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A recipe for success: What it takes to build a championship team at Alabama

What goes into building a national championship football team at Alabama? Is there a recipe, and what would it look like if so?

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban receives the CFP trophy during the trophy presentation at the conclusion of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on January 8, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Photo | Getty Images
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban receives the CFP trophy during the trophy presentation at the conclusion of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on January 8, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Photo | Getty Images

Nick Saban provided insight on the topic this spring, listing leadership as the key ingredient to his teams’ success. The head coach spoke at length, emphasizing the importance of team chemistry and core values which are the crux of the program’s “Alabama factor.”

“All the good teams that we’ve had around here, the teams that have won championships, we’ve had the kind of leadership that help people sustain through the tough times, and they demanded that everyone sort of adhere to the standard,” Saban said. “It wasn’t just the coaches preaching that. So, I think that’s important, and it really makes it special when you have the best players on your team also the guys that are the best leaders.”

Leadership will certainly be important, but what else must be thrown into the pot to stew up a champion? When examining Alabama’s five national championship teams under Nick Saban, a few trends stick out. Here’s a look at some of the things past title-winning teams had in common.

A top-two scoring defense 

Defense has always been a staple of Saban’s Alabama teams, but only the Crimson Tide’s most elite units have went on to become champions. In each of Alabama’s five titles under Saban, the Crimson Tide ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in scoring defense. During the head coach’s 12-year tenure at Alabama, his team has been ranked inside the top-two in the statistic six times. The only one of those teams not to win a title came in 2016 when the Crimson Tide finished No. 1 in the nation despite suffering a last-second loss to Clemson in the national championship game.

While it might be the case at Alabama, having a top defense isn't necessarily a requirement for a championship team. Clemson’s 2016 team finished No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, while Ohio State’s 2014 team finished No. 26. Auburn might be the biggest exception to the rule, winning the 2010 national championship despite ranking No. 53 in scoring defense.

Still, the old saying “defense wins championships” rings true more often than not. With that being said, Alabama will need to improve on a unit which finished No. 12 last season.

A top-two run defense

Just like scoring defense, this is a category Alabama has dominated under Saban. The Crimson Tide has failed to rank in the top 10 just twice in his 12-year reign — last year and during his first season. However, Alabama’s title-winning teams have taken things a step further.

All five of Saban’s championship teams at Alabama ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in rush defense, with the past four leading the nation in the category. Meanwhile, other national championship teams haven’t been as reliant on stopping the run. Clemson finished No. 4 in the nation last year but ranked No. 24 in 2016. Ohio State ranked No. 34 in 2014, while Florida State ranked No. 18 in 2013.

Alabama’s run defense took a major hit last season, ranking No. 19 while surrendering 121.27 yards per game on the ground — up from 94.71 per game in 2017. The Crimson Tide will need to improve on that despite losing three of its top four leaders in tackles for a loss in Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs and Christian Miller.

A top-10 pass defense

It should come as no surprise that the positional group Saban directly oversees has also been influential to Alabama’s past success. The head coach is known for developing elite defensive backs, and that has been reflected in the majority of his national championship teams. Four of Alabama’s five national titles under Saban have had top-10 pass defenses with the lone anomaly coming in 2015 when the Crimson Tide ranked No. 30 in the nation.

Unlike scoring defense, every time Alabama has put together a top-10 pass defense it has resulted in a national title. However, that feat hasn’t been necessary to other championship-winning teams. Clemson ranked No. 24 last year and No. 14 in 2016. Ohio State ranked No. 29 in 2014, while Auburn ranked No. 108 in 2010.

Last season, Alabama ranked No. 33 in the nation in pass defense, surrendering 198.3 yards per game through the air. The disappointing numbers came as the Crimson Tide was forced to replace its entire dime secondary while also dealing with a season-ending foot injury to starter Trevon Diggs in Week 6. While Alabama loses two starters in Deionte Thompson and Saivion Smith, the return of Diggs as well as Xavier McKinney, Shyheim Carter and Patrick Surtain II should result in an uptick in performance.

A 1,000-yard rusher 

The cries of “run the ball” are generally the first complaints heard inside Bryant-Denny Stadium whenever the Crimson Tide’s offense starts to sputter. While not always correct, Alabama fans might be on to something with this one.

Alabama has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher just four times under Saban — 2018, 2014, 2010 and 2007. None of those teams went on to win national championships.

However, this stat can be a bit deceiving. Despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher last season, Alabama had roughly the same amount of rushing yards (2,976) as it did in 2015 (2,999) when Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy rushing for an SEC record 2,219 yards on the ground.

In recent years, Alabama has moved away from using a bell-cow back such as Henry, instead opting to cycle through a three-back rotation. While that system seems to be working for the Crimson Tide, it is worth noting that the past 10 national champions have all had 1,000-yard rushers.

A starting quarterback who throws five or fewer interceptions

Until recently, Alabama quarterbacks have been described as “game managers.” In the past, Crimson Tide quarterbacks seldom led the nation in passing stats but instead strived in controlling the game and limiting their mistakes.

While not as flashy as Tua Tagovailoa’s record-breaking season last year, the system led to plenty of success. Four out of Alabama’s five national titles under Saban involved starting quarterbacks who threw five or fewer interceptions. The lone exception was Jake Coker, who threw 10 during the 2015 season. During the Saban era, the only Alabama starting quarterback to throw five or fewer interceptions and not win a title that year was Greg McElroy, who threw five in 2010.

Tagovailoa didn’t make many mistakes during his record-breaking sophomore season last year, but his two interceptions in the national championship game put him at six on the season. This offseason Saban challenged the Heisman finalist, stating Tagovailoa needed to “take the perception that he has a lot to prove relative to how we ended the season.”

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