In the never-ending game of off-season chess between coaches – there really is no off-season – Nick Saban has struck a potentially game-changing victory both for his team, and against his new rival, Gus Malzahn. If stealing Rashaan Evans was an insult to Auburn, then Saban’s latest off-field maneuvers are an injury.
The Tide defense, among other SEC defenses, struggled at times in 2013 against the spread offense, specifically the Auburn Tigers. Auburn’s up-tempo spread offense moved at a pace that prohibited effective substitutions, quickly tired the defense, and according to Nick Saban, “guys have a much greater chance at getting hurt.” It also got the Tigers to the BCS Championship game.
So what is the highest profile coach in NCAA football to do to level the playing field against a new coach whose offense your defense could not slow down? Being Nick Saban, you recruit your tail off, taking all of those championships and their clout out for a walk among the nation’s top talent and build what looks like the best Tide defense of all time on paper. Saban checked that item off his to-do list last Wednesday by stealing Rashaan Evans and having a great National Signing Day.
What else? Well a coach with his clout, seeing player safety emerge on the leading edge of public awareness, could also pick up that flag and wave it like crazy about those pesky spread offenses that gave his defense fits. Maybe he could try to get a rule change or two to slow those spread offenses down just enough for his talented defenses to catch up. Saban can now check that item off of his to-do list also.
In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for student-athlete safety reasons or modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rules change, not because your team was victimized by an opposing team’s offensive strategy. Nick knows this well.
So in an NCAA non-rules change year like this one, when the NCAA Football Rules Committee is convening to adjust the Targeting Rule in the spirit of player safety, why not introduce your own pet bill to include defensive substitutions? For player safety of course. Giving his defense an opportunity to substitute when facing those dangerous no huddle offenses will surely keep players safer. Nick is the master. Since it’s in the name of player safety, of course the NCAA fielded Saban’s request, and then seconded it and circulated it for a vote.
Nick had this to say to the NCAA Rules Committee about the dangers of the spread/no-huddle offense:
“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety,” Saban said. “The team gets in the same formation group. You can’t substitute defensive players. You go on a 14-, 16- or 18-play drive and they’re snapping the ball as fast as you can go, and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can’t even get lined up. That’s when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt … when they’re not ready to play. I think that’s something that can be looked at. It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game. More and more people are going to do it.”
At least Saban didn’t mention any names specifically in the above quote, but he may as well have laid the responsibility for his defense’s fatigue and confusion in the second half of the Iron Bowl right at Gus Malzahn’s feet. Hands-on-your-hips fatigue is an injury now? That is the whole crux of that offensive scheme – create confusion and fatigue with increased tempo, thus preventing defensive substitutions to ultimately achieve favorable personnel match-ups. It’s about exposing your foe’s inferior conditioning late in the game. It was executed masterfully by Gus Malzahn and the Tigers in 2013.
Troy Calhoun of the NCAA Rules Committee, helpless to do otherwise apparently, took up Saban’s call to arms for player safety and had this to say about the proposal:
“This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute,” Calhoun said. “As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes.”
“(The NCAA) just felt like it was time.” Huh. This is clearly a proactive measure by the NCAA to prevent future injuries, because one would be hard-pressed to discover injuries caused by the no-huddle offense to date. Suffering continuous scoring by Auburn in the Iron Bowl of 2013 was the only injury to Alabama that was apparently suffered by anyone on the Alabama sideline in that game due to the hazardous no-huddle offense.
Under this rule proposal by Saban and now the NCAA, the offense will not be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before the play clock reaches 29 seconds, a 5-yard, delay-of-game penalty will be assessed. Under current rules, defensive players are not guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense substitutes first. This part of the rule will remain in place in scenarios where the play clock starts at 25 seconds.
This rule change will suit opposing defenses, like the Tide’s, just fine. Perfectly actually. Nick stated his purpose clearly, “(the spread offense/no-huddle) obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game.” If successful in his campaign, he will indeed bring those high flying offenses back down to earth, back down to an offensive output that will not exceed his own.
Will Muschamp, Bret Bielema, and Steve Spurrier were also quoted as being proponents of slowing down the no-huddle attacks, while Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze are against it, for obvious reasons. Bret Bielema, Arkansas head coach, chimed in, “Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there’s times where you can’t get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives,” Bielema said. “That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real.”
This is a blatant attempt by Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide to massage the game to address any vulnerability on their team. If successful, it will be a masterful stroke indeed, but will also be seen as using player safety as the thin veil to make his team more competitive. Using player safety to advance your win percentage and personal football legacy leaves a very sour taste in your mouth when this initiative is stripped bare and exposed for the shameless agenda item that it truly is.
While this initiative seems to be gaining some momentum from many of the SEC’s defenses – victim’s of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tiger spread offense in 2013 – all rules proposals must be approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which will discuss the football rules changes March 6. The proposed changes are being circulated for membership comment.
So, his is not a foregone conclusion…yet. However March 6 is approaching quickly, and this is a proposal that should be closely watched by all Tiger fans that have hopes of another NCAA Championship run in 2014.