- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The debate on whether or not college football needs a restrictor plate has been shelved.
For now, anyway.
To most of the coaches who want to play fast and want to play without huddling and want to keep the defense from substituting, Alabama’s Nick Saban is the face of the movement to slow things down.
Saban is on record as saying he doesn’t believe football was meant to be a continuous game. He’s also on record as saying he believes more plays and longer games are a detriment to player safety.
His logic (cue his now famed cigarette quote): The more exposures a player has in a game when everything is live, the more susceptible that player is to being injured.
At least one noted neurosurgeon who has been around the game for 30-plus years, Dr. Julian Bailes, agrees with Saban.
Even though the proposed 10-second rule was tabled by the NCAA football rules committee and never went to a vote this week, it’s a debate that’s not going away.
I think most would agree that the prudent thing was to wait and not push this thing through when there are still so many questions unanswered.
Rogers Redding, college football’s national officiating coordinator, probably said it best.
“Tabling it allows for a broader discussion and time to engage the medical folks more,” Redding said.
Meanwhile, Saban will remain the lightning rod in this debate, and as he told me recently, he can handle it. If you haven’t noticed, Saban doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think or say about him.
And for that matter, he never has been shy when it comes to speaking his mind. He was the only coach in the SEC to endorse the idea of going to nine conference games. He was also outspoken in his opposition to taking head coaches off the road during the spring evaluation period.
Heck, he once compared unscrupulous agents to pimps while speaking at the SEC media days a few years back.
He understands that coaches, media and fans will question his true intentions when it comes to slowing down the game, and it’s a fact that Saban is not a fan of these “fastball” offenses. That’s his word, by the way.
But anybody who thinks Saban won’t adjust, or is sweating to the point that all of his championship rings won't stay on his fingers because more teams are incorporating fast-paced attacks, doesn’t know him very well. Or at the very least, they haven't followed his career very closely.
It’s true the last three teams Alabama has lost to ran some version of a hurry-up offense -- Auburn and Oklahoma last season and Texas A&M in 2012.
It’s also true Saban has won three of the last five national championships with the rules exactly as they are now. The 40-second play clock was adopted by college football in 2008, and Redding said recently that there was a feeling at the time that the advantage had swung somewhat to the offenses.
“To some extent, we knew we were handing the pace of play over to the offense, although I don’t think anybody anticipated that we’d see what we’re seeing today,” Redding said.
The reality is that very few teams snap the ball in the first 10 seconds of the play clock. The bigger issue is that defenses don’t have a window to substitute unless the offense substitutes.
The offensive coaches see that as strategy, which makes perfect sense if the pace of play is going to be dictated by the offenses and not the officials.
What might come out of all this is a legitimate discussion going into 2015 about no longer stopping the clock after a made first down, which is what happens in the NFL.
It should make for another interesting debate.
What’s not up for debate is that Saban and Alabama aren’t going away.
The defenses best equipped to deal with these hurry-up offenses are the ones with the best players, the best athletes -- and probably most importantly -- the best depth.
That sounds a lot like Alabama’s defense.
The Crimson Tide recruits and develops players as well as anybody. They have second-team guys who would be starting just about anywhere else.
Moreover, you can bet that finding more hybrid guys and more quick-twitch pass-rushers has been a priority in these last two signing classes at Alabama. Rashaan Evans comes to mind in this most recent class.
With offenses going so fast and not huddling, those defenders who can move around and play different roles (when you can’t substitute) will be a commodity. The same goes for having a second-team defensive lineman who’s just a shade behind the first-team guy and can come into the game in the second half with fresh legs.
So regardless of what Saban’s agenda is or isn’t, saying he’s trying to create a competitive advantage for his defense through a rules change is a stretch.
The competitive advantage he has created goes back to the way he has recruited and developed players.
And let’s not forget that Alabama still finished fourth in the country last season in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. That’s after finishing first nationally in both categories in 2011 and 2012.
Seeing Texas A&M roll up 628 yards and 42 points on Alabama (despite the Tide winning) was eye-opening last season, especially after the Aggies and Johnny Manziel won in Tuscaloosa the year before. The same goes for Auburn’s 34-28 win over Alabama last season. The Aggies and Tigers both run “fastball” offenses.
But Alabama also outgained Auburn by more than 100 yards last season, missed two field goals, had another one blocked and missed another 57-yard field goal at the end of the game that Auburn turned into one of the most improbable plays we’ve seen in college football in decades.
What’s it all mean?
The game is changing, no doubt, and will continue to change. Similarly, the SEC has a way of bringing even the best teams and best coaches back to the pack.
The best coaches, though, adapt. They evolve and they find answers.
Just a hunch, but here’s guessing the fast lane won’t be too fast for Saban regardless of what rule changes we see … or don’t see.
1dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon