There’s a caricature of Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema that crystallized a few years back. Picture two old men listening to a transistor radio, shouting at a bunch of youngsters to get off their lawn, and you’ve got it. Both of them are muttering that the kids are running too fast, that the kids are breaking all the rules. They’re upset — using Saban’s actual words here — asking the college football gods, “Is this is what we want football to be?”
Saban and Bielema stood out on that ledge together for a while. Or maybe they were sitting in rocking chairs, since we’re painting a portrait of days gone by. Either way, they were the anti-tempo guys. While the rest of the game joined the no-huddle camp, they simply said, “No thanks.” Their offenses were seen as favoring three yards and a cloud of dust. A pair of former defensive coordinators, they liked their running backs big and their quarterbacks conservative.
Right up until the moment they didn’t.
As No. 1 Alabama and No. 16 Arkansas prepare to square off on Saturday evening in Fayetteville, Arkansas, it’s worth taking note of the evolution of the programs’ head coaches. Thanks to some shrewd moves by both, their offenses have not only entered the 21st century, their passing games have become the envy of many in the SEC.
To get there, Saban and Bielema began as leaders of organizations typically do: They hired the best assistants money could buy. Saban snatched up Lane Kiffin before the 2014 season; a year later, Bielema grabbed Dan Enos. They were unconventional hires. Kiffin had just been fired by USC and was seen as untouchable by some. Enos was in his fifth season as head coach at Central Michigan and wasn’t thought to be on the market, especially as a coordinator. But in both choices, Saban and Bielema landed former head coaches who played quarterback in college and had significant experience coaching the position.
Kiffin went to work right away, transforming Alabama’s offense. There were more shotgun formations and more opportunities to get the ball in receivers’ hands and let them go. Amari Cooper became the focus of the offense in 2014 and Kiffin turned Blake Sims, a former part-time receiver, into the school’s record holder for passing yards in a single season. In 2015, Saban brought in Eric Kiesau to work with Kiffin to go all-in on the no-huddle. Alabama would retain its roots as a power-running offense, but they’d move a lot faster. Derrick Henry broke the SEC single-season rushing record and Jake Coker threw for more than 3,000 yards.
Enos’ reshaping of the Arkansas offense was more subtle. To this day, Bielema doesn’t run much no-huddle, but his playbook is a far cry from the conservative manifesto we saw during his first two years on campus. Tight end Hunter Henry found himself split out like a wide receiver last year, and it wasn’t unusual to see some three- and four-receiver sets. The running game set the tempo, but the passing game boomed almost overnight. Quarterback Brandon Allen went from a source of vitriol among Razorbacks fans to the league’s most accurate passer. He threw nearly as many touchdowns as a senior in 2016 (30) as he did in his three previous seasons (34), and he led the country in total QBR.
This year has been much of the same. Kiffin has worked wonders with freshman Jalen Hurts, building an offense around his ability to make plays with his feet. There’s even fewer snaps being taken under center and we’ve seen a major uptick in the zone-read. Meanwhile, Enos has been a quick study on Allen’s younger brother, Austin, who has thrown for 1,232 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, helping the Razorbacks to a 4-1 record.
The numbers Alabama and Arkansas have put up are staggering. Since 2015, they’re No. 1 and 2 in completion percentage in the SEC. Arkansas has the third-most receptions of 20 or more yards in the league in that time; Alabama is fourth. Only Ole Miss has more passing touchdowns than Arkansas’ 43 in the last season and a half. And currently Alabama has scored the ninth-most points in the country. Arkansas isn’t far behind at No. 32 in the FBS.
When Saban was asked about Arkansas' physicality on Monday, he was quick to point out: “I don’t think they’re one-dimensional at all.”
They're going to run it downhill and they've got good backs and a good offensive line to do that,” Saban said. “But I think their quarterback is playing extremely well. They've got great play-action passes that go with their running game. They've made a lot of explosive plays with their skill players. I think it's a combination of those two things that really will challenge the defense.”
Bielema said when he first arrived at Arkansas, “We didn’t have much success throwing it or catching it, and I think you have to have both of them to have a passing game.”
“As time has evolved,” he said, “we’ve become better at throwing it.”
That development in both programs is due to recruiting as well. Alabama’s receivers are now among the best in the country, led by sophomore standout Calvin Ridley and senior ArDarius Stewart. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ receivers have gone from the worst position group on the team to arguably the strongest with several key contributors, whether it’s Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher or Jared Cornelius.
The stars of the Tide and Razorbacks used to be the running backs and defenses, and now that’s changed.
Saban and Bielema haven’t sacrificed their core principles in the process, either. Only one employs no-huddle on the regular basis and they both still run the ball between the tackles. But the portrait of the old-school coaches has faded. They’re not shouting about what football should be anymore. They’re too busy doing what so many former coaches couldn’t — Les Miles included. They’ve evolved.