After a month of buildup, Alabama and Oklahoma have reached the point where philosophy gives way to physicality.
For most of the month, the comparison has been oversimplified over and over. Saturday night’s game has been sold as a “Southeastern Conference” philosophy versus a “Big 12 philosophy,” when the fact is, at least from the Alabama side, that Nick Saban — while he absolutely has core values about how he wants to play — has attained unparalleled success because he has not been shackled to one philosophy. I’m sure Lincoln Riley would love to have a great defense and the reason he doesn’t centers more on personnel than any philosophy.
Even on Friday, at their very last press conference before Saturday night’s CFP semifinal, Riley, the Oklahoma coach, was asked if he was “carrying the torch” for a “brand of football” that can “break the mold.” First, the questioner probably meant carrying the standard or the banner. “Carrying the torch” means that you have not gotten over an old love affair, or that you are chasing Frankenstein’s monster out of the village. (To be fair, it’s been a long week.)
At any rate, Riley declined the role of standard-bearer.
“We’re just here trying to win,” he said. “Just like we’ve tried to win all the other (games). It sounds like a broken record: ‘what’s your formula for winning?’ We’ve found ways to win games. We want to continue to get better on all three sides of the ball going into this game and into the future years of our program. There’s no doubt about that. But we found ways to win, and we’re going to try to do it again.”
Part of the issue has been Alabama’s decade of dominance. The long run of success causes some people to see Alabama 2018 as a version of Alabama 2011, or, given the South Florida setting, Alabama 2012. But over those six years, Alabama has changed philosophically, not in the attention to detail, but in the type of athlete that Saban has been recruiting. Defensive players are faster, quicker and more likely to make plays in space. Kyler Murray will test that, but he’s facing a different sort of defense than Cam Newton in 2010 or Johnny Manziel in 2012.
Offensively, Saban has never been locked into the conservative mode which has been attributed to him. He has invariably built offenses around the talent he has had, especially the quarterback talent. He has always coveted quarterbacks who could stretch the field vertically, going back to Rohan Davey and Jamarcus Russell at LSU.
Now, with Tua Tagovailoa, he has that — and all the other weapons. Again, that’s personnel, as much as philosophy. If Alabama can run at will — and some observers think they can do that against Oklahoma — then the Crimson Tide will run a lot. But there is no reason to think that is a philosophical decision, just trying to win a football game by the means at hand.
“It still comes down to your ability to execute,” Saban said, “whether it is offense, defense or special teams, that are going to create better situations for your team and not create extra opportunities for their team.”
That time has come. There may be more debate about “philosophy” afterwards — but what will matter is making plays.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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