TAMPA — If Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty is indeed nearing its end, there will be no single moment or reason why the Crimson Tide cracked.
The run of elite quarterbacks was unsustainable. The consistent churn of assistants had to catch up to the greatest coach ever eventually. Regression to the mean is inevitable; the clock runs out on every reign.
If you listened to USF coach Alex Golesh this week as his Bulls prepare to host ‘Bama at Raymond James Stadium, you can come away with another theory: Saban has been an indirect victim of his own success.
Just look at the sidelines throughout the SEC. Florida is led by a former Saban assistant (Billy Napier). Same with Georgia (Kirby Smart), Mississippi (Lane Kiffin) and Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher).
The Sabanization of the SEC has led programs to update their infrastructure and hire armies of analysts. But there’s another, practical effect Golesh saw in his two years as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator.
“I felt like you — you see that (defensive) scheme over and over again,” Golesh said Tuesday.
The playbooks and rosters vary by coach and school, of course, so the details differ. But the Saban influence is real. Smart was a defensive coordinator under Saban at Alabama. Smart’s co-defensive coordinators at 2021 Georgia also worked under Saban. When Napier needed a new defensive coordinator this offseason, he wanted someone familiar with his system; he hired Austin Armstrong, one of his former Louisiana staffers who spent 2019 under Smart and was a few days into his job as a position coach at ‘Bama.
In 2021, Golesh and the Volunteers played Saban, Smart and Kiffin. They also faced Pitt and coach Pat Narduzzi — a longtime defensive assistant under Mark Dantonio, who was himself a defensive assistant under Saban at Michigan State.
Last season, Tennessee played Narduzzi again and gashed Napier’s Gators for 8.2 yards per play before getting another shot at the Crimson Tide on the third Saturday in October.
Tennessee’s last-second 52-49 upset of ‘Bama snapped a 15-game losing streak in the rivalry. Its offense scored the most points Alabama had allowed in 115 years.
“(We) felt like we’ve found an answer, found a way to create some explosives,” Golesh said. “And then kept exploiting that, which was cool from a schematic standpoint.”
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Golesh credited a lot of factors that went into the offense’s ability to create those big plays. The roster had enough premier players. The staff’s processes had been refined over time to help those players develop and execute at a high level. The program, Golesh said, was ready for the moment.
But the fact that Golesh and his colleagues had faced Saban’s defense (and other versions of it) a lot helped, too.
“So what I gathered from that was: It took a year and a half of seeing the same scheme and then actually having the right answers for how we were going to attack it,” Golesh said.
Even if Golesh learned some of the right answers last year, they won’t necessarily apply Saturday. Golesh said he thought the Volunteers “were on the right stuff” in 2021, too, but didn’t have the firepower necessary to beat a team that went to the national championship game. Realistically, it’s hard to envision Golesh’s first-year roster at USF knocking off Alabama as 30-point underdogs.
But take those answers and input them into a Power Five system, and you arrive at another theory to explain why Saban’s once-invincible program has lost three of its last seven games against major-conference opponents.
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