By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Jan. 7, 2014
But even though the Seminoles have 365 days to enjoy their place on the college football throne, one of the first questions raised on ESPN’s postgame show was whether Alabama had passed the mantle of most-targeted program over to FSU permanently.
ESPN contributor Paul Finebaum – who has never met a football topic he wouldn’t use to troll Alabama fans – answered with a firm “yes,” surprising exactly no one. If only that were true.
At least two programs have found out recently that the Alabama system of building and maintaining a program isn’t going away any time soon. Those programs were Texas and, oddly enough, Auburn, which beat Alabama in November and ended the Crimson Tide’s hope of winning a third straight national title.
While Auburn got its shots in over the course of a single three-hour game, Texas was after Alabama for three months – or, more accurately, Alabama’s coach. The Longhorns targeted Alabama head coach Nick Saban to replace a coach who hadn’t yet retired, then fouled up the (forced) retirement of their former coach, and closed the process by failing to secure Saban.
In doing so, Texas learned a couple of things. The first is something many teams before had already learned – that hiring the right coach is as much about timing and good fortune as it is the name of the program on the door. By all rights, Charlie Strong is a good head coach, potentially a very good head coach. He wasn’t Texas’ first, second or third choice, however, and the fact the Longhorns ended up with him should finally and completely put an end to the farcical notion that Texas is a step above other elite programs and can accomplish whatever it pleases. In regards to Alabama specifically, Texas was unable to outbid, outmaneuver or outshine Alabama, Saban remained in Tuscaloosa and a thousand overstuffed ten-gallon hats deflated like a hot-air balloon flying flying off-course over an artillery range.
But it’s Auburn that might have learned a bigger lesson Monday, from Alabama via a surrogate. Florida State is coached by former Nick Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher, and its defense coordinated by former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt.
Most of the juice behind comments that Auburn and its hurry-up, no-huddle offense were taking over the state – perhaps the SEC in general – came from the typical euphoric bluster that accompanies innovations in football offensive systems. While there is no doubt that Gus Malzahn’s offense is revolutionary in its application – not to mention its stretching of the rulebook to make both opposing defenses and game officials lose their composure – it, like every other offensive innovation that has ever come to pass, is faced with the reality that defenses will eventually catch up.
Alabama fans know it first hand. Paul “Bear” Bryant’s wishbone offense is the ultimate example. Bryant installed the offense in 1971, meaning it was in place for less than half his tenure in Tuscaloosa, although it became so synonymous with his legacy that many people probably forget the specifics. As far as its effectiveness, the offense lost its edge by the end of the decade. Many who knew Bryant felt that, had he been a younger man with time to start over again, Alabama would have gone to a different system in the early 1980s.
Alabama had previously been a pro-style team, winning three championships under Bryant with that system. The wishbone captured three national titles in 12 years; Nick Saban has won three of the past five championships with a pro-style attack. For all the offensive innovations that have hit college football over the past 50 years or so – the wishbone, the spread-option, the Air Raid, the flex-option, the HUNH – the only system to never truly go out of style has been the pro-style attack. And it was a pro-style attack Florida State utilized to beat Auburn Monday night.
Many have called on rule changes to curb the spread of the HUNH, noting that the system has little to do with letting the best players succeed and is instead far more about manipulating substitution rules and leveraging stamina. It’s unlikely rulesmakers will choose to limit it, however – offense equals television ratings, and tempo offenses put up offensive numbers in spades – although it would not be a surprise for some minor tweaking, say getting linesmen to be more strict in their interpretation of illegal blocking downfield on pass plays.
No, if the offense is going to be stopped, it will have to be stopped the old-fashioned way: by defensive coordinators finding a weakness and exploiting it.
Florida State really didn’t do that – Auburn rolled up 449 yards of total offense – but the Seminoles did shut down Auburn’s QB running game. Nick Marshall ran for 45 yards on 16 carries, a 2.8-yard average, which had a chilling effect on AU’s system and playcalling.
So what does that mean for Alabama? If the Crimson Tide can adjust its system – make it effective without having to rely so much on check-with-me calls prior to the snap, which Oklahoma exploited in the Sugar Bowl – Auburn’s upset of Alabama in November might turn out to be an outlier.
Alabama is poised to sign either the No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting class in the country in February, the final numbers likely depending on how LSU answers Alabama’s moves. If that happens, it means the talent gap from Alabama to Auburn will only widen.
Additionally, Auburn will find itself, for the second time in five years, replacing a lot of “heart” players on defense. Names like Dee Ford, Chris Davis and Nosa Eguae will be missed, and if running back Tre Mason decides to leave early for the NFL Draft, a major cog in the Tiger offense will also be gone.
At that point, the question for Auburn will be whether the sleight-of-hand Malzahn brought to the offense will be enough to overcome widening talent gap between Auburn and either Alabama or LSU. Auburn, somewhat surprisingly, will have an edge at the quarterback position, even though Nick Marshall isn’t really a two-dimensional player. Otherwise, it’s hard to see where Auburn will maintain any kind of advantage.
Thus, the future of the SEC West would seem to tilt back towards the places it’s been favoring the most in the past, Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. Texas got a coach, Auburn got a title shot – but the program that remains best positioned for success in a post-BCS era is the same one that also set the bar for the BCS years.