‘Make people quit’: How Nick Saban and Alabama retake the SEC from Georgia

A REPORTER’S QUESTION about physicality reminded Alabama football coach Nick Saban of a conversation he had earlier in the week with former All-Star and World Series champion Pete Rose. Saban said Rose once asked his manager, Sparky Anderson, about the key to handling players. Anderson’s response: “You gotta know when to kick them in the ass, you gotta know when to pat them on the ass and you gotta know when not to say anything.”

With young players at several key positions in 2023, Saban said he and his staff were still trying to figure out what their approach would be.

“But,” he said, grinning, “I think I’ve been kicking them in the ass a little bit more than I’ve been patting them on the ass. So we’ll just keep on keeping on.”

Saban then grabbed his notes and his water bottle and left the room laughing.

It was a jarring sight: a joyful Saban in a news conference. YouTube is littered with his fiery rants, whether it’s “s— through a tin horn” or “rat poison” or “dead and buried and gone.”

This was different and begged for a pair of questions: Why was Saban so happy? And does this mean Alabama, which missed the College Football Playoff for only the second time last season, is getting back to its ass-kicking ways of old?

Because, frankly, it’s been a while since we’ve seen that version of the Crimson Tide. Over the past five-ish years, Saban traded in a smashmouth brand of football for something with more finesse. Featuring spectacular quarterbacks and receivers, the Tide scored points in bunches and won plenty of games, but at what cost? When it mattered most the previous two seasons — against LSU, against Tennessee, against Texas A&M, against Georgia — they couldn’t impose their will on either side of the ball. They couldn’t get a stop, ranking 42nd nationally in fourth-down conversion percentage. (They were second in the category from 2009 to 2020.) And they couldn’t move the chains and kill the clock, ranking 115th in the percentage of rushes for zero or negative yards on third and fourth down. (They were eighth from 2009 to 2020.)

Meanwhile, former Saban assistant Kirby Smart took the original Bama blueprint to Georgia, where the Bulldogs have successfully supplanted the Tide as the preeminent program in college football. Winners of back-to-back national championships, the Dawgs are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, while Alabama is fourth, which is its lowest ranking since 2009.

Alabama players like right tackle JC Latham are angry — about the ranking, about Georgia being the team to beat, about the notion that the Tide’s dynasty is dead, about the criticism that the culture has fallen off. Latham said he tries to block it out, but, he added, “I take it as extremely disrespectful.”

“I know we put in countless hours — blood, sweat and tears, literally, to be the best,” he said. “So when someone says that, it’s like you don’t know how hard we’re working for this.

“I think with this team, we’re going to shock the world.”

AN SEC COACH sounded reverential as he talked about what Alabama used to be. Pick a spot, he said, and the Tide were loaded:

“The talent they had on offense at running back, receiver, quarterback, offensive line … “

The coach could go on and on, especially about the defense. There wasn’t a weak link at linebacker, and the linemen were big and nasty, he said.

After one particular loss to Alabama, the coach recalled some locals giving him a hard time. To which he fired back, “You f—ers watched the same game I did. You can say whatever you want, but we played our ass off. They’re just much better.”

And now?

“That wasn’t the same team we played last year,” he said.

Suddenly, the coach’s hushed tone was gone, as if he had stepped out of church and into a pub. He said Alabama’s defense regressed, especially up the middle at inside ‘backer and defensive tackle. On offense, he said of former Vanderbilt lineman Tyler Steen, “That’s not a good sign when you have to plug and play a one-time starter at Alabama.”

“The quarterback was magic,” the coach said, referring to Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young, “but they didn’t have some of the dynamic playmakers on the edge that they had in years past.”

Bit by bit, Alabama’s aura of invincibility has dissipated.

“But it’s still Nick Saban, and it’s a consistent approach,” the coach said.

Former players were openly critical of the program last year. After losing at LSU, Saban said he met with former tailback Bo Scarbrough, who told Saban, “When we played here, we were making sure the other team, when the game is over, would say we never want to play them.”

Reminded of those comments this summer, Saban harkened back to the “fundamentals of why did a player come to Alabama?”

