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The path to beating Alabama was always simple (but not easy)

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Nick Saban’s losses don’t have many common traits. Here’s one.

Nick Saban Mark Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

Every Alabama loss under Nick Saban is a national event. There will be one per season, give or take. It’ll upend the Playoff picture, and it’ll further cause a ruckus because it’s Alabama.

A Tide loss is a chance for every person to explain how this proves they were right all along. Right about what? It doesn’t matter.

There were a million declarations about how to beat Alabama. Most of them didn’t hold up well.

It’s not about whether you have a dual-threat QB or a pocket passer. This theory had a long run. “Nick Saban really struggles against dual-threat QBs!” someone would say.

“But he just held Dak Prescott to half a yard per carry in an easy win,” someone would respond.

“Really struggles!” the first person would repeat.

The dual-threat label meant less as the decade wore on, when even “pro-style” passers were ripping off explosive runs. But the QBs who beat Bama spanned the stylistic gamut, and some barely took off at all.

It’s not about committing to airing the ball out or running it. In this span, Bama-beaters threw between 16 and 57 passes (an average of 30) against the Tide. They ran between 30 and 52 times (an average of 40).

They’ve ranged between throwing on 24% and 59% of their offensive snaps (an average of 42% passes, roughly in line with national rates).

So it’s really not about running the triple option. Then-FCS team Georgia Southern did infuriate Saban with the triple in 2011, but the Eagles didn’t win. The same’s true of The Citadel in 2018, which was tied with the Tide at halftime.

Bama has never lost to a conventional triple option team under Saban, in fact, though the Tide have had problems with RPOs and other plays that are, effectively, triple options. So have all other football teams.

It’s not about going up-tempo or shortening the game. Clemson ran 99 plays in 2016’s National Championship. South Carolina ran 57 in a 2010 upset.

Not surprisingly, all four of the most tempo-heavy Bama losses of the decade happened in 2015 or later, with three of four between 2017 and 2019. But Clemson’s 2018 championship win only featured 63 Tiger snaps, partly because they were killing clock.

It’s not about shutting down any specific part of Bama’s offense. The Tide have thrown for anywhere between 4.5 and 12.9 yards per attempt in their losses. The average is 7.9. They’ve ran for anywhere between 1.2 and 6.5, an average of 4.2.

You likely have to limit Bama in at least one facet, but which? Maybe try for both.

It’s not about who just had a bye and who didn’t. Some Bama fans suggest the SEC has tried to trip their team up via the schedule. Six of the 15 teams to beat Bama in the 2010s had a bye the week before. In three cases, Bama also had a bye, and in two others, Bama played a SoCon Challenge team the week before.

Only 2010 South Carolina beat Bama after a bye week during which Bama faced an FBS team.

It’s not even about whether you get some Absurd Lucky Bullshit. It would be easy to think that, given Alabama has lost games because of stuff like this ...

... and this ...

... and this ...

... but wild moments aren’t enough on their own.

The Kick Six doesn’t matter without the RPO seconds earlier.

Ole Miss was plus-five in turnovers in 2015 and still needed that all-time bonkers TD to win by six. If getting the lucky stuff to go your way were really the key, then Bama’s unbelievably many missed field goals would’ve cost the Tide far more games than they did.

There is one common through line in Bama’s losses, though. You need That Dude who can win one-on-one matchups.

You need an 11 who can hang with Bama’s 11, obviously.

But since your 11 are highly unlikely to outperform Bama’s 11, you also need one of your 11 who can truly dominate one of their 11.

Typically, that’s going to be a quarterback, a receiver, or both. If you can take over the trenches, then you’re incredible. But holding ground there can be enough, if you have somebody special outside.

While there’s no statistical backing to the idea you have to throw a ton to beat Bama, you do have to do it well. Teams that have beaten the Tide have tended to get god-mode QB or WR performances.

The best place to expose that matchup is on the perimeter, where there’s more grass and fewer bodies.

Saban knows that’s a good idea for you. He likes to put a safety right on top of opposing receivers to make a “cone” with a cornerback, and he often leans on cover 7, a philosophy he concocted with Bill Belichick that limits the vulnerability of any one defender. (This, by writer Cameron Soran, is a great explanation.)

Is it man or is it zone? A bit of both, and the players running it are probably better than yours, as are the four guys still rushing up front.

From 2018’s game at Ole Miss.

But good offensive coaches with elite QBs and/or receivers have found ways to isolate them against one blue-chip defender, rather than three of them.

This is the connecting line for more Bama losses than anything else.

2010 South Carolina got a 17-of-20, 201-yard, three-TD performance from Stephen Garcia, who had 10.1 yards per throw and a 209 rating. Seven of those completions, 127 of those yards, and two of those TDs went to Alshon Jeffery. The Gamecocks couldn’t run against Bama’s front (37 carries for 110 yards), but they had a Pro Bowl receiver who was better than the cornerbacks and safeties trying to cover him, and a decisive QB throwing to him.

