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Nick Saban, Josh Heupel have radically different approaches towards the future

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Nick Saban isn’t always ahead of the curve. It just seems like it. Winning seven national championships tends to give one that impression. However, the Alabama football head coach isn’t perfect. Far from it. Just look at his track record.

Saban has been behind the pack a couple of times in his career. That was the case in the 2000s when Saban would sit on a lead in the second half of a game and let a one-sided contest turn into a nail biter. No, it didn’t bite him that often, but it was a reminder that everyone has their flaws.

Saban was also behind the curve in the 2010s when he chose to complain about up-tempo offenses in the name of safety before deciding to up Bama’s pace. That worked out quite well, as Saban seemed to have mastered finesse and power at the same time, which is not easy to do.

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Now, Saban seems to be going old school again with his latest coaching hires. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is known for a pro-style system, which used to suit Saban just fine. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will take over the defense while Saban will surely have a strong say in the matter. What does this mean for Tennessee? It’s like an economic indicator for football.

Saban’s hires are a clear indication that he doesn’t think he can beat Georgia with a slick, speedy offense, or he would have hired that kind of coordinator. Those types of offenses can put too much pressure on Saban’s beloved defense, which he believes can still win championships. After all, Georgia did it.

Georgia won two consecutive national championships with a quarterback, Stetson Bennett, that most would consider average. Alabama football couldn’t win one championship with a high scoring offense that was led by Bryce Young, who was a Heisman Trophy winner, as a starter.

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Tennessee has buttered its bread for the past two seasons with the kind of up-tempo, hurry-up, in-your-face offense that keeps defenses on their heels and the Vols’ defense on oxygen. Saban either doesn’t believe that’s the way of the future, or he isn’t comfortable continuing in that direction. That’s a bit surprising after the success that the Vols had last season and the run that Texas Christian made in the College Football Playoff. Both teams thrived with en vogue offenses. So are these offenses just en vogue or are they here to stay? The truth is somewhere in between.

First, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Tempo can win games and get to a championship level. Football that is more predicated on power, however, has a longer track record of success. That’s not to suggest that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel should chuck what he’s doing in favor of the Wing-T. In fact, the rules are still in Heupel’s favor and won’t likely change anytime soon.

Offensive linemen are allowed more freedom to jettison down the field on passing plays in college football. When is the last time you’ve even heard the phrase “illegal blocker downfield?” It’s simply not called, which means Heupel’s run-pass option game is deadly. Rules could change, but most often rules are altered to help the offense, not hinder it. Heupel’s approach seems sound for the foreseeable future.

At some point, however, Heupel knows his entire program must be more fundamentally sound from the ground up. Signs of that were evident last season when the Vols started to run their offense a bit more slowly to let their defense have a break. As Heupel’s defensive talent begins to deepen, the Vols should be more balanced on both sides of the ball. However, Saban doesn’t seem so sure.

From Saban’s perspective, he couldn’t win a championship being too finesse and neither could TCU nor Tennessee. From Saban’s perspective, he’d rather be balanced first and high scoring later. That’s why he hired an offensive coordinator that can control clock and a defensive coordinator that he can control himself.

Heupel sees things much different. He believes he’s onto something. That’s why he’s promoted assistant coaches to higher positions in Tennessee’s program instead of hiring outsiders. Unlike Saban, Heupel doesn’t feel the need to overhaul something that is trending upwards. He’d rather ride this thing out. 

There will be no immediate answer as to who is right in this debate. One game won’t determine much. Neither will one season. However, it will be worth checking back in three or four years to see who best foresaw the future: Heupel or Saban. One would think it would be Saban, but Heupel is hard to bet against.

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