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Alabama Finds That Sometimes There Is No Substitute For The Best Personnel Group

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Sometimes it is not best to have the best 11 on defense if a substitute or two is hurriedly getting in from the sidelines, setting up and trying to figure out the play.

In other words, fools rush in, and all too often, late subs on defense are not ready at the snap.

In Alabama’s 42-21 win Saturday over Ole Miss, the Tide defense stuck to its 11 or so guns as is and largely kept its situational specialists on the bench. Coach Nick Saban played that game of the perfect 11 every down last year against the Rebels, and it often failed miserably as his defense allowed a school record 647 yards in a 63-48 win.

A simpler approach worked better this time around, so do not be surprised if you see more of that the rest of the season, or perhaps in the postseason when the schedule stiffens. No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC) plays at Texas A&M (3-2, 0-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday on CBS as a 17.5-point favorite by FanDuel and is a sure bet to be favored by double digits in its remaining six regular season games after that.

“It appears to me they really vanilla-ed down — did not play a lot of different things defensively,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said this week, and he sounded disappointed. “They got their cleats in the grass much different than the year before when they were trying to line up and get things done. It seemed very different.”

Then they put their cleats all over Ole Miss’ offense.

It was a type of game that Saban, who will be 70 on Halloween, probably still prefers. He fought passionately for a rule change in 2014 to make it illegal for offenses to snap the ball before 10 seconds elapsed on the 25-second play clock to give defenses more time to adjust or match the offense’s substitutions.

Saban made that argument as a man who had been on the defensive side of the ball throughout his entire assistant coaching career and usually carried that attitude throughout most of his head coaching career. And suddenly, he couldn’t stop people as he was accustomed.

Then-South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, a former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback who never coached defense, called the 10-second time limit “The Saban Rule” at the time. And Saban lost as the NCAA tabled the defensive substitution rule idea in 2014.

Then Saban figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Fortunately, the previous January, he had hired budding offensive mastermind Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator, and he recruited more passing quarterbacks instead of game managers. The rest is Alabama offense history.

But against Kiffin Saturday, Saban turned back the clock.

“It seemed very different,” Kiffin said.

“We played the whole game in the same personnel group,” Saban said. “So, we didn’t get in all the substitution stuff that was a problem for us last year.”

Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding still subbed in players when Ole Miss subbed in players, but he stayed within the same group. And there were not mass substitutions. Subbing was done like it was back in the day — to keep players fresh, particularly the linemen.

“The whole game plan was a little bit different in terms of our approach,” Saban said. “Not to try to play as much situational football.”

If you have the best players — and Alabama has had those since about 2009 — keep them in the game and keep it simple.

Sophomore linebacker WIll Anderson Jr. and freshman linebacker Henry To’oTo’o rarely exited the game. Anderson had nine tackles with 2.5 for losses and a sack, while To’oTo’o had 10 stops.

“No. 31 (Anderson) dominated us whether it was coming down to the guard or tackle. Great player. I think 10 (To’oTo’o) has made them a lot better because he’s a great player, and it seems he gets them lined up really well, which has always been a key I feel to that defense,” Kiffin said.

“We didn’t try to play dime (two extra defensive backs) and have all these different packages because when they start converting, they go fast, and you can’t get them back out of the game,” Saban said Wednesday. “Or they try to go fast on third down, and you can’t get them in the game. So you basically have to go in the game and say, ‘When they sub, we can sub.’ But when we sub, there’s a consequence for that because you might get stuck with the people you don’t want in there. So we just played with the same personnel group – nickel – the whole time.”

Part of Saban’s argument for the 10-second rule in 2014 was that it could lead to injuries because there would be more plays with offenses not required to snap before 10 seconds elapsed. Fewer plays, fewer injuries. Makes sense.

However, fewer plays also means fewer opportunities for the opponent to score. Saban achieved that against Ole Miss by running the ball 50 times to just 26 passes by quarterback Bryce Young. Tailback Brian Robinson Jr. carried a whopping 36 times for 171 yards as if it was 1983. Alabama controlled the ball for 38 minutes to 22 by the Rebels, who ran 63 plays to 76 by Alabama.

A year ago, Ole Miss ran 86 plays to 71 by the Tide.

“We kept the ball a lot on offense, which was part of the plan,” Saban said. “This is the type of game that it needed to be. It’s not really how we want to play. It’s not how we’ve played all year, and it’s not going to be the style that we want to continue to play with.”

It sure worked, though. Florida ran 71 plays for 440 yards and 32 minutes of of possession to Alabama’s 331 yards on 63 plays in 28 minutes in the SEC opener last month, and the Tide escaped with a fortunate 31-29 win after the Gators missed an extra point and a two-point conversion.

“We have to do the things we have to do to try to win the game,” Saban said.

Watch Alabama keep the balls flying for recruiting purposes, but vanilla down when it must.

SATURDAY’S GAMES (All times central with FanDuel point spreads)

No. 13 Arkansas at No. 17 Ole Miss (6.5-point favorite), 11 a.m., ESPN; Vanderbilt at No. 20 Florida (38.5 favorite), 11 a.m., SEC Network; South Carolina at Tennessee (10.5 favorite), 11 a.m., ESPN2; No. 2 Georgia (16.5 favorite) at No. 18 Auburn, 2:30 p.m., CBS; North Texas at Missouri (17.5 favorite), 3 p.m., SEC Network; LSU at No. 16 Kentucky (3.5 favorite), 6:30 p.m., SEC Network; No. 1 Alabama (17.5 favorite) at Texas A&M (3-2, 0-2), 7 p.m., CBS.

GUILBEAU POLL

1.Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC). 2. Georgia (5-0, 3-0). 3. Kentucky (5-0, 3-0). 4. Florida (3-2, 1-2). 5. Arkansas (4-1, 1-1). 6. Ole Miss (3-1, 0-1). 7. Auburn (4-1, 1-0). 8. LSU (3-2, 1-1). 9. Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1). 10. Texas A&M (3-2, 0-2). 11. Tennessee (3-2, 1-1). 12. South Carolina (3-2, 0-2). 13. Missouri (2-3, 0-2). 14. Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-1).

STATS OF THE WEEK

Georgia continues to play defense as if it does not know what decade it is. The Bulldogs, aka Junkyard Dogs of the mid-1970s, are allowing less than a field goal and a safety a game as Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense at 4.6 a game. The next closest is Iowa State at 11.6 a game. Georgia also is No. 1 nationally in total defense (178.6 yards a game) with Iowa State also No. 2, but 54 yards away. And Georgia is No. 1 against the pass (110 yards a game) with Arkansas No. 2 (129 yards a game).

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Guys, I don’t want to simplify this, but they just whipped us physically. We couldn’t block ’em.”

-Arkansas coach Sam Pittman after 37-0 loss at No. 2 Georgia.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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