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Tuesday Morning Brews (8/19/14)

Stacy Revere

Inside The Process

They always, always catch up to you. That's why a Hall of Fame career is so impressive, especially for a coach who lasts thirty years. It says they were flexible. It says they worked harder than 90% of the other work addicts. It says they were smart enough to do things differently, and what they did worked. But still, they always catch up to you.

Nick Saban has probably already punched his ticket to the College Football Hall of Fame. He's earning a little under $7 million now, which is definitely more than the President and the second-highest paid coach combined. But his coaching story isn't quite set in stone, and the rest of the league has started catching up to Nick Saban. Following the November 5th, 2011 game that Saban's team lost, 9-6, the upper echelon of the SEC has diversified. No longer is it LSU and Alabama, defensive juggernauts and first-round picks, fighting battles at the line of scrimmage. In the two seasons since that game, Auburn, Missouri and Texas A&M have all notched 11-win seasons by trying to find a way around those dominant, physical front sevens.

But this is still college, not the pros, and maybe it's not entirely true that they always catch up to you. Alabama is still Alabama. Of course, it was Alabama in 2007 too, when they went 7-6. But even when other teams have caught up to you on the field, programs that have establishing a winning standard gain a certain panache. The fact of the matter is the Tide's three championships from 2009-12 are still resonating around the country. From Forbes:

That on-field success generates financial prosperity, as detailed below, and also makes Alabama a top choice for students and athletes alike. In 2007, Alabama had an acceptance rate of 77%. Today, rivals like Auburn and LSU are still at that near-80% rate; Alabama now accepts just 53% of applicants.

Obviously, college football is a juggernaut. How long will this last, for Alabama? USC was dominant in the 2000s, going 82-9 with two AP championships in 2003 and '04. Texas was dominant under Mack Brown, until, somehow, it wasn't. How UA replaces Nick Saban, or how long this period of success will last, is uncertain. Some very talented people are trying to catch up to him. But still, Saban's done a little more than just win. He'll be the first to tell you that.

"The approach is to challenge the players to play every play in the game like it has a history and a life of its own. And try to take the other team out of the game and make it all about us. It really is the simple way to do it, and it's the best way to do it." Take the other team out of the game, and make it all about us. Not only have they won, but they have, steadily, flipped that into free coverage on 60 Minutes, NFL Draft Day, and Fortune Magazine. Nick Saban's team didn't make the championship game this year, so he appeared at halftime as an analyst. All of this came from the initial work and success, and it avalanched from there. And Saban, more than any other coach, has known how to expedite and encourage that avalanche. If he is qualified to build up a champion, he is even more qualified to sustain one.

"The process of repeating as national champion requires more attention. It can't be about trying to prove something, because you've kind of already done that. It needs to be about: Do you want to be the best you can be? Are you driven to be the best player you can be? Are you driven to have the intensity, the sense of urgency, the intelligence. Are you going to work to do the things you need to do to be your absolute best? And that's not normal. Everybody thinks it's normal, but it's not normal."

Now, he is reaping the benefits of that hard work, of putting himself and his players in positions to succeed. Like Belichick's Patriots before him, Saban is trying to lead a three-time champion into the promised land once again, and he seems uniquely qualified to do it. For one, even Belichick himself will ask Saban for advice. For another, Saban has turned his success into a recruiting machine that outstrips even his SEC brethren - thanks to the aura he has built up around the program. And all of it started with the Process.

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What is the Process? Says Andy Staples: "In its most basic form, the Process is Saban's term for concentrating on the steps to success rather than worrying about the end result. Instead of thinking about the scoreboard, think about dominating the man on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage." It was born in Saban's time at Michigan State, when in the week leading up to a game against the unbeaten and top-ranked Buckeyes, Saban confided in a psychiatrist that he didn't know what to tell his team. The psychiatrist said, "Tell them the score doesn't matter."

Saban remembers the way his Michigan State players reacted that week of the Ohio State game when he told them to forget the score and think only about doing their job for one play. They got it. They liked it. Maybe the message wasn't very different from what he was trying to say before, but telling them the scoreboard was irrelevant somehow caught their attention. The process captured their imagination. ... "Funny things happen in football," Saban told reporters after that Ohio State game, "when a team plays possessed."

State beat OSU, 28-24. The next year Saban's Spartans jumped from 6-5 to 10-2, and Saban himself was off to coach the Tigers. He has carved out his career, not so much with any different X's and O's, but by motivating his players, and then by recruiting more elite talent and motivating them, too. Alabama doesn't do anything that different - they're conservative on both sides of the ball. Alabama has succeeded, though, by first maximizing what they have (that's where the Process comes in), and then trying to separate themselves from their competition talent-wise to improve their future odds. Steve Spurrier this off-season called Nick Saban "the greatest recruiter in the history of college football... if the recruiting services are correct." It was seen as a jab at Saban (and it was), but there was a lot of truth in there as well.

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When Nick Saban was 11 years old, he would wash cars for his dad's business in West Virginia. Every time he had missed a spot, his dad would catch it on inspection, and tell him to wash the whole car again. Not the spot, the whole car. Little Nick (his dad was Big Nick) tells this story a lot as an example of reinforcing both work and perfection. It's a story that sums up how he runs his program - business-like, driven, forward-thinking, efficient. He is, as Fortune Magazine says, a businessman.

