HOOVER, Ala. — Nick Saban denied committing an act of espionage stemming from an otherwise mundane hire in March of Tyler Siskey.
Wooed away from Ole Miss, the 35-year-old Alabama native joined the Crimson Tide’s staff with the bland title of associate director of player personnel. But it’s the job Siskey left behind that raised speculation of subterfuge: He had coached wide receivers in the Rebels’ up-tempo attack.
The same Ole Miss that was the first team to lead Alabama in regulation and was running one of the fastest tempos in the nation last season — the same style Texas A&M used to saddle the eventual BCS champion Tide with its lone blemish.
So, the conspiracy theorists thought: Is Saban importing someone to provide info on a scheme he seems to loathe?
“That’s not the reason that we hired him,” Saban said Thursday at SEC Media Days. “I think we understand what the other team’s doing.”
Still, there’s a movement afoot to wear out elite SEC programs with hurry-up schemes designed to make hulking defenders pant. The conference’s lessers at Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee tapped coaches or coordinators adept at installing fast-break attacks in the offseason.
Picked in December to lead the Wildcats, Mark Stoops arrived from Florida State, where he had served as defensive coordinator, understanding his in-state talent pool was shallow and a passing attack operating at full throttle might be an equalizer.
So, he hired Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown — a Bluegrass State native and architect of an Air Raid offense with the Red Raiders that put up 355.9 passing yards per game last season to rank second nationally.
The prospect of quick three-and-outs and putting his defense back on the field made Stoops cringe, but he inherited a 2-10 program that left him searching for any advantages at his disposal.
“I’ve had my problems with up-tempo offenses — we all have had our moments of failure against the up-tempo offenses because it gets you in disarray,” Stoops said. “That’s the advantage of it for the offenses, to not let defenses zero in as specifically as we want to be.”
The impact of pace is easy to calculate.
Alabama’s defense averaged 59.8 snaps per game last season. Texas A&M’s offense ran 78.9 — which can loosely translate to two or three possessions. The net result is Saban’s defense having 7 fewer seconds per play to adjust.
On its face, there should be no complaints: Texas A&M, Ole Miss and (eventually) Kentucky are simply countering an advantage in talent with their own adjustments. Yet Saban sees the widespread adoption of fast-paced offenses as corrupting the spirit of the game.
“Should we allow football to be a continuous game?” he asked. “Is that the way the game was designed to play?”
To new Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who arrived from Cincinnati, those statements somehow imply spread teams are “finesse” and leery of brutish behavior. That won’t be the case in Knoxville: “We’re going to be a physical team,” Jones said, part of a broad effort to put the ball in the right players’ hands.
“We want to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers,” Jones said. “It’s plays versus playmakers. We want our playmakers catching the ball.”
It also leads to another line of argument advanced by proponents of brawny offenses based on the two-back running game and play-action pass.
First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, imported from Wisconsin with a rushing attack that ranked an average of No. 14 nationally since 2006, said exposure to more plays increases the risk of injury.
“There are times when an
offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break,” he said. “You cannot tell me that a player after Play 5 is the same player that he is after Play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that’s my fault.”
That’s a line of thought picked up by Saban.
“They play like 64 plays a game in the NFL,” he said. “We play over 80 in college. The up-tempo teams play even more than that. ... These are the questions that need to be asked to know whether there need to be any rules that affect the tempo of the game.”
That assertion is a little broad. In 2012, only 12 teams averaged more than 80 offensive snaps and, of those teams, only Arizona, Baylor, Clemson, Oregon, Nebraska and N.C. State hailed from power conferences.
For Freeze, who arrived from Arkansas State toting his sped-up version of a passing game blending the styles of Malzahn and former Ole Miss coordinator Noel Mazzone, lodging complaints over safety is a tack not backed up by evidence.
“I don’t think there’s absolutely any proof out there that there is any kind of safety concern,” he said. “In this league, defensive linemen are very athletic. They’re going to play the same number of snaps that the offensive linemen are. I don’t think they’re at any more risk health-wise than at the start of the game.”
And it isn’t as if Freeze is inclined to take his foot off the pedal. The Rebels averaged 74 plays per game at an average time of 21.1 seconds per snap — a blur-inducing pace — that ranked in the top 30 nationally. Yet the second-year coach said the Rebels could have gone faster.
The debate over health is largely moot to Georgia’s Mark Richt, who cited the three- to four-minute breaks for TV timeouts as “plenty of time to rest between series.” Instead, the issue is officials spotting the ball in time to allow defenders to be substituted and for players on both sides to be set.
“If teams are not substituting fast enough because they’re not organized, that’s their fault,” Richt said. “But if you’re highly organized, you’re running your guys on the field and they’re not even set when the ball is snapped, I think that’s the thing that might need to slow down just a tad.”
Stoops said it falls on defensive coordinators to evolve — even if they’re loath to do it.
“The bottom line is we need to be flexible defensively,” he said. “We need to be able to keep up with these offenses and how multiple they are, have some guys that have the ability to play a few different positions.”
But if Freeze is resolute in leaving opponents wheezing, then Bielema is equally adamant about preserving history.
“We wanted to play,” he said, “a little bit of normal American football.”