TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban doesn’t understand the fuss. It annoys him that anyone who understands football would even ask the question. This Alabama team? The best ever? Have you watched the video? Have you seen the mistakes? Isn’t it as obvious as the scowl on his face that the Crimson Tide defense is not playing up to Saban’s standards?
Everything Saban has learned in 46 years of coaching, every fiber in his Panama-hat-wearing, aight-saying, rat-poison-averse being says this Alabama team has issues. The defense is young and thin, which is great if you’re a model but not if you want to be a model defense. Alabama is allowing 15.9 points per game, the second-highest average since this incredible Alabama run (133-14, .905) began in 2008.
There are 16 players from last year’s national champion team on NFL rosters, six new assistant coaches, nine defensive backs from the 2017 team who have either gone to the NFL or gotten hurt. Even with all that turnover, this Alabama team has won every game by at least three touchdowns.
Eight noncompetitive games in, fresh off an idle Saturday, preparing to play at No. 4 LSU, and about to be named No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff selection committee rating, Alabama stands alone. After Missouri held Alabama to a season-low 39 points, Tigers head coach Barry Odom said the Crimson Tide are “as good as I’ve ever gone against, as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Saban didn’t come up with the chestnut that defense wins championships. He has just lived it for nearly five decades. But the offense sells the tickets. The offense attracts the attention. The offense — well, let Saban, the adolescent gas-pumper-turned-car-dealer, describe this team.
“You get a really nice-looking convertible,” Saban said. “The top’s down. You got a really good-looking girl driving it. And that’s all anybody sees. They don’t see the oil leaking out the car. They don’t see the bald tires on the car. They don’t see any of that.”
Saban doesn’t like to say which side of the ball is the good-looking girl and which side is the leaking oil and bald tires. But you don’t have to work on Kyle Busch’s pit crew to know what he means.
The Alabama offense is the reason that Alabama has played more than 1,200 snaps and trailed for exactly three of them. The Alabama offense is scoring a school-record 54.1 points per game.
It has four NFL-ready running backs who remain August-fresh as the calendar turns to November.
It has five receivers averaging at least 17.5 yards per catch.
It has a left tackle, Jonah Williams, who will be bro-hugging Roger Goodell in prime time next spring.
And it has Tua.
By all accounts except Saban’s, the Alabama offense through eight games is a once-in-a-generation unit. The Tide have scored a touchdown on the opening possession of all eight games. Odom said his staff spent the entire week stressing that Missouri couldn’t give up explosive plays. On Alabama’s second snap, Missouri strong safety Cam Hilton found himself trying to cover Tide sophomore wide receiver Jerry Jeudy. This is the kind of mismatch that offensive coordinators concoct during the week. When quarterback Tua Tagovailoa delivered the ball, Jeudy already had created a 3-yard cushion. He took the pass 81 yards for a touchdown.
“You see it on video,” Odom said. “You wonder how it looked up close and personal. It was as good and maybe even better.”
Tagovailoa is as accurate as a “Jeopardy!” champion, which is actually the reverse of how ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit described him.
“This guy,” Herbstreit said on The First Team on ESPNU Radio, “has answers before the questions are asked.”
Tagovailoa has 25 touchdowns and no interceptions. His 97.5 QBR is the highest through eight games in the 15 years that ESPN has produced the metric. He still hasn’t played in a fourth quarter this season.
Woody McCorvey, who is Dabo Swinney’s right-hand man at No. 2 Clemson and coached Swinney on the 1992 Alabama national championship team, has bought in. When Clemson had an off week earlier this month, McCorvey got caught up watching Alabama.
“Right now, they’re on pace to be one of the best offenses that’s ever been there,” McCorvey said. He singled out Tagovailoa’s ability to place his passes where his receivers can catch them at full speed, comparing it to Joe Montana hitting Jerry Rice and John Taylor three decades ago.
Along those same lines, Gary Danielson of CBS has compared Tagovailoa to Danielson’s fellow Purdue alum Drew Brees. When Tua hit freshman Jaylen Waddle for a 77-yard touchdown pass, the third of Alabama’s four first-quarter touchdowns in the 58-21 defeat of Tennessee, Danielson responded in amazement.
“He just delivers the ball right on him, right in stride,” Danielson said during the telecast, the wonder palpable in his tone. “People don’t do this kind of stuff.”
No wonder Saban sounds conflicted. Let’s face it: Between targeting calls and the sex appeal of the vertical passing game, defense is about as popular these days as cigarette smoke.
