Not boring, for the record, in the sense that having the same team win over and over again is boring; when that team is your team (here I am!) that's actually pretty awesome. I mean "boring," in the sense of Alabama's style of play, best envisioned as a python slowly tightening its grip on its prey, until it snaps its neck. Whether at home or on the road, Alabama is at its best when it is boring — the opposing offense cannot score, Alabama's OL is controlling the line of scrimmage ... and eventually, snap.
It is great if you're an Alabama fan, or if you're a gridiron nerd who loves to see sound, well-played football. If you're a casual fan, though? Someone who just wants to watch an entertaining game? Not as great.
In light of all that, and with Saban's Alabama poised to make a run at yet another title in 2013 — likely a doomed effort, but we can get into that later — there needed to be some kind of storyline to make them seem more vulnerable. It has come in the form of the debate over the "up-tempo offense."
All this actually started in October of last year, when Saban opined about the topic following a tough but not terribly exciting win over Ole Miss. If you're reading this, you can sing along with him:
"I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety. The team gets in the same formation group, you can't substitute defensive players, you go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play.I caught a portion of Saban doing a radio spot during SEC Media Days, and he essentially reiterated the same talking point, almost word-for-word. Boiled down, the point is this: As we become more concerned about player safety — specifically, the safety of a player's head — does it not behoove us to at least consider the wisdom behind a tactic that will, ultimately, increase the number of plays in a game (for comparison's sake, the average "up-tempo" offense runs 10-15 more plays than a regular offense) and decrease the opportunities to substitute those players? Are we not, in so doing, increasing their risk?
"I think that's something that can be looked at. It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
Naturally, people who are not fans of Alabama see something else in this position: Saban's defenses struggle against whirling dervish type offenses, and he wants it shut down. It's the equivalent of a slugger who's angry because he can't hit a splitter — at best, he's a pompous brat who's angry that someone is gaining an advantage over him; at worst, he's betraying his own personal fears about his long-term ability to exist in the sport.
As with most things in this state, the debate over "up-tempo offense" has become a flashpoint in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. With Auburn hiring Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are (apparently) fully committed to playing at the fastest speed possible.
(Hang on, this gives me an excuse to do this.)
Malzahn's offensive system has been a fun topic since he came to Auburn in 2009, as fans were thrilled his offense gave them a fighting chance they wouldn't have otherwise, while simultaneously fretting that the speed of the offense hurt them on D.
(Note: It's not clear whether the up-tempo offense ever actually hurt them defensively. Auburn was a terrible defensive team during the Gene Chizik era with alarming consistency, but it's not clear whether that was ever Malzahn's fault. For the record, Chizik asked Gus to "slow it down" for 2011, and things weren't much better; and they were putrid in 2012 with ... uh, whatever the guy's name was that ran the "hybrid" offense.)
In any case, the talking point among Auburn fans — and, I suppose, fans of Ole Miss and Texas A&M and anybody whose coaching staff plans to install such an offensive scheme — is that Nick Saban and Kirby Smart can't defend this offense, and this will be their reckoning in the future. One al.com commenter the paper highlighted in Sunday's edition stated that it was a "proven fact."
The answer to this is, needless to say, multi-faceted.
First off, let's not pretend the hurry-up offense was invented last week. For most of my life — and remember, I spend a good chunk of my time watching football — there has been some coach somewhere who was attempting to play at a speed faster than his opposition. The Buffalo Bills, for one, made the no-huddle a cottage industry in the early 1990s, and I am certain they weren't the first.
As for the assertion that Alabama "can't stop it" ... well, there are a few layers to that answer as well. It is absolutely true that the Nick Saban defense is a complex one that is built around putting certain personnel groups on the field at the right time, and adjusting each call to the offense's specific personnel. Moreover, Saban and Smart (I'm referring to them like a law firm until otherwise instructed) love to "check" at the line of scrimmage when they see the offense calling an audible. This is typically in response to a "check with me" audible of the spread offense — that goofy thing where the entire offense stands up and stares at the sideline to get the play. In short, Saban wants nothing less than the perfect personnel with exactly the perfect call, on every play.
