NCF Nation: Jim McElwain

Ranking Nick Saban's coaching tree

December, 11, 2013
Nick Saban's name is sure to come up in every high-profile coaching job that opens until he decides to retire.

That's just the nature of the business when you've had the kind of success Saban has had with four national championships in the last 11 years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama coach Nick Saban has several protégés who are now head coaches, including Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Florida's Will Muschamp and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.
He won't be playing for a national title this season, but one of his protégés will -- Florida State's Jimbo Fisher.

In fact, it's been an eventful season all the way around for the Saban coaching tree.

Since we're all into power rankings this time of year, let's roll out the power rankings for the Saban coaching tree coming out of this season. In other words, those guys who have coached under Saban at some point in the college ranks and have gone on to be head coaches either in major college football or the NFL.

1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: We'll go with Fisher at No. 1 on this list since he has the No. 1 Seminoles unbeaten and headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game to face Auburn. It's their first trip to the national title game since the 2000 season. Fisher is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. His Seminoles have been dominant this season. They've won all 13 of their games by 14 or more points and 12 of their 13 games by 27 or more points. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-04.

2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State head coach: Another finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, Dantonio has Michigan State in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season and led the Spartans to a school-record 12 wins this season. This will be their seventh straight bowl appearance. Dantonio was Saban's secondary coach at Michigan State from 1995-99.

3. Jim McElwain, Colorado State head coach: In his second season at Colorado State, McElwain has the Rams in a bowl game for the first time since the 2008 season. They will face Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. McElwain was a part of two national championship teams at Alabama under Saban as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator from 2008-11.

4. Pat Shurmur, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator: Now in his first season with the Eagles, Shurmur was the Cleveland Browns head coach from 2011-12. He coached under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-97 as the Spartans' tight ends coach.

5. Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots offensive coordinator: This is McDaniels' second season as the Patriots' offensive coordinator. He was the Denver Broncos' head coach from 2009-10 and was a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State in 1999.

6. Will Muschamp, Florida head coach: After a breakthrough second season at Florida and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, Muschamp's Gators suffered through a dismal 4-8 season this year that was marred by a litany of injuries. It was Florida's first losing season since 1979. The Gators lost their last seven games, including a home loss to Georgia Southern. It goes without saying that Year No. 4 will be a critical one for Muschamp, whose Gators have struggled on offense. Muschamp coached under Saban at LSU as the linebackers coach in 2001 and defensive coordinator from 2002-04. He was also Saban's assistant head coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2005.

7. Derek Dooley, Dallas Cowboys receivers coach: Now in his first season with the Cowboys, Dooley was the head coach at Tennessee from 2010-12. The Vols suffered through losing seasons all three years and managed just five SEC wins, leading to Dooley's firing. Dooley was the head coach at Louisiana Tech for three years prior to his stint at Tennessee. He coached under Saban at LSU from 2000-04 as tight ends coach and then running backs coach. From there, he went with Saban to the Miami Dolphins and coached tight ends before getting the Louisiana Tech head job in 2007.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jim McElwain was searching for the right word to describe it.

"It" being the way the offense is run at the University of Alabama. It was clear in talking with those around the program that the overarching direction of the offense is determined by head coach Nick Saban, whose meticulous, controlling nature has been well documented.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
UA Athletic PhotographyOC Doug Nussmeier has continued to build on Alabama's success on offense. The Crimson Tide's offensive style under Nussmeier has changed very little, if at all, from previous seasons.
But calling the offense Saban's alone was too wide of a stretch for McElwain, who served as his offensive coordinator from 2008-11 and winning two national championships before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State.

"Back when I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to coach there, we sat down and he kind of gave me kind of a philosophy, if that makes sense, a thought process, or a vision, I guess, maybe," he said on the eve of his team's trip to face the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

"The big thing was to figure out what you had and then put it together based upon what team you have," McElwain said.

Unlike many teams in college football that are strictly ground-and-pound or run-and-gun depending upon who is calling the plays, Alabama's offense has been more adaptive, more fluid based upon the strengths of its roster. There's never been an "Air Raid" type of offense under Saban, and there's never been much of a "three yards and a cloud of dust" attack, either, no matter what the national perception has been in the past.

It's been productive, averaging 30 or more points per game in each of the past five seasons. What Saban insists upon is balance and limiting turnovers, according to McElwain.

Though the coaches running the offense have changed multiple times (seven coaching changes to be exact, including three different coordinators), the offense itself has never shifted dramatically. As Saban said upon hiring current offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, "this is Alabama's offense" and that means a power running game, controlling the clock and passing enough to keep the defense honest.

"Are we wholesale changing our offense and going to a whole new system, a whole new terminology?" Saban asked shortly after Nussmeier was hired. "Everybody in the building's got to learn a whole new system because one guy's changed? We're not doing that."

Nussmeier was only half-kidding when he said he wouldn't do anything new at all from the year before, just "change the order we ran them." But the truth is that from Major Applewhite to Jim McElwain to Doug Nussmeier, the style of the offense has changed very little, if at all. Saban's been the one holdover, a known commodity as a defensive mastermind but an unknown in his ability to form an offensive identity. He just happens to look at it from a different perspective.

"What he does is he has a great knack of looking at film, which is what he does, looking at film of the opponent's defense, and really helping you kind of understand what they're trying to take away based on what they're doing," McElwain said. "Inevitably the pieces he brings in, saying you may want to look at something in this design or something like that, they work."

