Nick Saban has adapted to and conquered a new style of college football

Hurts calls being recruited by Alabama 'a true blessing' (0:43)

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts recalls the process of being recruited by the Crimson Tide and says he feels fortunate to play for one of the top college football programs in the country. (0:43)

ATLANTA -- If five years ago somebody had shown Nick Saban tape of what Alabama looks like right now both offensively and defensively, even he admits he would have had a hard time believing it.

At the very least, he probably would have rubbed his eyes a bit to make sure it wasn't some kind of weird mirage.

But as Saban is quick to point out, with a touch of his West Virginia twang, the game has changed dramatically in the past five years. And albeit begrudgingly at times, one of the best coaches in college football history has changed with it.

"I might not like it, but it ain't the way ball is now," Saban said of the blueprint that won the first three of his four national championships at Alabama. "It's unbelievable how much the game has changed, and it's really hard to coach defense now. But hey, it's on me -- regardless of the way I think football should be played -- if I don't change with it."

The most noticeable changes at Alabama have occurred on offense. The mere fact that Saban would go with a true freshman at quarterback was a stunner for many. He'd never done it before in his career. But it's much more than just Jalen Hurts being a true freshman. Hurts has been a big part of the Tide's running game, particularly in run-pass options. He's creating on offense and operating out of the shotgun (even on the goal line), and the Tide are also spreading teams out and going no-huddle.

In fact, it looks a lot like the kind of up-tempo offenses those fastball guys, as Saban likes to call them, were running a few years ago that precipitated Saban's now-famous line from 2012: "Is this what we want football to be?"

His concern was player safety, and he still thinks the rules allow offenses to play too fast, meaning players have to play too many plays. But while Saban might be old school and might have strong convictions about the direction of the game, the one thing he's not is stubborn.

He's smart enough to know that nothing stays the same, especially when you're in the business of chasing championships.

"You've seen other coaches over time be stubborn and say, 'We're not going to evolve and change our offense or our defense,' and it costs them their job sometimes because this is where college football is now, and that old way doesn't work," said Lane Kiffin, who -- before leaving in stunning fashion this week for his Florida Atlantic job -- was the point guy in modernizing the Tide's offense when Saban brought him in as offensive coordinator in 2014.

"You see it every year when you're in the playoff, and the championship teams almost every time have the element of going fast, more spread stuff and quarterbacks that can move around. So I give Coach a ton of credit. He could have been really stubborn and said, 'We're going to run our old offense here no matter what.' I don't think we'd be sitting here saying we won three straight SEC championships if he wouldn't have changed, and he knew that."

It didn't take senior tight end O.J. Howard long to figure out that the times were changing at Alabama. Hurts had already shown a glimpse of the added dimension he could provide to the offense when he gave the Alabama defense fits as the scout-team quarterback in preparation for the national championship game against Clemson last season.

"And then during preseason camp, he was even better with the way he kept making plays," Howard said. "It was a lot different than anything we'd seen here at Alabama under Coach Saban, but it was the way we were going to win games."

Saban said his thought process changed gradually, but it was also expedited by back-to-back losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to close the 2013 season. Since those two losses, the Tide have won 39 of the 42 games they've played and are gunning for their second straight national championship.

"As we faced more and more no-huddle, more and more fastball guys and had more and more difficulties ourselves in trying to play those kind of teams, I started saying to myself that if it's more difficult to defend that, why aren't we doing it?" Saban recounted. "Even though, philosophically, if I don't think it's good for the game, good for the players, too many plays, whatever you want to talk about, it's something we needed to do, something we needed to research.

"It all got enhanced by the fact that we happened to have a quarterback three years ago [Blake Sims] who, that's what he did in high school, that's what he was most capable of, so that's what we adapted to ... and here we are."

Kiffin might be on his way to Florida Atlantic a little sooner than expected, but Hurts' career at Alabama is just beginning. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is sure to build off of Hurts' versatility next season, which means the Tide probably won't be going back to their pro-style ways on offense anytime soon.

"You've got to have a quarterback who can create," said Kiffin, noting the discrepancy in Alabama's third-down efficiency with a quarterback who could create versus one who wasn't overly mobile.

The Tide are 14th nationally this season in third-down conversion percentage with Hurts running the show and were fifth nationally in 2014 with Sims at quarterback. Last season, they were 86th nationally with Jake Coker at quarterback.

"It just points out how [Saban] is always looking at everything, how to find a better way to do things," Kiffin said. "In the offseason, he's flying us to different places to go learn things and bringing in coaches all the time, which again, that's unusual, because someone like him ... why does he want to learn from someone else? He's the best coach in college football, but that's why he continues to be the best coach."

The changes Saban has made on defense are more subtle. His system hasn't changed much, but he has made a concerted effort to recruit players who can play three straight downs and match up better against all of the spread offenses now in college football.

The Tide are leaner up front defensively and at linebacker. Reuben Foster lost more than 20 pounds in the offseason, and this is the fastest defense Saban has put on the field in his 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa.

"We're faster and more athletic," Saban said. "If we had to play smashmouth teams all the time, it probably wouldn't be an advantage to be that way. If we played LSU every week, after about four or five weeks, it would probably start showing a little bit. But that's not where we are right now in college football."

Saban jokes he's not sure where some of these offensive coordinators are coming from in this new age of football.

"The way these offensive guys are, they're trying to figure out ways to move the ball where you don't block anybody," Saban said. "We've got linemen pulling one way, and we're running the other way. I haven't ever seen anything like it."

Jeremy Pruitt, who took over this season for Kirby Smart as Alabama's defensive coordinator, said it has helped on defense with the Tide running more spread and tempo on offense.

"That's what we see most of the time in games now, and it's a benefit to see it more in practice," Pruitt said. "We're a lot more ready for it."

Alabama's defensive numbers have been as good as ever. Their 98.0 defensive-efficiency rating is the best in the FBS this season and the highest by any FBS team entering the bowl season since 2005. For the record, the second-highest was the 2011 Alabama defense (93.7).

"I've seen Alabama on defense. They were some dogs. They are dogs," said Foster, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. "We look up to them. We lost the weight, but we didn't lose the mentality."

They haven't lost that championship look, either, even though it's a different look.