The safety being beaten there: high four-star Mark Barron, a future #7 overall pick and longtime NFL starter. Future #17 overall pick and longtime NFL starter Dre Kirkpatrick is the corner covering Jeffery, five yards behind the action.

2010 LSU got three catches for 125 yards and a TD out of #1 WR recruit Rueben Randle in a 24-21 win. Randle’s biggest play – a 75-yard TD – came against zone coverage, but was nonetheless the product of a good receiver reading a Bama safety and out-running him, the part a lot of wideouts can’t do:

The guy being outrun: Barron, who – despite happening to have two non-stellar moments in this post – was an FWAA All-American this season and a consensus All-American the next.

2010 Auburn had one-man championship Cam Newton, and Alabama did not.

2011 LSU <beeping sound> file not found. Let’s just put it like this: If neither team has a Dude who can win one-on-ones against NFL defenders, then just pick the best defensive player on the field and let him guide you, perhaps a Tyrann Mathieu. Or you could rely on a sublime individual effort from a punter like Brad Wing.

2012 Texas A&M had Manziel amid a Heisman season. (In this way, his duck-and-chuck touchdown was not totally random.) The Aggies also had a senior receiver, Ryan Swope, who qualified for That Dude status in his third season of 800+ yards. He had 11 catches for 111 yards and a score. Watch him navigate three future NFL DBs on one play:

A young Mike Evans was helpful, too. The next year, he’d tear up Bama in a near-win.

2013 Oklahoma doesn’t really fit, but I feel fine shrugging it off on the same basis Alabama fans do: this was just the Sugar Bowl, so Bama was disinterested.

2014 and ‘15 Ole Miss had a bunch of Those Dudes. This would get Ole Miss into big trouble, but after it got Bama into big trouble. Ole Miss’ winning touchdown in 2015 was #1 WR recruit Laquon Treadwell taking Bama cornerback Cyrus Jones (a high-four-star future NFL player) to school on a perfect ball from Chad Kelly:

2014 Ohio State had elite deep threat Devin Smith (two catches for 87 yards) and peak Ezekiel Elliott (20 runs, 230 yards). This might be the starkest cast of Alabama running into a handful of skill players who were flatly a lot better than their defenders were. Eventual NFL receptions king Michael Thomas was Ohio State’s second-leading receiver and had a circus touchdown catch on a trick play, too:

Jones is the man being picked on here, too.

2016 Clemson had all-time That Dude Deshaun Watson and fellow That Dude Mike Williams. Watson was 36-of-56 for 420 yards, three TDs, and no picks, while Williams caught eight of those for 94 yards and a touchdown. Bama was outgunned on the outside, something that would come up two years later, when ...

2018 Clemson had new That Dude Trevor Lawrence (the top-rated recruit in the history of ratings) and future first-round-ish WRs Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross destroying Bama DBs all night. Ross was especially brutal. The Tide were the better team for much of the game, finishing with comparable yardage and more first downs, but Clemson’s big guns owned them on third downs.

Bama cornerback Josh Jobe was a four-star. He’ll play in the NFL some day. He couldn’t defend that, and counterparts Patrick Surtain Jr. and Saivion Smith couldn’t stop Higgins.

2019 LSU had superweapon Heisman winner Joe Burrow, Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase, and a perfectly designed system. And LSU made several plays like this one, where tight end Thaddeus Moss (Randy’s son, obviously) made catches for which there’s no counter:

Trevon Diggs, a four-star corner, senior leader on Bama’s defense, and eventual NFL player himself, had Moss blanketed. It did not matter.

The pass-heaviness of this list reveals another point.

You’re likelier to beat Bama by throwing well than running well, partly because you’re probably not gonna run very well anyway.

That doesn’t mean throwing more or springing an air raid plan. But 10 of the 15 losses saw opponents average at least 7.9 yards per throw. Only six of the 15 featured Bama’s opponent running for more than 3.6 yards a carry.

I left a few Auburn games off the list, but Auburn is different.

The Tigers do not like to use conventional means to win. They are college football’s preeminent ruiner of seasons, both their own and their opponents’.

They’re the only team that could’ve pulled off the Kick Six.

They also, thanks to Gus Malzahn’s extreme high school tendencies, are the only team that would’ve finished off Alabama by lining up their punter at wide receiver.

Same with the time 2017 Bama puked on itself at Jordan-Hare Stadium, losing in a hail of fumbles and bad snaps.

Unless you can rely on your Auburn-ness, your best chance against Bama is to hammer a favorable one-on-one matchup.

You’ll also need linemen who can protect your QB long enough for your receiver to beat a future NFL defensive back.

Your defense also has to play well enough against a bunch of five-stars to make any of your points matter at all.

Other than that, it’s easy.