Under Saban, Alabama has never thrown the ball more than its passed. Sixty-three percent of plays were runs in 2008, and that number barely changed over the years to where last season the Tide ran 63.5 percent of the time. The only time UA ever broke the 250 passing yards per game mark was in 2010 when the Tide started off the season as title favorites only to lose three games and wind up in the Capital One Bowl.

There's the idea that Alabama's offense has opened up dramatically and become more explosive in recent seasons, but the numbers show that to be untrue. Instead, it's been same old, same old, as the offense actually had fewer plays of at least 20 yards per game last season than it did the year before (5.43 to 5.46). Points per game went up, but only slightly (38.7 from 34.8 the year before).

"They made the transition very smooth," former UA center Barrett Jones recalled, saying later that it was hard to see McElwain leave going into his senior season. "They did a really good job of letting Coach Nuss bring in some new ideas, but not changing too much because, honestly, it wasn't really broken. We kept a lot of our same verbiage, our same calls, same principals, and just added a few new things, a few wrinkles. … You hardly had to learn any new stuff."

Said McElwain: "I can see the plays and probably what they were called within the system. I think the system is sound fundamentally. I think you pick your places to take your shots. The thing I see is maybe more explosive playmakers on the outside from a collective group than there were before.

"Yet you always have that dynamic that if you're going to load the box, you're going to have guys out there that will make it hurt. And then if you cover those guys, you've got those runners in the backfield with a dominant offensive line, which really helps. I mean, pick your poison."

It's the same offense McElwain would like to run at Colorado State, though he admittedly doesn't quite have the parts to do it. He had to laugh at the talent Saban's assembled through back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes, saying, "If you've got any [running backs] you want to send our way, I'll take them."

McElwain would love to use Saban's blueprint at CSU, but at the same time, he knows that won't be easy, saying, "The one thing I know is that I can't be him -- no one can."

The continuity Saban's been able to establish at Alabama has been second to none, never missing a beat when coaches leave or star players are drafted into the NFL. The production on offense has remained as steady as the tide. McElwain credited that to his unwavering vision, which extends to both sides of the football.

There's a plan in Saban's mind, and it's never changed in seven years at Alabama.

"To me, he's the whole package," McElwain said. "He's hired great coaches who understand what he wants and then go out and execute it."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban slipped into another soap-box moment this week when he took to the podium to describe how his secondary had played so poorly against Texas A&M.

"The players have to do what the coaches do, and that's the point," he said before launching into a narrative about civil disobedience, wrapped around what's becoming a borderline obsession with dog owners failing to keep their pets on a leash (he used the same "Nobody wants to be obedient now" rant the week before the game as well).

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/David J. PhillipNick Saban is hoping his players got the message after Alabama's defense struggled to stop Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M last Saturday.
What Saban's argument boiled down to was a four-word sentence nobody wants to hear: I told you so.

“No matter how many times you tell someone, ‘Look, son. Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot,’ ” he said, lamenting the fact that they always have to see for themselves. “Once they touch it and get burned, then they start saying, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll listen to this guy. Maybe Dad knows what he’s talking about.’ So, I think a lot of lessons were learned in this game.

"So now, when you say, 'Don't drop your hands when you're playing bump and run,' and the guy does it 15 times in a game against me, now you'll see why you were telling him. If you've told a guy 100 times to get in the middle of the field and he doesn't get there, now you can see what happens when he doesn't get there. No different than touching the stove. Same old thing."

Alabama ought to have learned its lesson against Texas A&M. The memory should be seared into every player's skull by now. If the game didn't do it, then surely the film review did.

Though Johnny Manziel and the Aggies are certainly one of the best offenses in the country, that does little to explain the staggering inefficiency of the defense as whole. The same defense that allowed the fewest plays of 10 or more yards per game (8.42) and the fewest passing touchdowns (eight) a season ago was gashed for five passing touchdowns and 20 plays of 10 or more yards as Texas A&M racked up the most total yards allowed by an Alabama defense in school history (628).

The Manziel-to-Mike Evans combination couldn't be stopped. "It's a combination of both guys' strengths that make a difficult matchup," Saban tried to explain, citing Manziel's speed and Evans' overwhelming size. Saban used at least three different defensive backs on Evans, not counting the double coverage over the top, and still, the 6-foot-5 sophomore racked up a career high 279 yards receiving. Manziel was Manziel again, evading the grasp of pass-rushers left and right while exploiting every hole in the secondary to throw for a career-high 464 yards.

And that was supposed to be the game Alabama's defense had figured out, aided by an offseason of study and an extra bye week to prepare.

Instead, the Crimson Tide were torched on national television and sent back to the drawing board in search of answers.

"We've tried to play the more experienced guys," Saban said, "especially in these first two games, because they're tough games. Everybody's had an opportunity.

"Now, we're just going to ... need to compete better. And it's not just the corners now, the safeties weren't where they were supposed to be in the game some, too."

With starting cornerback Deion Belue questionable to play against Colorado State this weekend, the competition is wide open. Saban said two freshmen are in position to see the field more, and based on practice, it looks like Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson are the two in line for an early opportunity. Bradley Sylve, a redshirt sophomore, has been mentioned as another possible replacement in the cornerback rotation as well.

Geno Smith, who started at nickel as a freshman late last season, was supposed to be a part of that mix, but after being arrested for a DUI during the preseason, suspended for a game and sent to the bottom of the depth chart, even he's fighting to get back into the mix. For now, veteran Jarrick Williams is holding down his spot just fine.

