It's nearly impossible to beat Saban at his own game. It's no surprise then that the team that beat him didn't try to.
When Steve Spurrier was in his prime at Florida, no one in the SEC could consistently beat him at his own game. Peyton Manning's Tennessee teams conducted the next best passing attack of the era, and they infamously went 0-4 against the Gators. When Spurrier left for the NFL, the void wasn't filled up by other teams running something akin to the Fun 'n Gun. Nick Saban took over with his intense defenses and pro-style attack.
That's an example of why everyone says that football is cyclical. The history of the game isn't just waves of coaches who do the same exact things succeeding each other through time. Some strategy or style of play rules for some time, then something else replaces it for a while. That new thing inevitably then gives way to something else.
There's no telling when Saban will cycle out and retire, but look at what kinds of teams have beaten him since 2008. He gets a mulligan for his 2007 team as he did his transition. The '08 team was really good, and then the program was fully operational by 2009. Here are the teams that he's lost to since that time and what styles of offense they had:
- 2008: Florida, spread option
- 2008: Utah, spread with some option
- 2010: South Carolina, spread with some option
- 2010: LSU, pro set
- 2010: Auburn, spread option
- 2011: LSU, pro set
- 2012: Texas A&M, uptempo spread with mobile quarterback
The only team that has been able to out-Saban the man himself in the past 4+ seasons is LSU, which is one of the few programs nationally that has recruited at Alabama's level. Not many schools can do that. Kevin Sumlin didn't try to do things on Alabama's terms on Saturday night, and A&M came away with the win.
This is a big lesson with some SEC coaching hires coming up. Will the schools with openings hire Saban-like guys as Tennessee and Florida did in recent years? Or will they do like what Texas A&M and Ole Miss did last year and get someone who is the polar opposite? The Saban tree hires are split, but the uptempo spread guys have outperformed expectations so far.
I am a bit biased in my views here , I'll admit. I grew up on Spurrier football and loved watching Meyer's spread option. I prefer aggressive offense over defense and power running. However, the results speak for themselves. Saban is a singular coaching talent with whom few can match wits at his game. It follows, though, that teams should try to beat him by playing a different game. If you're a program blessed with a rich talent pool and have the ability to skim the cream off of the top of it, then you might have a chance. That doesn't describe Arkansas or especially Kentucky, and it's not a good fit for Auburn or Tennessee either.
It's too early yet to say whether Sumlin will be the guy who takes the baton from Saban when the latter calls it a career. It is probable, though, that he'll be a thorn in the head elephant's side because he does things differently (provided his recruiting and development don't fall off). We're about to find out just how much different that several programs are willing to tolerate versus going with the "safe" choice of someone who is very unlikely to ever actually take down the conference's standard bearer.