Julio Jones came to Alabama because he wanted to prove something,” Saban said. “We were 7-6; we weren’t worth a damn. So he wasn’t coming there because of what Alabama could do for him. He was coming there for what he could do for Alabama. Now, as you have success, maybe culturally people come for different reasons.”

Saban said the goal now is to “reestablish” accountability.

“For us to have the kind of team we need to have, there’s got to be an element of being hungry,” he said. “We’ve had to deal with complacency at times because of the success that we’ve had, and I think that creates a blatant disregard for doing what’s right.”

Saban thought that last year’s team was burdened with expectations primarily because of Young and defensive end Will Anderson — two of the top three picks in the NFL draft — and “there wasn’t a holistic view” of the rest of the roster. So when things went poorly, Saban said, players became anxious and committed too many mental errors.

He recalled standing in the tunnel before kickoff at Tennessee and noticing the players weren’t doing their normal pregame chant:

“It was silence. I turned around and said, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? What’s up?’”

IT WAS 2008 when Saban delivered his most notable pregame speech. Undefeated and back at LSU for the first time since he left as the Tigers’ coach for the NFL, he told players what to think.

“How much does this game mean to you?” Saban said. “Because if it means something to you, you can’t stand still. You understand? You play fast. You play strong. You go out there and dominate the guy you’re playing against and make his ass quit. That’s our trademark. That’s our M.O. as a team, alright? That’s what people know us as.”

Or at least they did.

Nowhere is Alabama’s identity shift more noticeable than on offense, where the power running game has been all but abandoned. Last season, the Tide ranked 12th in the SEC in the rate of runs between the tackles. It’s been five years since they fielded a top-three running attack in the conference.

From 2009 to 2020, they ranked fifth nationally in rushing yards after contact (a testament to the backs) and eighth in yards before contact (a testament to the line). Since 2021, they’re 38th and 35th, respectively, in those categories.

On the one hand, turning to the spread made sense as quarterback and receiver became their strength. “Why would you want Bryce Young to run the ball?” Saban asked. Ditto for Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones. But again, there’s a cost. When they needed to run the ball — in short-yardage situations, inside the red zone, late in games — “We weren’t very good at all,” Saban admitted.

“You got to understand, players kind of grow up in a culture,” he said. “So we had all these quarterbacks that are passing the ball, and we’re passing the ball, passing the ball, passing the ball. So you’re not developing that mentality of running the ball. Like when Derrick Henry was there, if they weren’t bloodying the other guy’s nose, they were pissed.

“When Greg McElroy played quarterback — no disrespect, he was a good college quarterback — but he didn’t have to win the game because he had good players around him. He just had to make good decisions as to who gets the ball. And we ran the ball. So maybe we need to be more that way.”

McElroy, now an analyst for ESPN, wasn’t insulted by Saban’s comments. He agreed, both with his role of facilitator and the need for the Tide to return to a more complementary style of offense.

He used the human body as an analogy for the team, with the quarterback as biceps.

“If you do curls every day and squat every other week,” he said, “your legs are going to become weaker and in time atrophy.”

That, he added, is what happened to Alabama, even if it was only subconsciously. He felt as if Young’s teammates started believing, with good reason, “Bryce will bail us out. Don’t worry: I don’t have to pay attention to the minute details the way I once did because this guy is going to make us right.”

For the first time since 2015, there is no heir apparent at quarterback. With Young gone, it’s down to a three-man race: Jalen Milroe, a dual-threat player with some accuracy issues who backed up Young last season; Ty Simpson, a former four-star recruit who redshirted his first season on campus; and Tyler Buchner, who started three games in two seasons at Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, drops remain a problem at receiver, where coaches are looking for someone who can stretch the field like in years past.

So don’t be surprised if Alabama feeds its running back corps, which is as deep as it’s been in a while, with returning backs Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Jam Miller and newcomers Richard Young and Justice Haynes — the No. 1- and No. 2-rated backs in the 2023 class, respectively.

While McElroy said the program is in a different place since Saban gave that “make his ass quit” speech, McElroy sees in new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees someone who buys into that philosophy. Rees, a former quarterback, once said that if he could go back in time, he would’ve played pulling guard.

