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The Idea of ‘Playing Conservative’ is Slowly Becoming a Losing Mentality for Alabama

Nick Saban arms folded
Cedric Mason - Touchdown Alabama Magazine

Say it with me: playing conservative should not mean playing it safe, but instead should mean playing to your team’s strengths.

Every new college football season brings with it its own handful of shocking upsets. On rare occasions, those upsets take the form of noncompetitive blowouts, as was the case in Iowa’s surefire beat down of Ohio State this year. Most of the time, though, the most shocking of upsets are barn-burning nail-biters from wire-to-wire with equally shocking endings and a swarm of field rushing fans. When should-be blowout games get close, the teams with more to lose tend to tighten up and instead of playing to win, play ‘not to lose.’ They call ‘safe’ plays on offense like runs, screens, or short throws, then on defense come out in prevent mode instead sticking to their style of playcalling. As the saying goes, the only thing ‘prevent’ does is prevent you from winning.

Nick Saban may be the master of ‘conservative ball’ as it has been a major offensive philosophy of his since becoming a college head coach. In using that approach he has won multiple national titles and has earned the title of one of college football’s greatest coaches to ever be in the game. However, where Saban seemed to differ the most in that regard was in his willingness to change his style of play and adapt in big games when he saw fit.

In 2012, after first losing to LSU at home in a 9-6 slugfest, his Crimson Tide would meet the Tigers again in New Orleans for the BCS National Championship Game. After going 16-of-28 for 199 yards, a pick, and a 20.4 QBR in the first meeting, AJ McCarron came out of the gates throwing the ball and continued doing so all night. He finished the night 23-of-34 for 234 yards and a much improved 70.3 QBR. LSU’s Jordan Jefferson was again forced into ‘conservative mode’ despite the team’s night long struggles and finished the game with 53 yards, a pick, and despite going 11-for-17, ended with a putrid 4.9 QBR. The next year, McCarron’s Tide out-gained an Aaron Murray-led Georgia Bulldogs team 512-394 in a wire-to-wire victory for the SEC Championship.

In all of Nick Saban’s biggest wins at Alabama they have come out as the aggressors, and in all of his biggest losses have come out too conservative. For instance, against Johnny Manziel’s Aggies in Tuscaloosa, Alabama came out too conservative and in doing so found themselves down 20-0 in the first quarter. By taking more chances on offense and defense they found themselves with a chance to take the lead late, but an ill-timed interception and special teams penalty put the final nail in the Tide’s coffin. The next year in College Station, they fell behind 14-0 again before airing the ball out two drives in a row to tie the game. When Alabama’s backs are to the wall, they throw being conservative out the window and play to win. However, it’s the word itself I am speaking on here.

Playing conservative should mean playing to a team’s strengths, not playing ‘safe.’ Herein lies the problem they have faced over the last couple of years. Alabama’s offensive lines have been so dominant in the past that they could run the ball with success throughout most games and only ask the quarterbacks to throw deep balls on an occasional premeditated play action shot. Over the last two years especially, though the 2014 season was also similar, the level of play on the offensive line has sharply declined in big games – especially those against elite defensive lines. Ohio State’s in the 2014 playoffs loss, Ole Miss’s in the ’14 & ’15 losses, Clemson’s in last year’s national championship, and Auburn’s in this year’s Iron Bowl all forced Alabama to get away from their offensive identities.

There is no quick fix or ‘one size fits all’ solution to being outplayed in the trenches, and it certainly seems like rare territory for Alabama. However, the best thing Brian Daboll could do for the offense is to create a true identity. If your team is an option running team, do that. If your team is a really good power running team, do that. If you have a lot of quick-twitch skill guys like Amari Cooper or Calvin Ridley that deserve the ball in their hands behind the line of scrimmage, be a bubble/screen team. When you need to play conservative, it should mean you are leaning on your team’s strengths, not that you are playing not to lose. 

What you absolutely cannot do is come out with the idea of being a team with multiple identities, not even the best pro teams can do that over the course of an entire season. Daboll’s old team, the New England Patriots, for instance do run the ball on occasion, but ultimately they are a quick-pass team with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski at the helm. The Dallas Cowboys are at their best when they are a run-first team with Ezekiel Elliot along with Leonard Fournette’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The best teams know their identities and stick to them.

Now, yes, defensive coordinators know that as well, but a team’s true strengths are those that can not easily be stopped by schemes. Everyone knows Tom Brady wants to throw the ball 30-to-40 times a game, but few can stop it. In the same way, teams used to know Alabama wanted to run the ball down your throat but still could not stop it.

This year – and last year – the offense had little identity. They were an odd combination of power, speed, sweep, keeper, and option runs with occasional passes to Ridley sprinkled throughout. Instead of the one or two established tailbacks they sprinkled three or four in throughout the course of a game – all with completely different playing styles. This lack of identity gave them little to lean on when in need of a scoring drive. Instead, like against Mississippi State, they needed help from poor offensive and defensive playcalling to find Ridley for 30 yards on a 3rd-and-15.

Alabama came out of halftime and ran the ball down Auburn’s throat for the game’s easiest touchdown, then nearly quit running the ball all together. There is simply no reasonable excuse for it, but can be attested to the fact that the offense had no identity. Ultimately, there are plenty of reasonable times to play it safe in a game. Specifically, late game and end-of-half situations are ideal for the no turnover mentality. However, if the game is in the third quarter and you are only trying not to turn the ball over, you will fail more than you succeed. Alabama may not get a shot at this year’s playoffs, but should they sneak in they will need to figure out what it is they can lean on.

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