That is what has made this Alabama team the subject of best-ever talk. The Crimson Tide offense is doing things no Alabama team has ever done. Set aside the head coach and anyone working for him; Saban’s former staffers, as well as players and coaches on Alabama’s last 12 national championship teams, believe there’s something different about this team.
“You can’t have those numbers in your spring game when you [play] against your third defense,” said Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin, the offensive coordinator on the 2015 national championship Tide team and the man who brought Saban into the 21st century, offensively speaking. Kiffin installed the spread concepts in the Tide playbook. “They play a little bit of tempo, but they’re not doing the Oklahoma, Baylor stuff. That’s what’s really crazy. If they snapped the ball even faster, what would it be like?”
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele worked on Saban’s Alabama staff for four seasons (2007-08, 2013-14). Steele coached the last defense to beat Alabama, in the Iron Bowl a year ago. He said Saban’s ability to swallow hard and win with offense illustrates what has kept him winning.
“He may [be] the best I’ve ever been around at game management,” Steele said. “His offensive philosophy, in my opinion, was always based on game management and the strengths of his team and managing each game individually. If game management means scoring a whole lot of points, then let’s go.”
There’s a reason that Saban has been quick to reflect new trends in offense, Steele said.
“Why? So he could practice against them,” Steele said. “The top offenses in the league now are more wide-open. Hence, so is theirs [Alabama’s].”
Kiffin backed up Steele’s theory. Three years ago, with Kiffin calling the plays, tailback Derrick Henry was pretty much the entire Alabama offense.
“Derrick Henry carried the ball 90 times in seven days: the Iron Bowl [42 carries] and the SEC championship [48 carries],” Kiffin said. “These kids [the Tide backs], ain’t none of them carried it 90 times halfway through the year.”
In fact, no Alabama back has more than 78 carries — in eight games. There are people in assisted living who aren’t as well-rested as the Alabama skill-position players. Senior tailback Damien Harris, who has started 33 games in his Tide career, has 68 carries this season. Harris has 393 career carries, two fewer than Henry had in 2015 alone.
“Before, these guys were playing 80 snaps [per game] because of the tempo,” Kiffin said. “Now, these guys are playing half the game. Over the course of the year, they are going to have played half a season. The wear and tear late? Like they lost the Iron Bowl last year, or Oklahoma or Ohio State in the playoffs? I don’t think that’s going to happen because they’re fresh. Now everybody’s really screwed.”
But is this team historically superior? Coaches on opposing teams, even those with ties to former Alabama champions, might be political in their responses. McCorvey begged off trying to compare this team to that 1992 Alabama team, which went 13-0 and knocked off No. 1 Miami 32-13 in the Sugar Bowl to win the title.
“It was a different era,” McCorvey said. “I’ve really been fortunate enough to have been a part of this game for 47 years. I look at the athletes on the field today. There’s so many more of them.”
Maybe the answer lies among the members of the A-Club, the Tide lettermen who played on those 12 previous national champions.
“All of a sudden you look up and go, ‘We’re up by 28 points and it’s the first quarter,'” said Jay Barker, a Birmingham radio personality and the quarterback on the 1992 national champions. “How does this happen? I don’t care who we played in the past. It wasn’t like that.”
The Tide defense in 1992 featured four first-round draft picks: ends John Copeland and Eric Curry, safety George Teague and corner Antonio Langham.
“I do think that the ’92 team would do well because the speed, they can match up with the linebackers, and the DBs all could run, and Curry and Copeland could apply pressure,” Barker said. “And also I’d love to see the chess match between [defensive coordinator] Bill Oliver and seeing how what would he do against a guy like Tua. How would he defend it?”
But, seriously, Jay.
“Players today are better,” Barker said. “They’re bigger, stronger, faster. You know they’re better trained. But I don’t know. I might give that ’92 defense with Bill Oliver at coordinator a chance. At least a shot.”
Buddy Aydelette started on the Alabama offensive line in 1978 and 1979, Bear Bryant’s last two national champions.
“The defense was wonderful in ’79,” Aydelette said. “We had four shutouts [three in the first five games].”
That said, Aydelette prefers the ’78 team, which lost to USC but beat Nebraska, Washington, Virginia Tech and, of course, Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.
“The ’78 team had a chip on our shoulder from ’77,” Aydelette said. In 1977, the Tide went into bowls at No. 3. After No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 1 Texas lost, Alabama lost the title to No. 5 Notre Dame, which upset the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl 38-10.
