KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Alabama coach Nick Saban has finally relented, albeit reluctantly. He said college football has officially become an offensive game.
“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Saban told ESPN on Friday. “It’s just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them [in a 41-24 Alabama win]. That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game.
“I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”
And how’s that sit with Saban, one of the foremost defensive minds in the game and the architect of some of the more dominant defenses in college football over the past two decades?
“I don’t like it,” he said with a wry smile. “But we just have to make sure we have an offense that’s that way and that explosive, which we have.”
The No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide, who face Tennessee on Saturday at Neyland Stadium, have scored 35 or more points in each of their past 17 games going back to the start of the 2019 season. They’ve scored more than 40 points in 13 of those 17 games. Saban noted that the teams winning last week in the SEC averaged 33.2 points per game.
“It’s hard to coach defense now, because there are so many run-pass concepts in what everybody does,” Saban said. “I mean, it’s really, really hard to coach the secondary … because you get so many mismatches back there.”
While Alabama ranks second nationally in scoring offense (48.5 points per game) and fifth in total defense (561.3 yards per game), the Tide are 37th in scoring defense (28.8 points per game) and tied for 61st in total defense (458.3 yards per game).
“We’re not very good on defense, average at best, but I think we will get better,” Saban said, adding that to be elite on defense requires being especially good in the secondary.
“We’re going to get there, but this group [in the secondary] doesn’t have enough experience. You’ve got to go through growing pains with these guys because they see so much stuff now in college football. We see something different every week.”
Saban said part of the difficulty in developing elite defensive backs and having them ready early in their career is that most of the best athletes and skill players are playing offense now in high school and that very few play on defense. In fact, Saban said he worked senior receiver DeVonta Smith at cornerback in preseason camp to have him ready in an emergency situation.
“None of these skill guys grow up playing defense, from junior high, high school or whatever,” Saban said. “So all of the best athletes end up playing offense. One of the best corners on our team is [Smith]. This year in camp, I trained him at corner. He can cover anybody, and he never played defense in his life because he was on the offensive side. You don’t think Jaylen Waddle would be a good defensive back?”
Saban, who turns 69 this month, said the false positive scare last week when he initially tested positive for COVID-19 only reinforced how much he enjoys coaching and being out there on the field with the players.
But anybody thinking he might have gotten a taste of retirement when he was isolating at home for those three days might want to think again.
“I did exactly everything I would have if I were in the office every day,” Saban said. “I was in meetings with the players on Zoom, Zoomed in on the special teams meeting just like I was in my regular seat. I was in the defensive backs’ meeting, the defensive meeting and on the phone with coaches during practice. And when practice was over, we’d watch the tape on defense, offense and special teams.”
Saban joked that his wife, Terry, asked, “Is this what you do every day for 14 hours?”
Then later that evening, she asked Saban if he wanted to take a walk to the lake.
“I said, ‘No, I’ve got a meeting in 15 minutes,'” Saban said.
Saban said the hardest part was waiting for the test results before the Georgia game. He needed three consecutive negative PCR tests, per SEC guidelines, to deem the first test a false positive, which Saban said Friday was an antigen rapid test.
“I was just praying I would be able to get there,” Saban said. “I would have felt horrible if the team didn’t play well or if we had lost the game because I wasn’t there, not that we would have lost because I wasn’t there, but I would have felt that way. The players and the coaches did an outstanding job of not letting it affect them during the week.”
Saban had warned the players that this season was going to be filled with disruptions and to be braced for them. But he never envisioned he would be one of those disruptions.
“I told them, ‘This is going to be the norm, that every week something’s going to happen. Somebody’s going to test positive,'” Saban said. “So when we had the team meeting on Wednesday after I initially tested positive, I said, ‘You guys know there’s got to be something damn sure up for me not to be there.’ But I said, ‘This is one of those disruptions that I was talking about, and just because it’s me, we’re still going to manage it.’
“Everybody in the building did a great job.”