The Sabanization Of College Football Is A Total BummerS

Yesterday we lauded San Diego State's Rocky Long for potentially eschewing the kick (field goals or punts) in fourth-down situations, a strategic move that's become something of a totem in the advanced football stats discussion. Today, kind of the opposite: it seems college coaches are lining up to imitate the eminently boring Nick Saban because they think that it's his strategies—which are notable only in that they are decisively standard and unexceptional—that have led to Alabama's success.

Sports Illustrated has a piece about the race to install a Saban-inspired game plan in its August 20 issue:

The difference between Nick Saban's system and the spread or the run-and-shoot is that Saban's on-field schemes involve no gimmickry. He runs a 3-4 defense that utilizes zone blitzes and disguises coverages exceptionally well [...] The quarterback need only be a competent game manager, buttressed by a fast, hard-running ball of muscle at tailback. The line blows open holes, and the back breaks tackles on the second level. If teams pack the box to stop the run, the game manager throws to receivers athletic enough to exploit man-to-man coverage. None of this is revolutionary [...] Saban's influence has spread beyond the programs that have tried to copy his formula. Competitors have changed their styles to compete in a league dominated by Saban's current program and his former program [...] After the '01 season Spurrier left for the Washington Redskins, and when he returned to the SEC with South Carolina in '05, he found a league dominated by defense — thanks to the influences of Saban and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville. Spurrier had limited success in his first few seasons in Columbia, but his teams began making school history after he scrapped his beloved Fun 'n' Gun and switched to a run-heavy zone-read offense that hogged the ball and allowed his stingy, athletic defense to rest between possessions. Though the schemes differ, the underlying philosophies of defensive dominance and offensive ball control are reminiscent of Saban's model at Alabama.

Cool, where do I get my Competent Game Manager jersey?

The Sports Illustrated article actually sought to set Saban's teams apart in two ways. They play a controlled game in which offensive exposions are rare and the passing game is devalued, and they follow "the Process." It's capitalized like that throughout—the Process. It sounds a little like a cult; it sounds a lot like bullshit. The Process, Nick Saban's system for Motivating Champions, consists of a rubric for evaluating recruits that he cribbed from his own college coach (who himself "borrowed the idea from Eddie Crowder"), a willingness to moralize by proxy (the article congratulates Saban for bringing in speakers from something like the Scared Straight athletic circuit), and a whole fuckload of money. Though the SI piece implies that the speakers and the rubric's emphasis on "character/attitude/intelligence" have helped Alabama avoid off-the-field issues, coaches have been hiring lecture-circuit standbys and emphasizing character (blind obedience) since the inception of college football. You could argue that Saban uses his vast, vast resources in interesting ways, but where he's allocated money to sports psychologists and beefed-up coaching and training staffs, he's just doing his own imitation, this time of the NFL. Throwing cash at new weight rooms is a "process," sure, and evidently a sucessful one, but it probably doesn't deserve any breathless capitalization.

So the only thing left for other coaches to imitate is Saban's play-calling and roster construction, both of which are staid, conservative, and not much fun. Game manager quarterbacks and uncreative schemes mean fewer points and, unless you're tuning in for the clock management and three-and-outs, probably a less entertaining contest. If SI is right about Saban's legions of imitators, ball control and clock management will reign among coaches at smaller programs who enjoy control and fear risk, even if they don't have the resources that have been so crucial to Saban's Process.

Still—take heart. There's a positive side effect to any downbeat, cautious game plan: the new, alternate strategy that ends Saban's miserly run of dominance will probably be balls-out awesome. It's cyclical.

The Sabanization of College Football [Sports Illustrated]