"Geno's got to beat somebody out. He lost his job," Saban said. "Jarrick's played really well. So, I mean, nobody has a rite of passage here just because you played in two games last year, 'I'm guaranteed my job.' If you do the right things and you play well, nobody gets your job."

In fact, Williams might be the only bright spot in the Alabama secondary after last week's game. He held down the slot receiver well and had it not been for his tipped pass, Vinnie Sunseri's interception return for a touchdown never would have happened.

"He's been unbelievable," Sunseri said. "Jarrick has done exactly what we've asked him to do. He's had great coverage, been really physical at the point of attack and just been a real sound defensive player at that star position. I can't express how happy I am for him to get the opportunity and take advantage of it like he's been able to."

Williams, for his part, tried to stay positive about the game, saying that the mental errors and mistakes against Texas A&M were "nothing we can't fix." Asked whether the game was a letdown, he said simply, "No, sir."

"I think we're just going to get on there and keep on fighting."

Saban may still be fuming over the coverage breakdowns and big plays, but the players seemed to have moved on.

CSU coach Jim McElwain has, too. The former Alabama offensive coordinator went up against Saban's defense in practice from 2008-11, and he's not buying any theory of a downward trend. In his mind, Texas A&M was merely an outlier.

"People are going to say whatever about the Texas A&M yardage, but there's going to be a lot of people who give yardage up to that guy," he said, citing the one they call Johnny Football. "Yet, they were in position numerous times, right? So I truly believe that was simply a little blip on the radar."
It was not an impressive first weekend for the Pac-12.

Sure, USC and Oregon fans are sitting pretty, satiated on the wide range of talents their teams put on display Saturday. And eight of the 11 teams that played the opening weekend won. A win is a win.

Though, of course, we know that not completely to be true.

Arizona State fans feel much better about their victory over an overmatched foe than Stanford fans do with theirs. Washington fans are probably less confident of the Huskies' upset hopes at LSU on Saturday after watching their team get statistically matched by San Diego State.

But Stanford and Washington fans certainly feel better than those of Washington State, California and Colorado. Those are the three that tanked. They entered the first weekend of the season with high hopes but then they face-planted.

Washington State, it must be remembered, was nearly a two touchdown underdog at BYU. And the Cougars of Provo looked like a Top-25 team. Still, WSU fans were hopeful that the positive momentum of the Mike Leach hiring would propel them to an upset. Or, at least, a respectable performance. Didn't happen. And the Cougars of Provo covered big in a 30-6 victory.

The numbers were bad: No touchdowns, for one. BYU outgained WSU 426 yards to 224 yards. The Cougs rushed for minus-5 yards; 224 yards used to be an average half for Leach's passing offense at Texas Tech.

And, perhaps most concerning, was the feeling-sorry-for-ourselves looks the WSU players had on the sideline, as noted by Leach.

Still, it's possible that Cal and Colorado fans feel worse. They both lost as favorites. Cal was opening up its fancy remodeled stadium. Colorado was trying to keep in check a sorta-rival that has generated offseason buzz by hiring Jim McElwain away from Alabama.

Upsets happen. And there are many kinds. The best kind are the worst kind. Your team just implodes in a flurry of turnovers and penalties. It plays its worst. Those are the best kind of upsets to suffer because you can correct mistakes.

The worst kind are simple: Your team gets physically whipped at the line of scrimmage by a team that wasn't supposed to do that. The underdog either proves superior or it just wants it more. Either is a terrible thing to entertain.

Nevada shouldn't outgain California 450 yards to 365 as a visiting team. It shouldn't outrush the Bears 220 yards to 110. What that simply means is the Wolf Pack won the battle up front. And that's the worst thing that can happen to a team.

Same goes for Colorado. It was outgained 298 yards to 245 but, most notably, outrushed 125 yards to 58.

Fifty-eight! The Buffs, trying to become a physical team as they were during the program's heyday, rushed for 2.0 yards per carry. Yuck.

Ergo, McElwain, taking over one of three teams the Buffs beat last year, became the first Colorado State coach to win his debut in 42 years.

So, yeah, Cougs, Bears and Buffs, you guys should feel bad. You didn't just lose. You lost ugly.

The only good news we have for you is a not surprising sports platitude: One game doesn't make a season, one way or another. Heck, the year Colorado won the national title, splitting it with Georgia Tech in 1990, the Buffaloes opened 1-1-1.

Florida State lost its 1988 opener 31-0 to Miami but finished 11-1 and won the Sugar Bowl. It lost its first two games in 1989, to Southern Miss and Clemson, but then won 10 in a row and beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

Again, one game doesn't make a season.

That said, 107 FBS teams started their seasons with optimism last week. Half of them are now less optimistic, some significantly so.

And Cal, Colorado and Washington State fall in that latter group.
Colorado ended last season with a little bit of momentum, closing out the 2011 campaign by winning two out of three -- including a big-time upset of Utah in Salt Lake City. That momentum was halted a bit in the spring with the loss of wide receiver Paul Richardson, an A-list playmaker who surely would have been the go-to guy for Colorado's to-be-named-later quarterback.

But folks in Boulder feel the pendulum has swung back their way yet again with the arrival of Jordan Webb -- an experienced quarterback who brings some much-needed maturity to the position. The Buffs will look to carry that momentum into Saturday when they face in-state rival Colorado State in Denver.

It's a big game for the Buffs. After all, they've played Colorado State more than any other team in school history, boasting a robust 61-20-2 all-time record against the Rams. It's also a big game for second-year coach Jon Embree -- who went 2-1 against the Rams as a Colorado player back in the 80s, but remembers the loss his senior year.

