Alabama's offense has evolved since last College Football Playoff game against Ohio State
Joshua Perry was an all-Big Ten linebacker on Ohio State’s defense when it faced Alabama in the College Football Playoff six years ago.
Watching this season’s iteration of the Crimson Tide, which meets the Buckeyes in the championship game on Monday, he notices similarities. There’s much of the same talent.
As Amari Cooper was a playmaking wide receiver in 2014, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith has emerged as an explosive deep threat this season.
Following Derrick Henry in the line of physical running backs is Najee Harris, who, like Henry, runs behind a formidable offensive line.
“The core of their offense is built on similar foundations,” said Perry, now an analyst at the Big Ten Network.
But there is a notable difference behind center. While then relying on a converted running back in Blake Sims, the Crimson Tide now is led by Mac Jones, who has put together one of the most efficient seasons by a quarterback in college football history.
“That’s where they’ve really leveled up,” Perry said.
The upgrade at quarterback comes as Alabama modernized its offense over the past decade, gradually installing elements of the spread offense that has overtaken the sport.
When the Crimson Tide won its first national championship under coach Nick Saban, in 2009, it was more comfortable lining up in the I-formation than in the shotgun.
A former defensive coordinator, Saban knew the challenges firsthand in stopping the wide-open offenses and increased tempo.
So his coaching staff, which most recently includes Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator, adopted many of the similar concepts and passing-game emphasis.
“Being a defensive coach, you know the things that are very difficult to stop when you play somebody else,” Saban said, “and you research some of those things as a staff and see if there's some way you can implement them into what you do.
“I think that's kind of what we've done through the years. We've had really good coaches on offense who could research and implement these things in a positive way.”
During the previous semifinal matchup between Ohio State and Alabama, his program was in the nascent stage of its shift under Lane Kiffin, who was in his first of three seasons as offensive coordinator.
During the 2014 season, Alabama passed the ball on 44.3% of its offensive snaps compared to 46.4% this season. Last season, Tua Tagovailoa’s last with the program, it passed 48.2% of the time.
OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, who a cornerbacks coach with the team when it last faced Alabama, noticed more elements to their aerial attack as he has watched film in preparation for Monday’s game.
“The evolution of the passing game and the passing attack and the variety of things that they do offensively is exceptional,” Coombs said. “Coach Sarkisian has done a great job of challenging the defense on every single play.
“I certainly think that they have really evolved from 2014. Great players, great coaches, great effort, play hard. But also now a lot more wrinkles to the offensive package.”
The evolution has been in tandem with recruiting premier quarterback prospects.
While Jones was rated as only a three-star recruit coming out of high school, previous starters such as Jalen Hurts and Tagovailoa were blue-chip passers. Tagovailoa was the top-ranked quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class.
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Freshman Bryce Young, who is exected to be the heir apparent to Jones, was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2020 class.
But as much as there is arm talent in the recent Alabama passers, Perry said their knowledge of the playbook has been as instrumental in the team's success and the ability score nearly 50 points per game.
"When you have a guy who you don't trust his knowledge of the game, when you get into situations, it's hard to make adjustments, and it's hard to call plays on a whim," Perry said. "When you have a guy who has a firm understanding of football and knowledge of the playbook, you can call different plays that are maybe deeper in the playbook and you can trust that your quarterback is going to understand why you're calling that play.
"That helps the execution of the offense. I really do think that's a big difference, a knowledgeable quarterback who has the measurables and has all of the attributes you would want out a quarterback, but the intelligence takes it to the next level."