Fisher explained that since taking over, he had hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He had contracted a mental-conditioning coach to change how players thought. He had inherited two strength-and-conditioning assistants, then hired six more and was on the verge of bringing on a seventh to ensure that players received more individual attention in the weight room. Fisher then asked the boosters to dig deep because he needed more. He wanted better dorms for the players and an indoor practice facility. Basically, he wanted everything his old boss, Nick Saban, had at Alabama.

More than any other coach, Saban has understood and managed the business of college football. His new $7 million contract came not just from the wins he collects, but from the money he's made the university. Alabama chancellor Robert Witt called Saban "the best financial investment in the school's history." And indeed, from enrollment to profits, the university has never been better. It's that financial quarter that has brought state-of-the-art facilities that woo athletes, including new technology like vision training equipment, which helps players improve reaction time. If there is any advantage Saban can find - karate, for leverage, pilates, for body control - the program will incorporate it. And it has, to great success.

This efficient, business-like, self-advertising and highly profitable system is the fuel that makes the Process go. At a potential turning point in college athletics, with questions about reimbursement and the very business model that Alabama executes so well, the Crimson Tide have given their athletes everything under the sun to reward them and help them succeed. If there is one last takeaway from Saban's impressive business model, it is the value of an organization's middle class - the "product," as he calls them. More than just speeches, Saban has motivated his players with goals, support, emotional tools for success, and stiff competition. And perfection. Always while eyeing perfection.

Money

What can be said about the quarterback that hasn't been said already? It's the Playboy position, the one that gets all the attention. More people can name a team's starting quarterback than its best player on defense, or the coach who leads the team. But it's also an integral part to everything a team does on offense.

From 2006-2012, the SEC's streak of championships, not one of the championship team's quarterbacks threw for 3,000 yards in that season. They did, however, throw very few picks.

SEC Championship Quarterbacks

Passing Rushing Touchdowns Interceptions
2006 Chris Leak 2,950 30 23 13
2007 Matt Flynn 2,407 215 21 11
2008 Tim Tebow 2,746 673 30 4
2009 Greg McElroy 2,508 83 17 4
2010 Cam Newton 2,854 1,473 30 7
2011 A.J. McCarron 2,634 0 16 5
2012 A.J. McCarron 2,933 0 30 3

This year, the SEC will seek to reclaim the crystal football without many proven commodities at signal-caller - Ole Miss' Bo Wallace is the only returning QB who threw for 2,000 yards a year ago. But that hasn't stopped them before.

A few people, including ESPN's Rece Davis, has called Mississippi State's Dak Prescott the best quarterback now in the SEC. Prescott's numbers are almost identical to Nick Marshall's, and he brings a heavier punch at 229 pounds. Still, I'd expect a bigger season from Marshall, who Malzahn is wanting to utilize more through the air, or Ole Miss' Bo Wallace, who is the old hand on a largely youth-driven and talented team. Late-season injuries to Wallace helped cause 5 interceptions in the final three games, but his play has been erratic regardless. He's hoping that his work in the off-season on his mechanics will help produce a more consistently productive season.

Preseason Watch List (Quarterbacks)
Conf. School Sacks % TD/INT Yards
ACC FSU 27 Jameis Winston 66.9% 40/10 4,057
B1G MSU 16 Connor Cook 58.7% 22/6 2,755
B1G MICH 34 Devin Gardner 60.3% 21/11 2,960
B1G OSU 21 Braxton Miller 63.5% 24/7 2,094
B1G PSU 21 Christian Hackenberg 58.9% 20/10 2,955
Big 12 OKLA 4 Trevor Knight 59.0% 9/5 819
Big 12 BAY 17 Bryce Petty 62.0% 32/3 4,200
Big 12 TEX 4 David Ash 60.9% 7/2 760
Big 12 TTU 7 Davis Webb 62.6% 20/9 2,718
Pac-12 UCLA 35 Brett Hundley 66.8% 24/9 3,071
Pac-12 ORE 18 Marcus Mariota 63.5% 31/4 3,665
Pac-12 ASU 39 Taylor Kelly
62.4% 28/12 3,635
Pac-12 ORST 25 Sean Mannion 66.3% 37/15 4,662
Pac-12 USC 30 Cody Kessler
65.2% 20/7 2,967
SEC MISS 24 Bo Wallace 64.8% 18/10 3,346

Elsewhere, the Pac-12 can indeed claim the country's best collection of quarterbacks. Oregon State's Sean Mannion returned for his senior year, hoping to improve on a third-round draft grade. He also had some late-season struggles, throwing 11 interceptions during a 5-game season-ending losing streak. He had started the year 29/3 on touchdowns and interceptions. Kelly, another under-the-radar player, went from a two-star recruit to a redshirt freshman, 29/9, 3,000-yard thrower, then followed it up with a slightly better season statistically while the offense leaned on him more. He's also a proven runner, getting almost 1,500 rush yards over the two years.