[+] EnlargeJon Embree
AP Photo/Jack DempseyNearly 40 percent of the players suiting up for Jon Embree in Week 1 haven't played in a collegiate game yet.
"My senior year, we had six turnovers in that game against CSU," Embree recalled. "It was 23-7 and we threw a pick-six late in the game. It was kind of rainy. You remember those things vividly. I remember the first time we played them in 1983, and they had some really good players. Keli McGregor, Jeff Champine, Kevin Call. I have been on both sides of the fence as a player and a coach. I think it is good for the state that we have this game and that we are playing."

Of course, there are the recruiting implications that go along with in-state games. While Colorado has a bit of an edge outright -- the fact that they play in a stronger conference than the Mountain West should be a draw for the state's top players -- a reputation for winning goes a lot further.

"We have to be better recruiting in state; Jim [McElwain] has gotten off to a good start in the state," Embree said. "I think some of it is kids choosing to play in certain programs. There are some of those allegiances, but also to the uniqueness to the state that there are a lot of kids who could care less about a certain program from a rooting standpoint because they moved here from Texas, Arizona or Florida. This rivalry isn't yet a rivalry where kids are raised where there is a line -- you are either a Ram or a Buff."

Colorado enters this game knowing it might be a rough season. Webb -- while not exactly a rookie -- is still learning the lay of the land, plus as many as 16 true freshmen could play this year for the Buffs. Of the 77 players Colorado is dressing for this game, 26 are freshmen (16 true, 10 redshirt). Of the 77, 65 percent are underclassmen and 39 percent haven't played a game beyond high school yet.

That means getting off to a quick start against an opponent they should beat is going to be fairly important for their confidence moving forward. The fact that it's a rivalry game to start the year adds that much more fuel to the fire.

"You know you have to play them at some point, because we are in different conferences playing them first makes sense -- playing them before you get going in your conference," Embree said. "It doesn't change anything from that standpoint. It makes the first game a little more exciting, you have a little more bounce in your step, knowing you’re playing them in your first game. You know how important it is, both programs want to get off to a good start. It will be fun."
McCarronDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw just five interceptions last season in leading Alabama to the national title.
Anybody thinking that Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron might have a slight case of the “big head” coming off his Offensive MVP performance in the BCS National Championship Game might want to think again.

The Crimson Tide open spring practice on Friday, and McCarron isn’t talking about winning another national title. He’s not talking about establishing himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. He’s not even talking about what he can bring to the Alabama passing game in his second season as the starter.

Nope, he’s talking about getting his steps right in the run game.

That’s right … his steps.

“It may sound funny to some people, but I have to get better in the run game,” McCarron said, outlining his priorities this spring.

“I want to get my steps down where my handoffs look the same as my play-action. I want to work on my stance under center and get that down. Those are two of the biggest things. I know I can make every throw on the football field. Practicing against Coach [Nick] Saban and Coach [Kirby] Smart every week, you see every defense in the book, even the ones that aren’t in the book yet and they’ve made up.

“I feel like I have a good grasp of the game from that sense. I just want to focus on myself a little and just try to get all my steps down and get them to where everything looks the same. That’s going to help our running game and help our whole offense.”

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about McCarron, who played his best game on the biggest stage last season in the 21-0 win over LSU in New Orleans, is that nothing has changed in his mind.

Sure, he wears a cap a little bit more these days when he goes out in public and even pulls it down a little lower so he doesn’t get recognized as much.

But when he is recognized, which is often, he remembers his mother’s advice.

“She used to always say, ‘It’s a good thing when people want your autograph and stuff like that. You’ve got to enjoy it and enjoy the ride,’” McCarron said.

His ride last season couldn’t have been much better.

He didn’t completely wrest the starting job from Phillip Sims until the first few weeks of the season. Once he did, McCarron went on to lead the Crimson Tide to a 12-1 record and their second national championship in the past three seasons.

Now a rising junior and one of the stars of the BCS National Championship Game with his 23-of-34 performance for 234 passing yards and no interceptions, McCarron is ready to go back to work.

And he’s not taking anything for granted.

“It’s like Coach [Saban] preaches all the time: You shouldn’t worry about what others are doing around you,” McCarron said. “My worry last spring wasn’t if I was going to beat Phillip out or how that situation was going to turn out. I felt like if I took care of my business and just worried about myself, I’d be in a good situation in the end. It turned out that way.

“So it’s the same thing this spring. I still have to go out and worry about my place. I know how I’m supposed to be playing the game and taking care of the football, and that never changes. We’re going to be younger on offense, but I feel like we’re going to be a good team. Everybody has to come to spring practice on the right note and handle their business. But if we just take care of our business, we’re going to be in a good situation in the end and hopefully down in Miami playing for another championship.”

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Spruce Derden/US PresswireAlabama coach Nick Saban said he's still preaching patience to QB AJ McCarron.
The Alabama offensive staff was careful to bring McCarron along slowly last season. He responded by throwing only five interceptions all season.

As the game slowed down for him, the Crimson Tide gave him more responsibility and wound up building their game plan around him for the BCS National Championship Game.

“I used to joke about it. But for a second, early in the season, it almost looked like they were playing with 22 guys instead of 11 [on defense],” McCarron quipped. “About midway through the year, right after the Tennessee game, it started to slow down a lot for me.”

