In 2011, Alabama and LSU drew the attention (and ire) of the entire nation with the “Game of the Century” that ended tied in regulation with a score of 6-6. The two teams met again in the national championship, and again, not a single touchdown was scored until Trent Richardson blasted free near the end of the game.
Defense reigned supreme.... But that was about to change.
In 2012, teams like Ole Miss had adopted the hurry-up no-huddle spread offense philosophy that Oregon had brought to the forefront of the nation in the previous few years, and it was starting to infiltrate the SEC. At the time, Nick Saban (in)famously made the statement:
“I think that’s something that can be looked at. It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.
“I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?”
Most of the national media and internet comment warriors derided Saban for complaining about other teams doing things better than him, and the jeering only strengthened when the Tide lost a shootout to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in 2012, followed that up with another barn-burner in 2013, and then lost to Gus Malzahn’s HUNH offense at Auburn at the end of 2013.
What people didn’t realize, though, was that Saban was trying to protect everyone for their own sake. When it became clear that college football rules were going to increasingly favor the offense, he went and found a new, young offensive coordinator to take advantage of the emerging meta.
Enter Lane Kiffin. The failed USC head coach had a bit of a reputation for being both a bright offensive mind and a horribly immature coach with a lot of baggage. The Alabama fan base was obviously split over the decision, and many expected it to begin the downfall of a dynasty that had been built on an old-school rushing attack and elite defense.
The Tide had lost 3-year starter at QB, A.J. McCarron, to the NFL, and wound up replacing him with the unlikely Blake Sims, who had been a running back and defensive back at various points throughout his time at Alabama until then. While Sims would have been a square peg in a round hole in the previous versions of Alabama offenses, Kiffin took the speedy senior and designed an entire offense around his skill set: Read options, quick screens, and deep bombs.
Sims’ 3600 passing yards in 2014 shattered the school’s single season record, and while the Tide’s defense was unable to stop Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot in the playoffs, there was still a ton of memorable moments throughout the season in what was one of the most exciting seasons in Saban’s tenure.
Kiffin hilariously earned a reputation that season for knowing when a play would be a touchdown before it happened, and that helped to earn him a favorable status with Alabama fans.
A year later, Kiffin again swapped his offense around. He continued to incorporate speed, jet sweeps, screens, and bombs, but this time blended with a more old-school approach to fit the players he had on hand (namely, Derrick Henry). Henry went on to win a Heisman trophy, and Alabama won another national championship.
Kiffin’s play design to get tight end O.J. Howard wide open down the field on some fake screens in the championship game sparked off an entire generation of jokes about a “secret weapon,” and he again got caught on national TV calling his shot before it scored:
In 2016, Kiffin again revamped his offense to fit dual-threat freshman QB Jalen Hurts. And while that offense did experience some pains at the end of the season when Kiffin left early, it still marked the fact that Alabama was willing to run a more modern offense than what Saban had become known for in 2008-2012.
Kiffin’s 3-year stint at Alabama wasn’t a revolutionary offensive shift, but rather a thoughtful, calculated design that blended many newer spread concepts with Saban’s old school approach all while constantly adapting to fit the players on hand. That approach smoothed over a transition that saw the stubborn Alabama fans get on board with some change, as well as paved the way for future offensive coordinators to lean more and more heavily into the quickly-evolving RPO.
Kiffin’s changes to the Alabama offense also helped the Tide land the 2017 recruiting class, where a quintet of highly skilled offensive players joined forces to become the core of Alabama’s offensive dominance ever since 2018: Tua Tagovailoa, Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and DeVonta Smith.
All five-star recruits, it was unheard of for a team to pull that much talent in one recruiting class, and it never could have happened at Alabama had they still been running a slow-paced, old-school offense.