Both the Big 12 and the Pac-12 feature better premier options than the Big Ten - but the Big Ten East is still a tough division to be a defensive back in. Also, two Texas schools, UT and Texas Tech, will be leaning heavily on their starters to stay healthy. Ash was recommended to give up the game by his doctors, but he's back for his senior year and Charlie Strong will try to keep him upright and healthy.

Hitting the Links Builds Up The Program

Braxton Miller May Miss 2014

Gigantic news out of Columbus. There will be MRIs today to know more precisely what's going on, but Miller re-injured it during a routine throw during practice. He had had surgery during the off-season to help repair the damage that Clemson's defensive line wrought upon him in the Orange Bowl, but he was on pace to start the season opener.

Oklahoma's New Defense

This talks about Oklahoma's 3-4 and how they are poised to thwart both spread offenses of the Big 12 and, well, everybody else.

Kenny Hill Named the Aggies' QB

This was one of the more interesting quarterback battles, even if you think the defense will hold the Aggies back from being a contender. In some other quarterback battle news, everyone had expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to take over the job quickly in Tuscaloosa, but he's been behind Blake Sims for the #1 spot because Sims has had more time in the program and is "a little faster right now," according to Saban. Also, Purdue has named Danny Etling the starting quarterback over Austin Appleby. Gary Andersen indicated that Wisconsin will not reveal the team's starter before its season opener. Very clever, Mr. Andersen.

Sophomores Key to Ole Miss' Success

It was interesting hearing Tunsil's, Treadwell's, and Nkemdiche's thoughts about building up a program to challenge Alabama and LSU.

NFL: Nickel Defense More Important Than Ever

A larger issue that I haven't really mentioned has been the disparity of talent between offense and defense. Usually, a team's third wide receiver is going to be less of a drop-off than a defense's third corner, and a top wide receiver is a lot easier to find than a shutdown corner. This is starting to change - defenses are getting more athletic to catch up to their offenses.

SI's B1G Preview

The "How They'll Finish" section seems lazy to me, and I'd also nitpick the sentence that Braxton Miller's working with an "almost entirely new set of skill-position players," but I'm probably just being grumpy.

SI's ACC Preview

I haven't mentioned Virginia, but they are in an interesting situation. Mike London was retained for a fifth year because of his recruiting prowess, signing a pair of in-state five-stars in the 2014 cycle and another in 2013. Still, his 0-8 conference record last year makes for a steep climb back. He went 8-5, 5-3 in 2011.

SI Feature on Trae Waynes

Being a DB demands a short memory and, even better, being impervious to what fans call "momentum." Waynes giving up a 43-yard completion at the start of the Rose Bowl got Kirk Herbstreit talking up Stanford with a good old "they don't see athletes in the Big Ten," but Waynes kept at it and got a key 3rd quarter interception.

Leadership Lessons From Nick Saban

If you read only one thing about Saban in your life, this would be the thing to read. It's long and starts slowly, but it's definitely worth at least a browse.

SB Nation's Alabama PreviewLSUGeorgia | South CarolinaAuburn

SB Nation's previews are all concluded for another year. The SEC West is loaded, but the East looks a little barren after Georgia and South Carolina.

The Illustrious Eric Murray

Murray should have gotten more accolades last season, but that should change this time around.

Wisconsin's Concerns at Nose Guard

I've been very impressed with Coach Andersen and his whole staff, both in technical knowledge and in being supportive of the players. He puts his players in positions to succeed.

Wisconsin's Lack of Concerns at Wide Receiver

While we're on that topic, here's UW's receivers coach talking up his position group.

Bringing the Option to Madison

The offense will also feature some option, which will help stretch the defense horizontally. The UW quarterback battle has been shaking out a little bit in camp, and Joel Stave is leading. Tanner will see a lot of game-action, though - the coaches are building a portion of the offense just for him. Again, these coaches are good.

Larry Fitzgerald Brings His Skills to Minnesota

This was an awesome read on Larry Fitzgerald and other NFL players practicing at Minnesota's facilities in the off-season.

Nebraska DT Aaron Curry to Transfer

The last few weeks haven't been very kind to Nebraska's D.

Mario Edwards Brings More Than Sacks

Edwards is one of the more recognizable stars on the team after Jameis Winston; as Fisher said, he's probably going to be starting on Sundays.

Top Ten SEC Quarterbacks

This will get you caught up on all the new faces.

Maty Mauk: The Next Johnny Football

Missouri's QB is an interesting character; unfortunately, he will also be working with a very different receiving corps, without Dorial Green-Beckham (883 yards), L'Damian Washington (893), and Marcus Lucas (692). All told, six of the nine most-targeted pass-catchers a year ago are gone.

Missouri Touchdown

Missouri got a lot of mileage from their big, athletic receivers.

Nick O'Leary Run

Fisher has talked about the value of tight ends, and how the NFL is also using them more. O'Leary will make a lot of plays for FSU this year.

Mauk to Washington, TD

Great play against South Carolina. Washington, who went undrafted, is now on the 49ers.

Bob Stoops Treats His Players to Ice Cream

Hey, it can't all be work.