So much so that McCarron was allowed a lot more freedom in terms of making checks at the line of scrimmage, whether that was getting the Tide out of a bad play in the run game and putting them in a better one or switching to a different pass play.

“A lot of times when you see young quarterbacks fail and they don’t succeed is because they’re thrown into the fire from the get-go,” said McCarron, who redshirted his first year on campus and then backed up Greg McElroy during the 2010 season.

“It helps when you have a running game like we have. All the pressure’s not on you. At the same time, Coach [Jim McElwain, the offensive coordinator] did a great job of easing me into things and putting a little more on me as we went along.”

The BCS National Championship Game, according to McCarron, was what he had been building up to all season.

“They gave me my chance, and I’m thankful they did,” said McCarron, who completed 66.8 percent of his passes last season and finished 25th nationally in passing efficiency.

“They let me go out and play my game, getting me out on the edge some with play-action passes. That’s what I like to do. They let me go out and play, and the guys around me went out and made a bunch of plays for me.”

The one major change for McCarron and the entire Alabama offense this spring will be the guy running the offense. McElwain is now the head coach at Colorado State, and Doug Nussmeier is now the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach by way of Washington.

Saban already has said not to expect wholesale changes in what Alabama does offensively, but McCarron is eager to get out on the field with his new offensive boss.

“I sat in on the interview process with him and asked him some questions myself,” McCarron said. “He’s a very personable coach. I know he and Jake Locker were real close and spent a lot of time together on and off the field, and that helps me out. I like being close. I don’t want my coach just to be a coach. I want to know if I ever need anything that he’s there for me.

“I feel like we’ll be able to throw it a little more this year on offense and have some receivers coming in that are really going to make a difference. We have the look of a very explosive offense. Hopefully, we can all come together and have a good year. We definitely have the athletes to do it.

“It just comes down to all of us getting on the right page and making it happen.”

SEC postseason coaching staff rankings

February, 13, 2012
Saban-MIles-Spurrier Getty ImagesNick Saban, Les Miles and Steve Spurrier lead the SEC's top coaching staffs.

Now that we’ve gone through our position rankings in the SEC for the 2011 season, the only thing left is the coaches.

The head coach is obviously a big part of these rankings, but we’re taking into account the total staff and the job all of the coaches did this season in developing players, developing the team and getting the team to play its best in the biggest moments.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The only blemish for the national champions was the LSU game in the regular season, and that was an overtime loss. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain did an excellent job bringing along quarterback AJ McCarron, and it was hard to beat the Tide’s balance on offense. What more can you say about Kirby Smart and the defense? It’s a group that rates up there among the best in Alabama history, and when Nick Saban gets to the title game, he’s money. Alabama was easily the most prepared team on Jan. 9 in the Big Easy.

2. LSU: For 13 games, Les Miles and his entire staff did as good a job as any staff in America. There were several off-the-field issues that Miles handled well, and through it all, he kept his team on point against a killer schedule. Defensive coordinator John Chavis did a masterful job all season and won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country. But in the end, the Tigers were poorly prepared offensively in the title game and never made any significant adjustments. Miles’ refusal to at least try another quarterback remains a mystery.

3. South Carolina: It’s been a while since Steve Spurrier has been this happy about a football season. The Head Ball Coach and his staff have a lot to be happy about. The Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time ever, beat rival Clemson for the third straight season and did so despite their best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, going down with a knee injury during the middle of the season. It was one of Ellis Johnson’ best defenses at South Carolina, and after he left to take the Southern Miss head job, Lorenzo Ward saw to it that the Gamecocks didn’t miss a beat defensively in their Capital Bowl win over Nebraska.

4. Arkansas: With Tyler Wilson taking over for Ryan Mallett at quarterback, the Hogs were as potent as ever offensively, and that’s a credit to both Bobby Petrino and his right-hand man, Garrick McGee, who left at season’s end to take the UAB head job. Special teams were very good all season, although the Hogs gave up punt returns for touchdowns in their two biggest games of the season against Alabama and LSU. The disappointment was on defense, where Arkansas took a step backward from 2011, which is why Petrino parted ways with Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDefensive coordinator Todd Grantham's defense finished the season ranked No. 5 nationally.
5. Georgia: Mark Richt and his staff get serious props for recovering from an 0-2 start and steering the Bulldogs to the SEC championship game. A lot of teams would have folded after that South Carolina loss. In particular, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was invaluable with the mental toughness he brought to a unit that finished fifth nationally in total defense. The only real disappointment for the Bulldogs was how poorly they played on special teams, and the way Richt managed that first overtime in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State is another reason Georgia’s staff isn’t ranked a little higher.

6. Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ best win came in the regular-season finale when they routed Wake Forest on the road to qualify for a bowl game. And even though they lost their bowl game and wound up with a losing record, first-year coach James Franklin and his staff breathed new life into a program that had only gone to four bowl games previously in school history. The Commodores lost four of their six SEC games by a total of 19 points, and they improved dramatically on offense, especially in the offensive line. As much as anything, Franklin brought an edge to the program that it had been lacking.

7. Auburn: It’s never easy to go from a 14-0 national championship season to a ho-hum season where you lose three of your last four SEC games by a total of 101 points. The Tigers’ defense was dreadful for most of the season, and other than former tailback Michael Dyer, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about on offense, either. Nonetheless, Gene Chizik and his staff still found a way to carve out eight victories, including wins over five teams that finished the season with winning records.

