Modern football is all about offense.

That’s why the past 4 Heisman Trophy winners have all been quarterbacks who come from teams with pass-happy, go-fast offensive schemes that put up numbers we used to only see in EA Sports NCAA College Football (pour one out!). 

Joe Burrow threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns — in the SEC!! Kyler Murray, the 2018 winner and the second consecutive quarterback from Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense to win, threw for 4,361 yards and added 1,000 on the ground, for good measure. His 54 total touchdowns were the most for a Heisman winner since Tim Tebow won in 2007 (Burrow would break Tebow’s record). Baker Mayfield, who won the year prior in Riley’s offense, tallied nearly 5,000 yards of total offense and 48 touchdowns as well. 

Offenses that can strike fast and often are the nature of the sport right now and as such, the getting is good for the talented quarterbacks who can run these offenses with the precision of sleek machines. 

It’s also changed the general expectation of what we want in football as viewers. Sure, most of us down south still believe as fiercely as a snapping turtle’s bite that defense wins championships, a good-old fashioned defensive struggle on a gray November afternoon is fun, and punters are people, too. 

But across the country, those darn kids are increasingly telling us that if a game doesn’t have at least 50 combined points, hurry-up no-huddle offense and quarterbacks who, to quote that canonical saint of southern sidelines, Steve Spurrier, “pitch it all around the sandlot and see if they can stop us,” it’s boring. 

The dirty little secret, of course, is that the SEC is responsible for this trend, too. As much as the Big 12 likes to think it revolutionized modern college football offense, the truth is it was Spurrier’s Florida teams that dragged the SEC, and eventually, the rest of the sport outside of Coral Gables and Tallahassee, kicking and screaming out of the 3 yards and many clouds of dust and into the 21st century. 

The SEC reacted to Spurrier, and the league’s era of dominance began. When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama, the next logical innovation — the spread offense, which is really the precursor to today’s modern offense — had begun to take hold. Saban stopped it with his elite defenses, and in so doing, established supremacy in the sport. Even when Saban couldn’t conquer the SEC, he won national championships, a testament to the durability of his “process.”

But a funny little thing happened along the way.

Even Alabama, the gold standard program you could always count on to pound you into the ground like one of your grandma’s flat cakes, eventually left the ranks of stubborn holdouts and joined the modern offense movement. 

Whether it was the Bear Bryant dynasty, the numerous great teams under Gene Stallings, that one year when Mike DuBose found a nut with Andrew Zow and Shaun Alexander, or the Saban dynasty, the common thread, at least until late, was Alabama not only could run the football at will, they preferred to run the football at will.

In the process, running back Mark Ingram won Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy in 2009 and workhorse Derrick Henry won in 2015. To put icing on the RBU cake, electric All-American Trent Richardson was a finalist in 2011, finishing 3rd. 

That all seemed to stop after Henry went to the NFL. Whether it was that Alabama transitioned from game-managing quarterbacks (of the best variety, to be fair) in the mold of Jay Barker and AJ McCarron to the dual-threat talents of Jalen Hurts (a  Heisman finalist!) and Tua Tagovailoa (a Heisman finalist!), or that Nick Saban, decided the program needed to be able to light up the scoreboard and stress defenses differently in order to stay on the optimal path to excellence, something changed on the Capstone.

It changed so fundamentally that Saban, the relentless taskmaster who once bitterly answered a question about the way no-huddle, tempo offense had become de rigueur of offensive schemes by growling, “Is this what we want football to be?” transformed Alabama into one of the most-efficient of the score-fast, play-fast offenses in college football — in less than 4 years.

The transition has spawned all sorts of theories, especially as it has yielded only 1 national championship since the shift. Has Alabama abandoned its identity? Is the reason for the statistical decline of Alabama’s defense over the last two seasons a result, at least partly, of too much offensive success — let’s call this the “Do we score too fast” argument. Was Alabama’s inability to control big football games the past 2 seasons at least partly due to the fact the program struggled to run the football? 

These are complex questions that require complicated answers.

The truth is the talent at running back at Alabama has never been better than the past decade. The Tide had 6 running backs on NFL opening day rosters. One of those players, Josh Jacobs, never even started at Alabama, a testament to just how deep Alabama has been at the position. 

