Doug Nussmeier arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with a plan of action. He wasn't there to reinvent the wheel or fix any glaring deficiency. Unlike many first-year offensive coordinators, he was walking into a fully built product. The car drove well; his job was to point it in the right direction and course-correct when necessary. As coach Nick Saban put it during the offseason, "It's Alabama's offense," and that wouldn't change. Nussmeier was simply its newest steward.
Alabama was coming off a second national championship in three years when Nussmeier left Washington to become Saban's offensive coordinator, bringing with him a resume of producing high-powered offenses and tutoring well-respected quarterbacks like Jake Locker, Drew Stanton and Marc Bulger. Being the pragmatist he is, Nussmeier surveyed and assessed what he had inherited. He spent the offseason developing a relationship with junior quarterback AJ McCarron and looked for ways to help along the offense, rather than make any drastic changes in philosophy.
"It was very important for me to really dive into the offense that was here ... and then find things that maybe I had done in the past that I could bring to help fit into this system," Nussmeier told reporters Thursday in Miami. "And then, as any other system, every year you go back and look at where you did well, you look at what you need to improve and maybe you look at different ideas outside of your program.
"That was our goal as a staff was to sit down and kind of mesh it, put it together, look at some other ideas and then move forward."
The mixture of old ideas and new has not always been smooth, though. Despite having Alabama back in the Discover BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame, Nussmeier's first year at Alabama has not been viewed as a resounding success.
Whether his sometimes improvisational approach will work next against Notre Dame is another question. The Fighting Irish have allowed the fewest points per game in college football and tout a front seven Saban called the best in the county, led by Heisman Trophy contender Manti Te'o at linebacker.
"You look at the interceptions, the tackles, he always seems to be around the ball," Nussmeier said of Te'o. "He has great natural instincts. Obviously he's a phenomenal athlete. It's going to be very important that we know where he is at all times."
With Te'o roaming the middle, Notre Dame has become just as adept stopping the pass as limiting the run. The Irish rank in the top 20 nationally in rushing and passing efficiency defense. Whatever Alabama chooses to do on offense, it must execute, said center Barrett Jones.
"They don't make mistakes," he said. "That's the thing you see on film, they don't make mistakes. They don't slant the wrong gap and leave huge holes where they're going to give you easy touchdowns. They make you earn it."
Nussmeier will have the benefit of five weeks to prepare for Monday's game. In that time, he has looked at countless hours of film on Notre Dame, as well as his own offense.
"We go back and look at cut-ups of what we've done, certain calls in certain situations, all those type of things, tendencies, all that stuff," Nussmeier said. "We're always self-scouting, always evaluating. Any time you make a call, you come out of a game (saying), 'God, I wish I had that call back. I wish could call that again. That was a pretty good call, that situation.' You can do that. And the ones that work are always good ones, the ones that don't are always bad ones."
The Tide hadn't been flashy or particularly potent -- just effective -- under predecessor Jim McElwain, who took over as head coach at Colorado State. With a rookie quarterback and less-than-overwhelming talent at receiver, Bama managed 34.8 points per game in 2011, good enough for 20th nationally -- not bad for an offense framed in the media as a three yards and a cloud of dust, stubborn old-man football holdover.
While the production numbers are similar -- UA is running the ball some 5 percent more this season and is scoring 3.7 more points per game -- the style of performance has changed. Consistency has been a struggle, finding the balance between a dominant running game and an often dynamic passing attack. There were times this season -- whether it was in the third quarter against LSU, the second half against Texas A&M or the first quarter against Georgia -- where it appeared Alabama was determined to throw the ball no matter the result.
It was only when Nussmeier turned to the running game that the offense started to loosen up in the SEC Championship. Alabama ran for a title-game record 350 yards Dec. 1 in the Georgia Dome and imposed its will on Georgia. The outburst prompted the question of why Nussmeier hadn't called more running plays throughout the season.
"The goal of any offense is to put your playmakers in position to make plays," Nussmeier explained. "Scoring points, having balance, those are things you focus on. Sometimes as the flow of the game dictates, you do certain things and you start to do them, and you do them well and you stay with them."
Sometimes that has meant airing it out, and other times it's meant grinding it out. In Atlanta, it meant the latter. For the first time in school history, Alabama finished with two 1,000-yard backs. McCarron threw for a school-record 26 touchdowns in the same attack.
"We're going to have a balanced game plan," Nussmeier said. "We're going to go into every game with the ability not only to run it but to throw it, have play actions that come off our runs, all those type of things. But as the flow of the game goes, we're going to aggressively try and take advantage of whatever part of our game we think is going to be the most successful."
In-game adjustments aside, Nussmeier's philosophy is stuck somewhere between the past and the future. He's committed to a traditional pro-style offense, yet he doesn't mind spreading out three and four receivers instead of the usual two-tight-end power sets Alabama fans have become accustomed to. To Nussmeier's way of thinking, it's all a matter of finding the right pace that favors the offense.
"I think if you look at college football in general, that's a growing trend, no-huddle offense, speed, hurry-up," he said. "As any game you play, the ability to change the tempo of the game offensively or defensively can create a competitive advantage for you."