Nick Saban's Nightmare Finish to the Season Could Boast 3 Straight Spread Teams
Alabama is cruising along like a team battling more against perfection than the opponent on the other sideline.
But there's trouble looming on the horizon.
If Alabama can get past that LSU game on Nov. 9, it'll likely roll into Auburn 11-0 to take on the Tigers—perhaps with the SEC West title on the line if the Tigers hold up their end of the bargain.
That's where the trouble could begin.
If SEC East front-runner Missouri and BCS No. 2 Oregon don't stumble, Alabama could face three straight spread offenses—Auburn, Missouri and Oregon—that thrive off of a fast tempo which limits what defensive coordinators can do. On top of that, all three of those offenses operate in different ways, which will make it difficult for head coach Nick Saban—who hasn't held back when it comes to his displeasure of tempo-driven teams.
"All you're trying to do is get lined up," Saban told Chris Low of ESPN.com in September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."
Sure, Alabama throttled Ole Miss, 25-0, a few days after that quote was published, but his point remains valid.
By the time the Tigers and Tide meet on the Plains, Auburn should have that uptempo offense operating at the pace Gus Malzahn wants. The Tigers are averaging 72.8 plays per game, which is below where Malzahn wants them to be.
"Yeah, our goal when we talk to our players is 80," he told ESPN.com this summer, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello. "But each game unfolds differently. Sometimes you can score enough points on less than 80. The main thing is we play faster than any team in the country on each snap."
He ran 85 against Texas A&M two weeks ago and 77 last week in a 45-10 win over Florida Atlantic, so he's getting closer to his goal.
Auburn's offense is a two-back, power attack out of the spread, and it has four horses to make it effective. Running backs Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and quarterback Nick Marshall each have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game this season, as the Tigers have posted the nation's fifth-best rushing offense (315.4 YPG).
Missouri is a little more balanced than Auburn, despite the fact that head coach Gary Pinkel lost quarterback James Franklin midseason. Maty Mauk has been just fine in his stead, leading an offense that ranks second in the SEC in rushing (224.5 YPG) and fourth in passing (275.3 YPG).
Like Auburn, Missouri mixes in running backs Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy and the quarterback into the running game. It also thrives on tempo, having run an average of 74 plays per game.
Unlike Auburn, though, Missouri's passing attack is very potent. Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas are each 6'4" or taller and create major mismatches in the defensive backfield, and Bud Sasser has been solid for Pinkel this season as well.
If Saban's Tide face Missouri in Atlanta, they'd have only a week to prepare for an offense loaded with weapons. That offense could have James Franklin back taking the snaps, after the senior quarterback left the Georgia game two weeks ago with a shoulder injury.
After running through that potential gauntlet, Saban would have more than four weeks to prepare for the high-octane Oregon offense, which is second in the nation in total offense (632.1 YPG), scoring offense (55.6 PPG) and rushing offense (331.5 YPG).
But Saban has built this dynasty on winning these big games. When he's had more than a week to prepare for an opponent, he is 18-5 during his Alabama career.
Oregon isn't your average opponent, though.
While other teams have mastered the hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense, Oregon has perfected it.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota has passed for 2,281 yards, rushed for 511, scored 29 total touchdowns and hasn't thrown a pick this year. Byron Marshall is rushing for 109.9 yards per game, and by the end of the season, all-purpose stud De'Anthony Thomas should be fully recovered from the ankle injury that cost him four games.
The one common denominator in Auburn, Missouri and Oregon's offenses is the mobile quarterback, which has given Saban headaches in the past. Each of the last five teams to topple the Tide—Texas A&M in 2012, LSU in 2011 and 2010, South Carolina in 2010 and Auburn in 2010—had quarterbacks that presented a running threat.
Will Alabama win the national title?
Granted, in some of those games, a running quarterback didn't beat the Tide. Stephen Garcia had the game of his life through the air for South Carolina in 2010, and Cam Newton only rushed for 39 in Auburn's comeback win later that season.
But Alabama's defense is heavily geared toward assignments, and that threat makes it more likely for defenders to abandon their assignments.
Alabama's schedule has been rather easy so far this season, but if the Crimson Tide are going to keep this dynasty going, they may have to earn it down the stretch.
The Tide could face three spread teams, running three different systems, on the road to winning a third straight title.
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