Alabama again sits in the top spot of the BCS rankings, and the nation is largely wondering which team can end the Crimson Tide's stranglehold on college football. Some look to inter-conference foes to prevent a BCS National Championship Game appearance. Others look for Johnny Manziel-like quarterbacks to give Bama problems.
The team people should be looking at is Florida State. It has something most other squads don't: experience preparing for big games through Nick Saban's "Process."
Combined, the staff has over fifteen years of working with the best coach in the BCS era. Spread among four coaches, the Seminoles boast multiple BCS National Championship Games of working with Saban, dating back to the LSU title. This group of four has been there for big successes, big failures and, more importantly, helped prepare for those games with the master.
This is not just about recognizing an auto-check in the Alabama special teams, as we saw in the title game against Texas.
Certainly, former staffer Major Applewhite helped point that out, as the Longhorns baited the Tide into an early turnover.
Rather, this is about the little things that go into big-game preparation and understanding just how thorough a team must examine not just its opponent, but itself, as well. Obviously, Jimbo Fisher spent time with Saban at LSU, winning a BCS championship together to cap off the 2003 season.
There is also Jeremy Pruitt, the Seminoles defensive coordinator who spent three seasons as a defensive backs coach for Alabama. Two BCS titles later, he got the promotion at Florida State and is working to mold it into the Tide's defensive image.
To round out the connections, there is Lawrence Dawsey and Sal Sunseri. Dawsey, the Florida State wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator, was a graduate assistant at LSU with Fisher and Saban for the 2003 BCS championship season. Sunseri did a one-year stint at LSU in 2000, then returned to Saban's staff in 2009 as a linebackers coach and the assistant head coach until 2011.
In addition, Pruitt also spent three seasons as the Crimson Tide's director of player development from 2007 to 2009.
This experience is not a trump card, by any means, but it does give them a look inside the program that Mark Helfrich and his staff at Oregon, Art Briles and staff at Baylor and even Urban Meyer and his staff at Ohio State lack. It is also something that Les Miles in January of 2012 and Brian Kelly in January of 2013 likely wish they had at their disposal.
Being in those rooms, sitting in those meetings, being assigned that film breakdown does not give the Seminoles specific plays to call or a game plan to utilize. Folks, it is not that simple, and that is a positive thing—if it gave them a blueprint, one can bet that Saban would simply change it, and then the Seminoles would be operating from the same planning deficit as Notre Dame and LSU.
Instead, this gives Florida State an understanding of just how involved it needs to be in preparation should it and the Crimson Tide cross paths in the 2013 postseason. Nick Saban is the best Sunday-to-Friday coach in college football, and having a group of guys who have worked with him in nearly every facet is a big window into his brilliance.
In real terms, it boils down to preparation, and that breaks down to two things: understanding your opponent and understanding yourself. Learning what an opponent does best, when the opponent does specific things and what that all means is a weekly battle in college football. The goal is to neutralize your opponent's best plays and force it to use another plan to beat you.
Pairing that with aggressive and thorough self-scouting is how Alabama has looked so much better than its opponents in the two most recent BCS title games. Finding tendencies, breaking those tendencies and watching the opponent scramble to understand what is going on is what has helped Alabama be so successful.
That element is something Pruitt, Fisher and Sunseri have worked with Saban on extensively. Dawsey, as a grad assistant, was a kid in the trenches, pulling tape, charting plays and doing the preliminary film work that GAs do to prep for big games.
This is not a plan that guarantees success; rather, it is knowledge that should insulate Florida State from the mistakes of teams before it. An approach that should stop the Seminoles from viewing small success, such as the option or vertical passing on the edge, as elements that should be the crux of a game plan; something LSU and Notre Dame did not avoid.
Both the Irish and Bayou Bengals took elements that should have been supplements to a game plan and made them the heart of their BCS Championship game approaches. Instead of running the ball and using the Everett Golson run threat to control safeties, the Irish tried to push vertically, wasting plays in the process. LSU tried quick horizontal passing and an option rushing attack while neglecting the north-and-south running and vertical shots that created their past option success.
Do you think it helps to have an inside look at how Saban preps his teams?
Sal Sunseri and Jeremy Pruitt were on that Crimson Tide staff that broke LSU. They saw the offense break tendencies against LSU's great defense by trotting out running personnel groupings, then using motions and shifts to create favorable matchups and throw for chunks of yards. They also saw little-used Chris Smelley, Kevin Norwood and Michael Williams become features in the pass game, something that the Tide did not show all season.
Pruitt was there against Notre Dame when Alabama's offense elected to block Notre Dame's Louis Nix III one on one in favor of sending the guards out to track Irish linebackers—an approach most teams did not take against Notre Dame.
Avoiding those planning mistakes that ultimately never gave Miles and Kelly's teams a shot is the first step in defeating the process. Experience with Saban should help Florida State's staff do just that. The next step is putting together a plan that is capable of winning.
That's going to be the hard part.
Especially when the students might be going up against the master, Saban, himself. The guy has been brilliant in his game prep since losing the SEC Championship Game and Sugar Bowl in the 2008 cycle. Topping him, and his stacked roster, is going to be a challenge, with a view inside his mind or not.