Nick Saban has won five national championships at Alabama with a stout defense and a strong running game, but he’s grown outright offensive in gunning for a sixth title in 11 years.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) will roll into town Saturday with potentially one of the most prolific offenses to ever play at Kyle Field. Led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama is averaging 51.8 points a game to rank third nationally behind LSU (54.6) and Oklahoma (53.4).
“The team is extremely explosive on offense led by a quarterback who is as good as anybody in college football,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He’s accurate. He beats you with his legs, feet, mind. He does all those things.”
Tagovailoa has thrown for 1,718 yards and 23 touchdowns with no interceptions. He’s completing 76.4% of his passes with his four leading receivers all averaging more than 12 yards per catch.
“He doesn’t miss very often,” Fisher said. “It’s a great combination they have.”
Tagovailoa is averaging 343.6 yards passing per game, which is 111.4 yards per game ahead of last season’s pace when he ended with 3,996 yards and 43 touchdown passes. Tagovailoa and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy became Alabama’s first tandem of skill players on offense to earn All-America honors in the same season since quarterback Joe Namath and halfback David Ray in 1964.
Jeudy’s numbers are up slightly this season with 38 catches for 488 yards and six touchdowns, and fellow junior DeVonta Smith has made a big jump with 31 receptions for 537 yards and eight touchdowns. Add in junior Henry Ruggs III (17 receptions, 361 yards, 4 TDs) and Alabama has a chance to become just the sixth FBS team to have a trio of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. And if you’re able to corral that trio, sophomore Jaylen Waddle has shown his ability with 12 catches for 197 yards.
“They’re just all electric,” Fisher said. “Very rarely do you see four guys who can score with the ball at any time. They can go deep, short. Their double moves are phenomenal in how they run routes. They know how to run routes. They create a lot of separation.”
And while Tagovailoa and his receivers are working all that magic, Alabama still could have a 1,000-yard rusher for the 21st time in program history. Junior Najee Harris has 54 carries for 337 yards through five games. In fact, Alabama is averaging 380.6 yards passing per game but remains balanced with only six more pass attempts than runs.
Having that kind of top-notch skill on the same team is rare. Only 12 teams in the last 50 years have played at Kyle Field with three offensive skill players who earned first-team, all-conference honors that season. Maybe the best was the 1969 Texas team that won the national championship with fullback Steve Worster and wide receiver Cotton Speyrer, who both were All-Americans, and quarterback James Street. The trio of Longhorns earned All-Southwest Conference honors and deserved it. They helped Texas outrush opponents 3,630-900 and average 41.4 points per game. That team also had a great defense, allowing only 90 yards and 10.2 points per game while forcing a whopping 44 turnovers.
One of the more prolific passing teams to play at Kyle Field was the 1989 Houston team led by Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, wide receiver Manny Hazard and running back Chuck Weatherspoon. That was the first team to feature a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher. UH averaged 511.3 yards passing per game to lead the country, more than a 100 yards more than second-place BYU. A&M, though, shut down the high-powered “Run & Shoot” by sacking Ware six times in a 17-13 victory.
A&M also leaned on defense to beat fifth-ranked Texas 20-10 in 1999 when the Longhorns had All-America wide receiver Kwame Cavil along with quarterback Major Applewhite and running back Hodges Mitchell. Applewhite threw for 3,357 yards that season, and Cavil had 100 receptions, but the Longhorns mustered only 272 yards that day in an emotional victory for the Aggies in the wake of the Bonfire tragedy that killed 12.
Oklahoma had the last two offenses with at least a trio of all-conference performers to play at Kyle Field. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jason White threw for five touchdowns in a 42-35 victory in 2004. Four years later, Sam Bradford threw for four touchdowns in a 66-28 victory en route to winning the Heisman as OU set a single-game scoring record for a Kyle Field opponent.
Tagovailoa will try to be the next quarterback to use his performance at Kyle Field as a stepping stone to a Heisman.
From ground to air
Alabama running back Derrick Henry helped his Heisman chances four years ago when he rushed for 236 yards on 32 carries with two scores in a 41-23 victory at A&M. It was efforts like that along with stellar defense that helped Saban win national titles after the 2009, ’11, ’12, ’15 and ’17 regular seasons.
When Saban won his first title at Alabama, the Crimson Tide ranked first in the country in scoring defense (10.93 points per game), second in rushing defense (78.1 yards per game) and total defense (244.1) and seventh in passing defense (175.6). On offense, running back Mark Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards as Alabama ranked 12th in team rushing (215.1), but the Crimson Tide was far from an offensive juggernaut. It ranked just 92nd in passing offense (187.9), 42nd in total offense (403) and 22nd in scoring (32.1).
It set the patter for future Crimson Tide title winners. Trent Richardson rushed for 1,679 yards in 2011. Eddie Lacy (1,322) and T.J. Yeldon (1,108) shared the load in 2012. The best was Henry in 2015 (2,219).
Damien Harris helped Saban to the fifth title by getting 1,000 yards on the nose, but quarterback Jalen Hurts added 855 yards and running back Bo Scarbrough had 596. That team averaged 250.6 yards rushing to rank 13th in the country as the passing attack averaged only 193.4 to rank 91st.
Everything changed when Tagovailoa came off the bench in the 2018 national title game to complete 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns in rallying Alabama from a 10-point deficit for a 26-23 victory over Georgia.
Alabama basically has featured an up-tempo passing game since. Tagovailoa said earlier this week it’s beneficial at times to slow things down to help a defense that’s playing a lot of freshmen because of injuries, but Saban said about the only time he slows the pace is when they’re running out the clock.
“Most of the time, we play better when we play a little faster, and that’s what I’m trying to impact on the game,” he said.