8. Mississippi State: Maybe the expectations for Mississippi State at the start of the season were a tad unrealistic, but Dan Mullen helped create those expectations by winning nine games in his second season and spanking Michigan in the bowl game. Chris Wilson’s defense came around the second half of the season, but the Bulldogs didn’t take the step most thought they would on offense. They were a couple of plays away from winning nine games again, and it’s the first time Mississippi State has put together back-to-back winning seasons since Jackie Sherrill had four in a row from 1997-2000.

9. Florida: The first year was a mulligan of sorts for Will Muschamp, who inherited some issues off the field he needed to solve. He made a tough (and the right) decision by kicking off his best player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, after multiple drug arrests. The Gators also held their ground defensively. But the Charlie Weis experiment as offensive coordinator wasn’t a good fit, and the Gators were as bad offensively as they were the year before during Urban Meyer’s last season.

10. Kentucky: Had the Wildcats played just 11 games in 2011, Joker Phillips and his staff might have been ranked even lower. But then came the finale against Tennessee and the end of the 26-game losing streak to the Vols. Not only that, but the Wildcats figured out a way to win with receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback. It was a struggle the whole way offensively during the season, but first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter deserves credit for bringing a more aggressive approach to the defense and forcing more turnovers.

11. Tennessee: A very average season for the Vols turned into a forgettable season thanks to their lackluster 10-7 loss to Kentucky. The Vols were slowed by key injuries to Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray and were playing a lot of younger players, but Derek Dooley has been the first to say that they also need to coach better going forward. The running game was a no-show in 2011, and there was a serious problem with team chemistry as the season wore on, something Dooley must correct if he’s going to be around long-term on Rocky Top.

12. Ole Miss: It was a tough end to a 14-year SEC coaching run for Houston Nutt. Some poor recruiting classes at the start of his Ole Miss tenure caught up to him, and so did some crippling injuries. There were no answers at quarterback, and even though the numbers were ugly on defense, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is a much better football coach than the numbers would suggest. The reality is that when you lose 14 straight conference games over two seasons, you’re not going to be ranked very high in any rankings.

Pep Hamilton to Alabama?

January, 16, 2012
Alabama has contacted Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton about taking the same job with the Crimson Tide, a source close to Hamilton has confirmed.

Through a Stanford spokesperson, Hamilton declined comment, though the source said that only contact has been made and no interview has been scheduled. The source did not indicate whether the interest was mutual.

Alabama is looking to replace Jim McElwain, who is leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State.

Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has also been linked to the position and is reportedly the favorite.

Hamilton joined the Stanford staff in 2010 as the wide receivers coach before assuming offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach duties this past season in David Shaw's first year as head coach. He spent the previous decade working with several NFL teams on the offensive side of the ball — specifically as a quarterbacks coach.

Hamilton is one of the architects of Stanford's current offensive scheme that ranked eighth nationally in total offense and seventh in scoring offense this past season. On more than one occasion, Shaw has referred to Hamilton as a "guru" when it comes to red-zone play calling. The Cardinal led the nation in red-zone efficiency this past year, scoring on 67-of-69 trips (97 percent) inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

"He's a great person and a great offensive mind," the source said. "He's going to make a great head coach someday."

Alex Scarborough, who covers Alabama for's Tide Nation contributed to this report.

Saban centers on three to oversee offense

January, 12, 2012
With his second national championship in three years in hand, Alabama coach Nick Saban is now turning his attention to finding his next offensive coordinator.

It appears that Saban is centering on three guys, and two are from the NFL ranks.

Saban has already talked with Jacksonville Jaguars offensive offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and also plans to meet with former New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer this week.

The third guy to watch is Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who’s also scheduled to talk with Saban this week.

Saban is searching for a replacement for Jim McElwain, who left to take the Colorado State head coaching job.

Gators to hire Pease to run offense

January, 10, 2012
Alabama and Florida both wanted Brent Pease, but the Gators ended up getting him.

The former Boise State offensive coordinator will be named in that same position at Florida on Wednesday, according to a report by's Edward Aschoff.

Pease replaces Charlie Weis, who left to take the Kansas head coaching job. Alabama coach Nick Saban was also interested in talking to Pease about the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator job. Jim McElwain is leaving to take the head coaching job at Colorado State.

It's a good get for Florida coach Will Muschamp, who needs some stability in that Florida offense in the worst way. The Gators should be very good on defense in 2012, but they've been a disaster on offense each of the past two seasons.

Under Pease's direction, Boise State tied for ninth nationally in total offense this season, averaging 481.3 yards per game.

Now that Pease is out of the picture, names to watch at Alabama include former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Saban, Alabama aren't going away

January, 10, 2012
Now that I’m back from the Big Easy and had my last cup of gumbo for a while, I wanted to reflect one last time on Alabama’s 21-0 victory over LSU in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For starters, Alabama was the better team, the better-prepared team and played to win from the opening kickoff.

What do you say to the LSU defense? Those guys did everything they could to keep the Tigers in the game, but LSU’s offensive game plan was abysmal.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama coach Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron celebrated winning a national title last season despite not claiming the SEC crown.
Alabama was ready. The Crimson Tide used their 40-plus days to prepare. They executed a fake field goal. They came out throwing on first down and wisely got sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron into an early rhythm.

Listen, McCarron can play. He’s confident and has a big arm. The Crimson Tide simply didn’t ask him to win a lot of games throwing the football this season.

As soon as you say that, though, you remember that Alabama was the only team in the SEC to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game this season.

Outgoing offensive coordinator Jim McElwain went out in style. He’s leaving to take the Colorado State head coaching job, and his players were singing his praises late Monday night.

