuscaloosa, but it's worth repeating: in 2003, Saban's LSU team came to Bryant-Denny to play a similarly undermanned Tide team on its way to a BCS title game. Alabama had a night game on ESPN, a crowd that wanted desperately for a reason to believe.
Of course, Saban's team barely let Alabama breathe. Alabama couldn't do squat on offense, LSU didn't commit any turnovers and the Tigers left town with an easy 27-3 win. The game was simple, easy and cold-blooded.
Thinking back to that 2003 LSU team, only two games really jump off the page as "memorable" moments — a Week 4 win vs. Georgia (itself a national-title contender in '03) and a late-season nailbiter against Eli Manning and Ole Miss (17-14). Other than that, the Tigers cruised for the most part. In their two biggest tests of the late season, LSU crushed Georgia in the SEC title game, then drilled Oklahoma (exposed as a national fraud that season) in the Sugar Bowl (the final was 21-14, but the game was never really that close).
Of all its other games during that two-season period, the only other games that stand out are losses to Auburn and Iowa in '04, and only because LSU showed a curious inability to close out either of those teams (that Auburn game is particularly frustrating to watch for LSU fans — the Tigers dominated, dominated that game and still lost somehow).

What does this have to do with the here and now? Maybe nothing, except that Alabama in 2008 showed an ability to be similarly unremarkable. Nothing typifies that more than John Parker Wilson, who actually rushed for five touchdowns, including the game-winner at LSU in overtime.
Why is this significant? Because it typifies Saban's substance-over-style approach. Lots of coaches say that; Saban really means it.
You think the head coach gives a damn who scores the touchdown in that situation? You think he cares who gets how many touches or whether Glen Coffee feels disrespected because he didn't get the ball right there? Of course he doesn't. He just wanted to win the game and go home.

There's a precedent for this kind of football: the Gene Stallings era at Alabama, which lasted from 1990-1996 and accounted for 70 wins. That's right: 70 wins in 7 seasons, or 10 wins per season. Maybe they only won the conference once — in 1992, the same as the national-title season — but they were in the title game every season except '95 and lost only because Steve Spurrier's Florida teams were just wayy too good.
The Stallings way was considered the way of the obsolete: they played punishing physical football and overwhelmed other teams on defense. They didn't turn the ball over on offense and had solid special teams. Eventually, the other teams would crack.
It wasn't great TV, but it was winning football.

Looking back at the list of coaches since Stallings, their primary failures were in little things. I watched all of the big games of the Mike Dubose era at Alabama and have most of them on tape. Know what's weird? Even in its biggest moments, Dubose's teams suffered lapses in concentration. Watch the '99 Alabama-Florida game in Gainesville the next time it comes on ESPN Classic (which is often). Alabama does so many little things wrong in that game, it's amazing — a punt snapped into an up-back's leg, a variety of dumb penalties, repeatedly getting to the line with less than 10 seconds left on the play clock and, of course, that ending sequence that's so incredible it bears watching again.

In that season's big wins against Auburn and Florida again, the team repeated the following routine: score the last big TD, earn a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, miss the ensuing extra point. Neither of them mattered to the end result, obviously ... but, I mean, can you see Nick Saban's teams doing that? Of course you can't. That's why Nick Saban is Nick Saban. And that's why Mike Dubose is Mike Dubose.
The same was true of the Franchione era. Do Saban's teams ever surrender two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter? Or get beat on the same shovel pass three times for 80 yards? Or inexplicably drop the ball on a drive for a potential field goal attempt?

You get the idea. These are all the little things Alabama hasn't done for much of the last decade, and it's why Mal Moore was willing to break the bank to get Saban to Tuscaloosa in the first place. It's also why Alabama fans should expect this program to continue functioning at a championship level — championship teams always do those things and do them correctly.
It's not great TV, but it wins football games.

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