For every common occurrence that comes with his latest National title, there is always nuance that follows Nick Saban every year. After cementing his place in college football lore, as well as reaffirming Alabama’s on-going dynasty, Saban is a coach that is always open to adapt, to learn from his mistakes.
In a game where his Crimson Tide faced a 13-0 halftime deficit against Georgina in the 2018 National Championship Game, Saban dialed up several in-game adjustments, matched with concepts that are old and new from his memory bank, that vaulted him to greatness. Here’s how Saban once again worked his magic.
Inserting Tua Tagovailoa sparked Alabama’s offense
Alabama’s original game plan on offense was never to spread Georgia’s defense out and attack vertically with QB Jalen Hurts. Instead, it was to pound the Bulldogs’ defense with a series of “bash” runs with tailbacks Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris, that focused on isolating a linebacker and allowing the offensive line to pave running lanes. Early on, however, Bama’s schemes broke down by Georgia splitting its defense apart during these concepts, having the defensive line focus on its counterpart while linebacker Roquan Smith ran wild at a Tide running back.
These set of plays happened over and over again with failed results every time. Heck, Alabama even devised wrinkles with Hurts disguised as a runner on options, and still, no success.
At this point, it was clear that Alabama’s concepts weren’t working. The Tide were struggling to run effectively, racking up just 49 yards on 16 designed run plays, and its QB (Hurts) wasn’t strong enough in the drop-back game to unleash its skilled athletes. In the 1st half alone, Hurts failed to complete a pass for more than 10 yards. Add all this up and it left Saban no other choice but to call on his freshman trump card in the 2nd Half.
If you have followed Saban throughout his Alabama coaching tenure, you know that he never is one to amass blue-chip recruits at the quarterback position and plug them into high-pressure situations from the get-go. Typically, quarterbacks under Saban have to be immersed in “the process” before emerging to prominence as upperclassmen. Just ask AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy, Jacob Coker, and John Parker Wilson, all championship QBs. Until then, they are rarely better than the blue-chip upperclassmen ahead of them, particularly in Saban’s detailed and perfectionist tactics.
But Hurts was only a sophomore himself, who’d emerged as a freshman due to his turnover avoidance, unflappable mentality, and dominant athleticism. However, against a top defense like Georgia, that had already successfully defended several other top spread-option offenses, Hurts’ limitations as a passer put Alabama in a bind, particularly playing from behind.
So when Saban turned to true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half – one of the biggest risks of his career – and looked to attack Georgia’s aggressive, run-stopping tactics, especially one-on-one matchups outside against man coverage, the move appeared to be an audacious one.
The Tide’s first drive with Tagovailoa consisted of a simple zone-read play, a quick check down, and then a drop back foiled by a Roquan Smith blitz. The next drive, Alabama went all in, even without left tackle Jonah Williams, who had just gone down on the previous drive. Despite an overthrow from Tagovailoa (that could have been a touchdown if he hit Calvin Ridley in stride), this set the table for more productive drives for Alabama’s offense.
The next drive for Bama included several run/pass options, plus a few off-schedule scrambles and runs by Tagovailoa. This “glance” pass option against man coverage outside was a game changer that presented clear problems to the Dawgs, ultimately leading to the Tide’s first score of the game.
Building on their very first scoring drive, the Tide executed on four more drives, netting three field goals and one touchdown, most notably one that ended on a converted 4th & 4 attempt inside the Georgia 10. This led to the Dawgs backing off a bit up front — including on their fateful final defensive call — and the Tide took full advantage of it. Tagovailoa burned Georgia just by presenting the threat of the deep pass, which landed a few shots but opened up the run game and led to some easy check downs.
Finally, Tagovailoa’s ability to push the ball deep allowed for the amazing overtime sequence of events, in which the freshman roller coaster gave up a near 20-yard sack and then executed this bomb for the championship.
Saban’s game-winning call is named four verticals which is designed to stress deep-zone defenders by overloading them with deep routes. Georgia’s cover 2 was susceptible to it, and its execution was too poor to survive narrow margin for error.
Designing a defensive line to stymie Georgia’s power rushing, especially on standard downs
Lost in translation with Tagovailoa’s emergence on Monday night was Saban’s ability to scheme against Georgia’s prolific rushing attack. Entering the National Championship Game, the Bulldogs ranked ninth in Rushing S&P+, and just came off a performance in the Rose Bowl where they rushed for 317 yards collectively against Oklahoma. Moreover, Georgia featured two tailbacks, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, that both were in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards and yards-per-carry.
Despite the fact that they got burned occasionally on third down, Georgia converted on 42.1 percent of its 3rd down attempts; just a tick higher than the 39.2 percent conversion rate Bama gives up on average, the Tide, for the most part, neutralized the Bulldog offense. The Dawgs still managed to churn out 133 yards on the ground, with Michel rushing for 50 yards on just four carries on third-and-long opportunities. Other than those runs that caught the Tide in preventative defenses, Georgia had 28 runs between its two main backs for only 73 yards, or 2.6 yards a carry.
So, how exactly did Saban’s defense turn an all-worldly running game of Georgia into a pedestrian one? The answer: by stacking the line with its two best run stuffers on standard downs (1st and 2nd down). All game long, the tandem of Da’Ron Payne and Raekwon Davis savaged Georgia’s interior line. Beyond the obvious impact of the interception and return by Davis — Georgia was sitting on a 20-7 lead and coming off a bad interception by freshman Tagovailoa when that play occurred — these two repeatedly destroyed Georgia’s plans.
On this play coming up, the Bulldogs still had a 20-10 lead going into the fourth quarter and were finally running with some success. However, heading into a 2nd & 3 play, things soured when their need to double team Payne and Davis cost them in the form of an inside blitz and an unblocked defensive back:
Now, it wasn’t just designed runs that Alabama’s defense feasted on. Throughout the first half, Davis and Payne made stops at the line, but even in the crucial moments of the 4th quarter the Dawgs were determined to keep them doubled on pass plays. This soon backfired as other Bama players were able to step up in a hurry. That all set up a crucial 3rd & 4, in which Davis was one-on-one with redshirt freshman guard Ben Cleveland. The quick pressure killed the drive and set up a Bama drive that would end in a field goal, making it a one-score game.
Before this game, Georgia had the sixth best Standard Down offense in the country, according to the S&P+ metrics. Unfortunately, their season ended partly because it couldn’t get the job against the Tide, who sported the No. 1 Standard Down defense in the FBS.
Through 14 offensive drives and 58 snaps on 1st and 2nd down, Alabama held the Bulldogs to a total of 184 yards, or 3.2 yards per play. Furthermore, the Tide’s defense did an exceptional job of not allowing Georgia to beat them on the big play. As a whole, Georgia finished the game with 12 plays going for 10 yards or more; 10 for 15+, and a meager two plays for 20 yards or more.
In full, Saban was victorious (once again) because he wasn’t afraid to adapt
Head coaches are not just defined by wins and losses, or championships alone. Sometimes, what makes a coach better than their counterparts is the ability to adapt throughout the flow of the game. Winning with overpowering defensive tackles is standard practice for Saban, but winning by asking a freshman to read deep safeties and push the ball down the field is an entirely new layer to discover. At this point, maybe the offseason conversations should just be speculation on which way Saban will find to win next.