AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Saban calls on his running back 10 times during a 10-play drive, watching as the seconds melt off the clock in the fourth quarter. A 4th-and-1 attempt is stuffed, but it’s no matter. He sets the coverage and watches his defense go to work, first forcing a turnover on downs and then a fumble to end the game.
Another Iron Bowl in the books. Another win, and another trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
On the face of it, this looks like Saban’s dream team on the field against Auburn on Saturday night, his master plan come to fruition. He feeds his workhorse running back whenever possible, asks his quarterback only to manage the offense, and relies on the best front seven in college football to play dominant defense. They own the line of scrimmage. They block out the noise. They win big games convincingly.
But peel back the layers and you’ll see something less simple. You’ll see a team and a coach that has had to make countless adjustments throughout the season.
Remember, Alabama was left for dead after it lost at home to Ole Miss. The dynasty was over. But not only did the Crimson Tide return to reign over the SEC once again, rocketing back into the College Football Playoff conversation and No. 2 in the rankings, they did so by winning in almost every way imaginable. There have been close games and blowouts. When the passing game has failed, the running game has been the saving grace. When all else fails, the defense has been there. Even special teams have shown up with punt returns for touchdowns and more field goals made than we’ve seen in years.
In the end, it’s Saban’s ability to adapt and do whatever necessary to win that has Alabama where it is today, preparing for a trip to Atlanta and a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back SEC titles since 1998.
We may think of him one way, but Saban insists he’s not a “run-and-play-defense guy.” Instead, he said, “I’m a score-how-we-need-to-score-and-play-defense guy,” bending the limits of compound modifiers to his will.
“I like to play however our players can play," he said. "I liked how we played last year when we had Amari Cooper catching 115 balls and running all over the place. I like that. ... This just happens to be the best way this team can play.”
Saban was blunt in diagnosing this squad: “Our workhorse is a running back. We have a pretty good offensive line that has made a tremendous amount of improvement. ... [Quarterback Jake Coker] is really good at play-action passes and throwing the ball downfield, and seems to struggle a little bit more when we try to drop back.”
Derrick Henry has been the constant, with Saturday marking the fourth time he’s rushed for 200 yards in a game this season. But even his role is a departure from years past. Instead of having the usual two-back system (see: Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy/T.J. Yeldon, etc.), Henry’s had to do it on his own with sidekick Kenyan Drake sidelined with an injury. With two projected starters at wide receiver done for the year (Robert Foster, Chris Black) and a first-time starter under center, the offense had to be built around Henry, who has become the leading Heisman Trophy contender.
The offensive line didn’t cooperate for the longest time, though, allowing a staggering 30.7 percent of plays to go for zero or negative yards through October. There was a ripple effect, as Coker struggled in the face of pressure and threw seven interceptions during that time. But from the LSU game on, the O-line cut down on negative plays by 7.4 percent. Coker began rolling out and throwing more in space, and he’s benefited to the tune of only one interception in his past four games.
That’s not to say that the offense has developed into a masterpiece. Alabama has had to overcome 16 turnovers, more sacks (17) than it had all of last year, and a third-down conversion rate that ranks No. 100 in the FBS.
Instead, the defense and special teams have had to pick up the slack. Turnovers, sacks and interceptions are all up, and Alabama’s eight non-offensive touchdowns are tied for second in the country -- a far cry from the one such score they had last season. What’s more, Adam Griffith -- who was the scapegoat of the 2013 Iron Bowl and was shaky for much of 2014 -- has connected on 19 of his field goal attempts, far surpassing the 14 field goals per season Alabama averaged from 2012-14.
They haven’t done it all perfectly, but the Crimson Tide have done it all.
In a year in which Alabama had the third-fewest returning starters in the SEC and an identity that was largely indecipherable early on, it’s remarkable to see the progress Saban has brought about.
"I'm certainly very proud of what our team has done," he said. "They've had their backs against the wall since the Ole Miss game early in the season and really come through just about every time they needed to in some tough circumstances on the road as well as playing well at home against some very good teams.
"I think we've improved as the season's gone on. So I'm very proud of what they've been able to accomplish. But the legacy of the team gets determined by how they finish."