At a place like Alabama, where defense is king, the offense sometimes becomes the stepchild. But McElwain worked diligently to bring balance to Alabama’s offense and wasn’t afraid to jump out there and let McCarron throw it in the biggest game of the year.

On the other hand, what did LSU do during all of its extra preparation time to help its offense?

You knew the Crimson Tide would have an answer for the option, but the Tigers kept pounding away to see if they could get something outside.

It’s inexplicable that LSU coach Les Miles didn’t at least give Jarrett Lee a chance to see if he could get something going in the passing game.

Take a few deep shots. Go with the three-step passing game. Try something.

Even Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was stunned afterward that LSU didn’t try and go up top.

I thought this season was absolutely one of Miles’ shining moments, the way he navigated his team to a 13-0 record despite the deck being stacked against the Tigers much of the way.

Monday night was certainly not one of his shining moments, while it was truly a masterpiece by the entire Alabama staff.

Nick Saban has three national championships now and counting. Anybody taking bets that he gets to five before his work in Tuscaloosa is finished?

He’s a great coach, no doubt, and a great defensive mind. But don’t underestimate the importance of his hiring good coaches and letting those coaches coach.

Saban’s one of those guys who believes that you’ve never arrived. In fact, he was already thinking about this offseason and spring ball as soon as he finished his press conference Tuesday morning.

He won’t say it, so I’ll say it for him: Alabama football has most definitely arrived. Consider it a re-arrival of sorts, and the Tide are now prominently perched in college football’s throne.

No lack of respect in the trenches

January, 7, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- The trenches were no place for the meek the last time Alabama and LSU tangled, and that’s where this game will be won on Monday night in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Alabama center William Vlachos said LSU’s depth up front in the defensive line was staggering, and that every time he looked up there were three or four fresh guys running into the game.

“They’re deep, but they’re also good and very well-coached,” Vlachos said. “They don’t make many mistakes.”

"I was like, 'Dang, he's short,' and he is short. But he's got the leverage all the time. I'm 6-6 and don't know how tall he is, 6-1 or 6-2, but he's under my pads pretty much every play. "

-- LSU's Michael Brokers on Alabama's William Vlachos
That respect is mutual.

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said Vlachos, who’s listed at 6-1 (which is probably a stretch), is one of the best he’s gone against. The 6-6 Brockers has Vlachos by a good five or six inches, which is not always ideal for an interior defensive lineman.

“I kind of took it as funny at first because he’s so short,” Brockers said. “I was like, ‘Dang, he’s short,’ and he is short. But he’s got the leverage all the time. I’m 6-6 and don’t know how tall he is, 6-1 or 6-2, but he’s under my pads pretty much every play.

“Sometimes he’s blocking me and I’m looking over him and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting blocked.’ That guy uses his strength and leverage to his advantage.”

Brockers said the only thing more difficult than going up against Alabama’s offensive line is trying to tackle Trent Richardson.

“After the (first) game, my neck was hurting, shoulders, everything,” Brockers said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall constantly. He gets the ball a lot, so you have to hit him a lot. You can’t know how solid he really is.

“We’ve got to get all 11 hats to the ball. You can’t take that dude down with one guy.”

Richardson rushed for 89 hard-earned yards on 23 carries in the first game against LSU and also caught five passes for 80 yards, but the Crimson Tide were stymied any time they moved inside the 30.

This time, Richardson said Alabama needs to “step on the throat."

Four different times back on Nov. 5, Alabama had a first-and-10 at the LSU 30 (or closer) only to be bogged down by a negative play on first down. Twice they lost yardage, once on a reverse to receiver Marquis Maze. They also had 5-yard penalty on a substitution infraction, and Maze’s pass out of the Wildcat formation was intercepted by LSU’s Eric Reid at the 1.

In overtime, the Crimson Tide had another 5-yard penalty on a substitution infraction with it second-and-1o at the 25.

“Everybody wants to talk about our kickers not making their field goals,” Richardson said. “Those were long field goals. We’re the ones who need to finish drives.”

Maze suggested that Alabama might have gotten too cute with a few of the trick plays and needs to do what it does best on offense and go right after the Tigers.

Of course, that’s easier said than done against an LSU defense that simply doesn’t give up many touchdowns, period, and specializes in knocking teams out of scoring position.

“Here’s the deal. If a couple of those things had worked, we would have been geniuses,” Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. “If we would have just run the ball inside, it would have been the other way. That’s the beauty of this sport. That’s the beauty of you guys (the media). You’ve got to have something to write about. You either make a great call or you don’t.

“Give them the credit on defense. They stopped us.”

'Boring' Alabama offense also balanced

January, 5, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama senior center William Vlachos figures the Crimson Tide’s offense is probably boring to most people.

“They probably say we have exceptional players and that most people don’t and we can just kind of pound the ball on offense,” Vlachos said.

But when you examine a little closer, one of the best-kept secrets in the SEC this season was that Alabama was the only team in the league to average more than 200 rushing yards and more than 200 passing yards per game.

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Jim McElwain
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIRE"We've got to score," Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said of the rematch with LSU. "That's the bottom line, and yet, these guys don't give up many scores."
“I’m glad somebody took note,” joked outgoing Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who will leave for the Colorado State head coaching job following the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I know as an offensive coordinator that having a great defense is the best offense you can have. The way coach (Nick) Saban approaches it, from all three phases fitting together and not being selfish, that’s the one thing I enjoy the most that he does. Let’s figure out how to win the game.”