“Tommy’s going to run the ball into a brick wall if he has to,” McElroy said.

Right guard Tyler Booker is loving Rees’ run-first approach.

“We want to make people quit this year,” Booker said. “And there’s no better way to do that than to run the ball.”

Not only that.

“We want guys to tap out,” Booker added. “We want guys to fear us.”

FORMER ESPN ANALYST David Pollack didn’t hold back on Saban’s account. Sitting next to Saban during halftime of the national championship game, with Georgia beating TCU 38-7 en route to back-to-back titles, Pollack said of his former school, “Georgia, obviously, we’ve seen from the past couple seasons now, really, they’ve taken hold of college football.”

While it’s dangerous to attempt reading a person’s body language — Saban seemed awkward and maybe even a little annoyed — at least one former Alabama player took it as an insult that would be revisited down the road.

Setting emotions aside, however, the moment also might have been informative for Saban.

“The worm is turning because everybody’s gotten so spread-oriented … that people who now are running the ball are having more success because the defense is more geared to stopping all that stuff than it is to stopping just the straight, old-fashioned running game,” Saban said this summer. “And I think that’s one thing that Georgia has done really, really well.”

Saban recalled playing in the national championship and being ahead of Georgia in the fourth quarter, 18-13. Despite missing starters John Metchie and Jameson Williams at wide receiver, Saban said they were “hanging in there” because the Bulldogs were unsuccessful throwing the ball. Georgia then took the lead on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett to AD Mitchell, and Saban said it was as if Smart and his staff decided, “OK, here we go.”

Georgia forced Alabama into a three and out and proceeded to ice the game with a seven-play drive that featured six runs and only one pass — a 15-yard touchdown to Brock Bowers that was the final play of the series.

“We couldn’t stop ’em,” Saban said.

Time will tell whether Alabama is able to make those stops again, but Saban, 71, is clearly trying to recapture the past by bringing back former assistant Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator this offseason. The 65-year-old assistant, who is decidedly old school, was on Saban’s inaugural 2007 Tide staff and again in 2013 and 2014.

Outside linebacker Dallas Turner, who projects to be one of the top defensive players in college football this season, said of Steele, “He’s trying to bring back the standard.”

Then he reconsidered.

“I wouldn’t say he’s trying to,” Turner said. “I’d say he is bringing back the standard.”

Turner expects a defense that’s more intent on creating pressure and negative plays. Alabama’s seven interceptions last season were the fewest of the Saban era.

Giving up those 52 points in last season’s loss to Tennessee was “sickening,” Turner said. He pointed to his empty ring finger when a reporter reminded him that no Alabama player has gone more than two seasons without winning a championship under Saban.

“Hearing all the critics, all the stuff about not winning a national championship, it’s all motivation,” the ‘backer said.

While it’s too early to say whether that will fuel the kind of prolonged accountability Saban is seeking to reestablish, so far players have said they’re not letting up. Just the other day, lineman Latham recalled, linebacker Deontae Lawson criticized a teammate for not staying behind for a post-practice workout.

“He was cussing him out like, ‘Yo, this ain’t optional. We do this as a group. This is who we are,’” Latham said. “So understand that’s the mentality we’re setting.”

Players have taken last season personally, Saban said, adding that he has been pleased with their effort and leadership this offseason.

“The transfer portal can work both ways,” he said. “Some of the guys that are energy vampires, I call ’em, they leave, so you don’t have the problems. I only think that we had one player leave the program that I can honestly say that guy belongs here; the other nine guys or however many, they really may be better off going someplace else. And it took away some of the distractions that are created by guys who don’t buy into doing things the way you want to do ’em.”

While Alabama might be young, replacing 15 players with starting experience, Saban said it’s a tradeoff because all that youth has contributed to a team that’s “hungry and [has] great energy and enthusiasm.”

How far that will take the Tide is anyone’s guess. While a lack of focus and intensity can doom a talented football team, no amount of focus and intensity can save a team that isn’t talented enough to win one-on-one matchups.

The only thing that seems certain on the eve of the season is this: Saban is happy to kick their ass across the finish line.

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