But there are a lot of ways to hunt a hog, and the truth is Alabama’s offense, even without a power run game, has been dizzyingly efficient. The Tide finished 1st in success rate in 2018 and 2nd in S &P+ offense despite passing on nearly 60% of downs, a program-high under Saban. In 2019, the Tide were 2nd in success rate and 2nd in S&P+ offense (behind only LSU) despite a run-game success rate drop off that was the 3rd-largest in the Power 5 (Florida, Missouri). The Tide weren’t just good on offense without a dominant run game — they were great. 

But here’s the thing: Nick Saban is malleable.

You don’t change from the 3 yards and a cloud of dust Derrick Henry offense that, coupled with the best defense in Alabama history, won a national championship in 2015 to the high-flying Hurts and Tua offenses without being willing to do what it takes to win.

And this year, while we shouldn’t ever expect Alabama to return to the run-first power schemes that colored most of Saban’s first decade, we should expect more balance.

That balance opens the door for Najee Harris, the latest brilliant product of running back U, to break through and restore equilibrium. 

Welcome to the Najee Show

Let’s be clear: The talk of it will be dismissed as rat poison by Saban, who will smile at ceremonies when the season is over but rightly puts the success of the operation first. But if Harris competes for the Heisman, as we think he can, that will be a byproduct of the success of the operation. The two go hand-in-hand.

Here’s how, in the age of the video game number quarterback winning the Heisman, we think Harris can compete.

First, he’s a different type of Alabama running back. 

He’s lethal as a receiver, more a bigger version of longtime Chicago Bears All-Pro Matt Forte than a bruiser with “whoa, he’s really fast, too” speed like Derrick Henry. Harris is, as Saban told the media recently, “one of the smartest players he’s ever coached,” which makes him devastating in the screen game, where he understands the need to be patient and let blocks develop and angles emerge. Harris is already the all-time leader among Alabama running backs in receiving touchdowns and last season, he became the first since Ingram to catch over 25 passes and average a first down a reception in the process.

How good is he at catching the ball out of the backfield? Well, for a guy who is 15th all-time on Alabama’s all-time leading rusher list (2,377 yards), his best play as an Alabama football player, the one that will stand out like a Picasso on his NFL Draft film, came as a receiver.

I think it’s important to note the down and distance on that marvel, too. 

Saban, going for it on 4th down, and with the best quarterback in school history and the best receiving corps in school history, signed off on a call dialing  up a pass– to a running back.

That’s trust. That’s a sign of how versatile the 2nd-Team All-SEC selection from a season ago is.

Harris also can run the ball, of course.

Most programs would love to have a guy run for 1,224 yards and average 6 yards a carry in a season when they apparently “can’t run the ball.” Harris did that last season, and it was good enough for him to be an Honorable Mention All-American, per Pro Football Focus.

He improved as the season went on as well, capping the season with a masterful Iron Bowl against Auburn and a huge bowl game, where he ran for 282 yards, averaged 5.5 yards per carry, scored 3 rushing touchdowns and added 4 receptions against a pair of top 25 S&P+ defenses. There was a sense, when he decided to come back to school, that Harris was just beginning to tap into his ceiling as a college football player. 

Harris has also shown growth, as a leader in the community and the locker room, during the offseason, often a sign a player is ready to emerge from being a productive role player to a star. He was a vocal leader in the #WeWantToPlay movement on social media and a key voice in pushing his teammates to pursue social justice in the fight against racism this offseason. Meanwhile, he started his own YouTube channel, where you can see videos of his insane workout regimen and, you’ll note, see that he has his own sights set on a Heisman Trophy as a personal goal. 

Will he need to share carries? 

Hard to say. Trey Sanders is back from a foot injury, but Brian Robinson still figures to be the primary guy to spell Harris. Saban and OC Steve Sarkisian would love a rotation, but Harris is so far ahead of the others as a pass protect guy that it’s hard to see him taking too many snaps off. He’ll rest enough to be fresh, but not enough to harm his numbers.

Finally, the offensive scheme shifts favor a big production leap.

Mac Jones as the starter has meant, at least in early scrimmages, far less RPOs than the Tide saw under Hurts or Tua, the grand exalted mystic master of the RPO. Saban has praised the efficiency of the passing game after scrimmages, but interestingly, noted the number of safe, high-percentage throws are emphasized. These typically are installed to complement a dominant run game. 

Those are all nods to the ability of Harris, who, in an SEC-only schedule devoid of cupcake defenses, will be given a spotlight to showcase his wares and value to the scheme every week.

A versatile and dynamic running back at the center of an offense run by an efficient game manager? That sounds a lot like the old Alabama, and a reason to buy into the Harris for Heisman hype.