A chess match but one player has many more pieces to move | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
Tide Sports

Nuance is hard to interpret on a Zoom call but one could sense on Wednesday night that Nick Saban might be a bit frustrated.

The list of things that can frustrate the Alabama coach is fairly long but near the top is a tough preparation against a team that he perceives differently than the college football world in general does. Saturday's opponent Mississippi State fits that description. Three losses in which the Air Raid Offense has fizzled has consigned MSU to the scrap heap of 2020 college football. Saban isn’t so hasty.

When he visualizes on the opposite sideline is Mike Leach, a coach who is not going to stand still. There’s a hot theory going around that Arkansas defensive coordinator (and former Missouri coach) Barry Odom has solved the Air Raid, like a 14-year old with a video game cheat code: drop eight, pressure the quarterback with three and fill the defensive zones with more potential interceptors than K.J. Costello or Will Rogers can decipher  

Like many coaches during the pandemic, Alabama's Nick Saban took to Twitter to promote the use of masks and distancing as preventive tools. Saban even filmed a public service announcement in which he scolded Alabama's mascot for not using a mask.

"We're playing a team that's going to throw the ball 67 times in a game and we're going to have to play really, really well to keep them from scoring a lot of points,” Saban said. “Their pass offense is something that’s very different from what we see on a weekly basis, so there’s some very important preparation that goes into that. So, this is a very challenging week for us. We have a lot of respect for what these guys do on both sides of the ball. We’ve gotta keep our players zeroed in on what we have to do to have success in the game.”

The great success and also the great paradox of the last six years of Alabama football has been Saban’s ability to adapt, even in ways that don’t necessarily conform to what he would “like,” in strictly football terms. That’s been Leach’s greatest strength at all his coaching stops: forcing teams and opposing coaches out of their comfort zones. 

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“It’s very effective and certainly something that is a little bit different than what you see week in and week out,” Saban said. “I think you have to play a little bit differently against it. It’s very well-conceived. They do a really, really good job of coaching what they do, so you have to do a really good job for your players to be able to react to those things, anticipate what’s gonna happen, break on the ball, tackle well in space. There’s a lot of things that go into being able to play well against it because they’re very effective at how they execute it.”

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach has suffered back-to-back losses against Arkansas and Kentucky.

There is also a question of whether Alabama has eight defensive backs ready to go, should it come to that. The Crimson Tide secondary has gradually improved in the last three weeks, and no one listens to any Alabama complaints about depth or youth, but both are factors against what Saban calls “a really, really good system.”

“You have to tackle well in space when you do that, you have to break on the ball and you got to force them to sort of take some of the shorter throws and not make explosive plays which they’ve shown the capability of doing when you’re playing man-to-man concepts. I can’t tell you exactly why that is. But when you’re that spread out on the field and they’ve got five guys going out for a pass all the time and you’re horizontally stretched like you are, when you play man-to-man, somebody gets beat and you have an issue.”  

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt