Defense has long been seen as the key to Alabama’s success in six seasons under head coach Nick Saban.
Also, Saban is known to be quite the demanding boss and has said many times that he likes to pass. Remember, he was the guy who overruled previous offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and ordered a pass to win the 2009 Iron Bowl.
What’s more, Saban hired Nussmeier, an ex-quarterback with a passing-fancy history, to make Alabama’s offense more “explosive.”
Then again, Alabama fans know well that the Crimson Tide has that powerful offensive line and go-to running game. Stray long enough, as Alabama (12-1) did in its loss to Texas A&M, and expect impatience from the stands.
Nussmeier can expect a night of thanklessness when the second-ranked Tide plays Notre Dame in Monday’s Bowl Championship Series final, because Alabama will have to pass against the Fighting Irish. NCAA statistics bear out that Notre Dame’s front seven is too strong, and the secondary is the closest thing the Irish have to a weakness.
Notre Dame is fourth nationally against the run, which has a lot to do with the Irish giving up only two rushing touchdowns in 33 red zone opportunities this season.
Then again, Notre Dame is 21st against the pass, so Alabama has to take advantage.
Making matters more complex for Nussmeier, Alabama used the pass-on-first-down trick in beating unsuspecting LSU in last year’s BCS final. Alabama’s opponents adjusted this season, and Notre Dame’s defense will have an answer.
The Tide doesn’t want to make a habit of second- and third-down-and-long situations against the nation’s top scoring defense, so Nussmeier must play the flexibility game to strike the right balance in his first crack at a BCS final.
Balance will come more from flexible personnel than from passing on running downs against a smart Notre Dame defense, and make no mistake about it. Nussmeier is a flexible guy and showed it when Alabama rushed for an SEC Championship-record 350 yards.
“Well, obviously the goal of any offense is to put your playmakers in position to make plays,” he said. “Scoring points, having balance, those are things you focus on. Sometimes as the flow of the game dictates, you do certain things and you start to do them and you do them well and you stay with them.
“Specifically regarding that game, as the flow of the game went, we were able to create big, explosive plays in the running game, and there was really not a need to do anything else at that point in time.”
Alabama’s running game had a big second half against Georgia thanks, in part, to two-tight end formations. The Tide went with two tight ends to the right side and tied up blockers in Georgia’s 3-4 defense.
Notre Dame’s 3-4 is better against the run, but two-tight end formations also offer passing flexibility. Tight ends can be blockers and receivers, and Alabama has made good use of them in the passing game.
A two-tight end formation also looks like a run formation. It can cause Notre Dame to walk safeties up close to the line of scrimmage, which would expose corners to more man-to-man coverage against the likes of Amari Cooper.
Other groupings can get it done, but Nussmeier will need personnel and formations that sell run by giving the Tide enough blocking power against Notre Dame’s front seven but also create passing flexibility. It makes Alabama unpredictable on most any down.
“We’re going to have a balanced game plan,” he said. “We’re going to go into every game with the ability not only to run it but to throw it, have play-actions that come off our runs, all those type of things.
“But as the flow of the game goes, we’re going to aggressively try and take advantage of whatever part of our game we think is going to be the most successful.”
Here’s betting that Alabama’s passing game — with quarterback AJ McCarron, who got it done in the BCS final a year ago — will have the best chance to succeed against Notre Dame’s defense.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.