In that first contest between LSU and Alabama back on Nov. 5, the Crimson Tide just missed 200 passing yards (199). But they were held to 96 yards on the ground.

“We did some things well, but there were a lot of things we left out there on the field, just little things, where if you finish your block for a split-second, they’re not able to come off and get a hand on the running back,” Vlachos explained. “That’s something LSU does extremely well. They shed blockers late and get to the football.

"It’s up to us to execute and finish and hold that block for that extra second.”

McElwain said LSU was especially good at pressuring in that high red zone and knocking players out of position.

“We’ve got to score,” McElwain said. “That’s the bottom line, and yet, these guys don’t give up many scores. It’s a great challenge. We’re roll it out there and see what happens.”

McElwain, who clearly hasn't lost his sense of humor from being kept out of the end zone in the first game, said he's grateful that his dog, Clara Bell, was around when he got home later that night.

“She didn’t really know that we didn’t score. She was excited to see me when I got home and that did lift my spirits a little bit,” McElwain joked.

Asked what kind of dog Clara Bell was, McElwain referred to her as a 4 ˝-pound hunting dog.

“She’s unbelievable and can go get you,” McElwain said. “She’s one of those that we saved from the pound that has a bunch of stuff in it. That’s probably like me, just a normal guy who happens to be at Alabama.”

McElwain grew emotional when he told his players last month that he was leaving for Colorado State. But he said wearing the two hats the past couple of weeks hasn’t been a hassle.

“I love our guys and put everything I can into those guys and realize I’m not coaching for anybody but those guys," McElwain said. "Obviously, this has been an unbelievable run, being at a place like the University of Alabama. Shoot, I grew up in Montana. This is amazing and something I’ll carry with me forever, these players."

Season report card: Alabama

January, 2, 2012
The grade that counts for Alabama won’t come until next Monday night, but the regular-season grades have already been posted for the Crimson Tide.


Alabama wasn’t known this season for its offense, and there were times that the Crimson Tide looked limited in the passing game. But when you step back and look at the results (and the stats), Alabama deserves an A. The minus is for not being able to score a touchdown at home against LSU and for a passing game that was hit and miss. Nonetheless, the Crimson Tide were second in the SEC in total offense, averaging 433.4 yards per game, and their balance was what was so impressive. They were the only team in the league to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game. Junior running back Trent Richardson led the SEC with 1,583 rushing yards, and the Crimson Tide turned the ball over only 12 times in 12 games. And against SEC competition, Alabama led the league in total offense (414 yards) and was second in scoring offense (33.9 points).


Perfection is what every football team seeks, and Alabama was about as close as it gets this season on defense. The Crimson Tide head into the Allstate BCS National Championship Game ranked No. 1 nationally in all four of the major statistical categories on defense -- total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Oklahoma is the only school to accomplish that feat since the NCAA began keeping records in 1937. Alabama is allowing just 191.3 yards per game, which is more than 60 yards fewer than the second-place team nationally (LSU) is averaging giving up per game. What’s more, Alabama opponents are averaging just 8.8 points per game, making the Crimson Tide the only team nationally to hold foes to single digits. Defensively, Alabama didn’t allow more than 14 points in a game all season.


It didn’t go the way Nick Saban would have drawn it up in the kicking game. It wasn’t all bad. Marquis Maze led the SEC in kickoff return average and was third in punt return average. He had an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas. But aside from Maze, the Crimson Tide had their struggles on special teams. They were ninth in the SEC in net punting and 11th in kickoff coverage. They gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and were 18-of-29 on field goals. Cade Foster, who handles the longer field goals, had seven of the Tide’s 11 misses. Of course, the killer for Alabama was missing four field goals in the loss to LSU.


The only glitch was special teams. Otherwise, Alabama was a balanced, disciplined, well-coached football team. The job Kirby Smart did on defense speaks for itself, as Alabama is chasing history on that side of the ball. The secondary went from a liability at times in 2010 to one of the strengths of the team this season. And on offense, Jim McElwain’s guys generated the kind of balance you rarely see. The Tide ran it pretty much when they wanted to and made enough plays in the passing game to keep defenses honest. Sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron didn’t have big numbers, but he played within himself and only threw five interceptions all season. When you play defense the way Alabama does, commit the fewest number of penalties in the league and only turn it over 12 times in 12 games, you’re going to win a lot of games.

3-point stance: Te'o's uncanny maturity

December, 13, 2011
1. The reasons Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o gave Monday for returning for his senior year show an uncommon maturity. Te’o decided to chase happiness instead of money. It’s funny how the schools with tougher academic standards find players who think like Te’o. Of the 20 Fighting Irish players drafted since the 2005 season, only four came out early.

2. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, the new coach at Colorado State, is the first Crimson Tide assistant under Nick Saban to become an FBS head coach and the seventh Saban assistant to do so dating back to his tenure at Michigan State. Mark Dantonio of Michigan State (10-3) and Jimbo Fisher of Florida State (8-4) are the most successful. The next likely Saban assistant to move up and out: defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a former Broyles Award winner.

3. Ah, the wonder that is social media. The latest athletic figures to learn that grumbling via Twitter is louder than grumbling to someone in the dorm are the UCLA players who missed workouts last week and had their bowl expense checks withheld. The grumbling worked -- the players got their money Monday -- and they also generated a lot of miserable headlines for their team. The players learned the power of their voices. Here’s hoping they learned the responsibility that goes along with that power.