Nick Saban’s Advantage is Constant Evolution
It's the nature of all things, change.
College football is no exception. With name, image and likeness compensation permitted, college sports evolved seemingly overnight. College Football Playoff expansion is coming. Hell, during the middle of SEC Media Days news broke that Oklahoma and Texas may be interested in joining the SEC.
If college football is no exception, neither is the best coach the sport has ever seen: Nick Saban. Since taking over in Tuscaloosa in 2007 the sport has evolved from a defense-oriented effort to an offensive one, abandoned the BCS to create the College Football Playoff and seen the rise of "little ole" Clemson to the national spotlight to challenge Saban's dynasty.
Saban has overcome each and every barrier placed in his path, hoisting six national championships in 13 years. Nothing stops him. As the Mad Titan once said, "I am inevitable." Saban's army won't turn to dust anytime soon though.
No, this is an empire built to last.
It's ironic, in a way, though. Saban is always compared to the villain. Emperor Palpatine. Thanos. But he's different. If anything he's the hero. Firstly, the hero always wins. Secondly, villains always rest on their laurels. They're arrogant and blind to the changing pieces on the chessboard. That's not Nick Saban.
Sure, a handful of teams over the years have caught him in checkmate, but he recovers. He is the face to the college football nation's heel.
It's because he constantly and consistently evolves with the sport. See, Saban doesn't just coach to break records and win a ludicrous number of championships. It's to clear the next hurdle with his team.
Go back to the way the sport was played when Saban was hired at Alabama. Run the football, play perfect defense, dominate the guy across from you and make his ass quit. A time where nose tackles were 330lbs, linebackers were 250lbs and offensive linemen could be lumbering maulers.
Today the game is about speed and design. Outcoaching your opponent is just as viable as having more skill. Athleticism and innovative scheming are the names of the game today, not brute force. How did we get there?
It's easy, coaches needed to find a way to get around the elite programs who won with brute strength. Once this became effective against Alabama (see Clemson, Ohio State in the mid-2010s) Saban was forced to evolve.
Enter Lane Kiffin.
"We made a tremendous change when Lane came in," Saban said at SEC Media Days. "Lane had always been the same - kind of, philosophy-wise - as we were in terms of pro-style football. Because of what Ole Miss, and it's ironic that he's at Ole Miss now, had done in beating us a couple of times, running the spread, running RPOs, running a lot of screens and things that were difficult to defend... And we weren't utilizing some of those things which I thought put as a disadvantage."
Saban took the old adage to heart, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Kiffin had to learn that style of offense too, Saban ensured. But the plan was to take what other teams did successfully and use it against them.
And it worked. Kiffin coached Blake Sims and Amari Cooper to record-shattering performances. Since Kiffin reinvented the offense at Alabama, the program has seen two top-15 draft picks at the quarterback position.
Now that offense belongs to Alabama. Bill O'Brien steps in as the new offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, but he won't be running the offense that he's used for the past 14 years to great success. No, instead Saban said the Crimson Tide will continue with the same terminology and scheme that has persisted and evolved with the rules since Kiffin's time at The Capstone.
"We're not changing offenses, we've got a good offense, we've got a good system, we've got a good philosophy," Saban said. "Our offense was very, very productive and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players we have who are playmakers and can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that."
With a change in personnel, a change in technique was required. Though it took some time since the evolution of the Alabama offense, last season the Alabama Crimson Tide welcomed Dr. Matt Rhae and David Ballou to head the strength and conditioning program. The philosophy changed from meaty workouts and wind sprints to science and technology that provided more data on players and, eventually, a healthier football team.
"Last year our injuries were down by about 50%, soft tissue injuries. We increased explosive movement during the season by almost 5%, which we had not done for several years," Saban said. "We bought into the things that they do, the players get feedback on a daily basis which they really like because they can determine the progress they're making on a daily basis."
So as evolution creeps around yet again with NIL moving to the forefront, Saban will take a calculated approach. He dropped the bombshell Tuesday morning that Bryce Young was near seven figures in NIL earnings, a tactic that fits in with what Saban does best: recruiting. Yet on Wednesday, he was much more reserved with the idea of NIL, saying the landscape could change so fast that he could be incorrect in his analysis within the year.
Why? Because he's evolving with college football in the moment this time. The uncertainties surrounding the subject force his hand in this regard, but in the end, Saban's methodical approach affords him the opportunity to analyze the scope of the situation and attack it head-on in a way that will benefit his team and his program.
Saban may not like the changes that are coming. He likely won't say one way or the other. There's a positive and negative that comes with every opportunity, and Saban always seems to lean towards the positives that can benefit his team. So no matter what changes come to the sport during the remainder of his tenure, there's no reason to fear.
Saban has said on many occasions he'll coach until he becomes the reason the program can't succeed. But that's just it. His nature is to succeed.
After all, football is survival of the fittest. The sport is nowhere near the one that was played in New Jersey in 1869. It's not remotely the same as the one Saban himself played at Kent State from 1970-1972. Because it's a sport of evolution. And those that evolve, survive. Those that don't, perish.
Nick Saban's evolution? It's inevitable.