“You kind of have to compare it to teams in the era, if you ask me,” Aydelette said. “When I finished here, I was 246 pounds.”
Defensive tackle Gus White, a fireplug on the defensive line of the 1973 national champions, beamed at the thought of his defense lining up against Tua & Co.
“You know what? I thought we were a pretty tough group of guys, and I still do,” said White, who played at 5-foot-10, 245 pounds, and doesn’t approach either number today. White played alongside Bob Baumhower, a Goliath for his time at 6-4, 243. Baumhower played 10 years for the Miami Dolphins and made five Pro Bowls.
“I thought Bob Baumhower was one of the biggest human beings I had ever seen in my life,” White said. “But you got cats like Raekwon Davis (6-7, 306). I mean, he kind of dwarfs Baumhower. But I would put my guys against any decade team that we have had. I think we would be comparable with them. I think we could hold our own. I’m willing to say that.”
Jerry Duncan played tackle at 185 pounds for Bryant from 1964 to 1966. The first two teams won national championships; the ’66 team went 11-0 and finished third behind Notre Dame and Michigan State after they played to a 10-10 tie. Duncan remains angry about that. That 1966 team allowed 44 points all season.
“The one that scored on us was Mississippi State,” said Duncan, who served as a sideline analyst on the Alabama Radio Network for 24 seasons. “Coach Bryant kicked the dressing-room door down because they scored 14 points. He told us after the game, ‘I’m gon’ apologize to all the fans that were here today. I’m gon’ apologize to all the fans and the students who paid money to see y’all get out there and play like that.’ We beat ’em 27-14. Anyway, that was Coach Bryant.”
Duncan laughed at the notion of 185-pound tackles in today’s game. He’s 75 years old. But when the fire engine revs up, he’s still the first one on the truck.
“You can’t compare. The rules are different,” Duncan said. “But I’ll tell you, I’ll be glad to take [Joe] Namath. I’ll take Steve Sloan, too. I played with Namath, Sloan and [Ken] Stabler, and I’d go with any of the three of them, anytime.”
Retired Alabama athletic director Bill Battle played on the 1961 team, Bryant’s first national champion. One-platoon football was dying, but it hadn’t expired yet. Battle played end on both sides of the ball. That Alabama defense, led by Hall of Famer Lee Roy Jordan, gave up 25 points all season. No one on the team weighed 200 pounds, Battle said, and the only guy who could run a 100-yard dash under 10 seconds couldn’t crack the starting lineup.
“We’ve never had one that scores like this one,” Battle said of the 2018 Tide.
But no defense in the modern era has given up as few points as the ’61 defense. So, Bill, what do you think? Could you and your guys slow down Tua?
A sly smile crept across Battle’s face.
“If they had to play by our rules,” Battle said, “it would be closer than if we had to play by their rules.”
All of the A-Clubbers agree with what the numbers say, that this Crimson Tide offense is playing at a level unmatched in their Alabama experience. Saban will go as far as, “I think that we made more big plays than what I ever thought we might to this point in the season.”
Saban believes what every coach believes in his bones, that offense is at the mercy of the weather, that some days, the quarterback and the receivers aren’t singing from the same page in the hymnal, that defense can be depended upon in ways that offense can’t. That concerns him more than offensive philosophy. A coach believes in whatever scheme will get him one more point than the other guy.
Steele not only coached for Saban, he also worked for Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Bobby Bowden at Florida State. “Someone said to Coach Bowden, ‘Coach, what’s your philosophy on that?’ He said, ‘What year? Are you talking about when I was a head coach in ’62? ’72? ’82? ’92? 2002?'”
Maybe Saban just needs time to get accustomed to playing this kind of game. The record shows his fondness for defense: Only 17 of his 45 All-SEC players at Alabama have played offense. And in 16 seasons at LSU and Alabama, Saban has had exactly one all-conference quarterback: Jalen Hurts of Alabama in 2016, the same Hurts who, with Saban’s ample coaching, has found a way to accept playing behind Tagovailoa with ego intact.
Steele cuts to the bottom line in a Sabanesque manner.
“OK,” Steele said, “you can count on one hand how many all-SEC quarterbacks he’s had. But you can’t count on one hand how many national championships he’s had. So what does that mean?”
It means the game has changed, and Saban has changed with it, except for the part that his Alabama team remains on top. That doesn’t seem to change at all.