And the up-tempo offense disrupts that. The up-tempo offense, much like a full-court press in basketball, is essentially built around the concept of chaos. There is no putting the perfect personnel grouping on the field, nor checking into the perfect defense; there is only the play in front of you, and your reactions to it. For a control freak like Saban, the idea of playing in chaos is some level of football hell.
But is there anything in the history of Saban at Alabama that would indicate that the defenders in crimson are powerless to stop it? I combed through the archives of this "golden age" of Alabama football — probable translation: I thought about for 15 minutes and wrote down what I could remember — and here are the best examples I could find:
• 2009 Sugar Bowl. Utah 31, Alabama 17. Running a speedy version of the old Urban Meyer spread, the Utes jumped on a sleepwalking Tide team and took a 21-0 first-quarter lead (this will become important later). They finished with 349 total yards (5.4 yards per play), racked up 339 passing yards and finished the game crowing loudly about their place in a convoluted BCS picture. One important thing I noted at the time: Utah played so fast in that game, they actually neutralized Terrence Cody — he couldn't keep up with the pace that night (Utah threw every down anyway), and 'Bama's staff was forced to take him out.
If there's a mitigating factor that prevents this game from being generalizable, it is this: Alabama a) wasn't all that good in 2008 (they played way over their heads in Saban's second season) and b) didn't really want to be in New Orleans that night. They'd spent a month receiving pats on the back and simply didn't play with any particular heart until the game was well out of hand. The night was so miserable it actually caused a fight between my wife and me (another story for another time, but I think John Parker Wilson actually started it).
• 2009 Auburn. Alabama 26, Auburn 21. My friend the Warblogler (of warblogle.com) told me, in essence, that he was in favor of hiring Gus Malzahn as Auburn head coach almost solely based on this game. I have argued (loudly, in fact) that Malzahn did his best coaching in 2009, taking an Auburn offense made up almost entirely of the same parts that got Tony Franklin and Tommy Tuberville fired in 2008, and making them into an offense that wasn't horrific. And the Alabama game was his magnum opus — with two weeks to prepare, Auburn jumped on the Tide early (theme!) with a touchdown, an onsides kick and another score. They finished with 332 yards — 181 passing, 151 rushing — and scared the bejeezus out of the eventual BCS champs.
It was a great offensive effort, no mistake, and if there is one thing that can be said to temper the effort, it is this: Alabama pretty well figured out a way to handle them after the first two drives — the long third-quarter pass from Chris Todd to Darvin Adams notwithstanding — and even drove them backwards on consecutive plays when they might have put the game away in the fourth quarter.
• 2010 Auburn. Auburn 28, Alabama 27. Admittedly, I haven't watched one minute of this game since I left Bryant-Denny that cold, cold day in Tuscaloosa. So my memories may be a little stilte.d Was Auburn even running that much "up tempo" with Cam behind center? I feel like they slowed it down a good bit. I don't know.
• 2012 Texas A&M. aTm 29, Alabama 24. I don't have to remind you of what happened, do I? If there's any solace we can take here, it's that Johnny F. Manziel was so smoking hot that day, it's unlikely he could replicate that performance. Could he ever do this again? In a million years?
There's one other mitigating factor, and it is LSU. Saban himself mentioned it last season while he was bristling at a question about up-tempo offense: One of the offenses that saw the most success against Alabama in 2012 was LSU — they called a great game, and Zach Mettenberger was so good, no amount of blitzes or mixed-up coverages could really even slow him down. LSU, of course, would never be confused with an up-tempo attack.
So perhaps there is no rule. In scientific research, there's a steep dividing line between quantitative research — research with results that are generalizable to support a hypothesis — and qualitative — case studies that typically don't prove anything in a larger context. If there's anything quantitative about these results, it appears to be this: Much like an ace pitcher in baseball, it's best to get to Alabama early — they seem to lock things down as the game goes along.
Or, you could just employ a superhuman at quarterback and hope for the best. Whatever works.