Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts against the Mississippi Rebels during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Saban has been softer and more supportive of his players this season, adjusting his temperament to maximize their growth. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)

Nick Saban’s ability to adapt key to Alabama’s return to SEC Championship Game

ATHENS — Of the many traits that have made Nick Saban the most dominant coach of college football’s modern era, his ability to adapt might top the list and serve him best.

The Alabama coaching offices have been a turnstile for assistants looking to learn Saban’s blueprint for success and advance their careers. There have been eight different offensive coordinators and five defensive coordinators serving Saban over the past 15 years.

That Saban has the Crimson Tide ranked No. 3 and facing off with No. 1 Georgia — coached by his second and longest-serving defensive coordinator at Alabama, Kirby Smart (2008-2015) — is a testament to the seven-time national championship coach’s managerial expertise.

A reloaded Tide team (11-1) plays the Bulldogs (12-0) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (TV: CBS).

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Saban’s Xs and Os are renowned, as he has shifted schemes and game plans to fit personnel and rules changes each year.

And, while Alabama uses velcro (probably) to secure nameplates on the coordinators’ office doors in the Mal Moore Athletic Facility, Saban has ensured a level of excellence regardless of who is calling the plays.

The faces and the names change, but the Crimson Tide uniforms and championship standards do not.

Saban’s challenge this season, however, was different.

The 2021 Alabama team is talented, to be sure, but it has required a different style -- a different tone -- of player management from Saban than last season’s veteran team.

Younger and less experienced players stepped into the shoes of six departed first-round 2021 NFL Draft picks, and the expectations were no doubt daunting for this round of Gen Z players.

Enter the kinder, gentler version of the 70-year-old Saban, a baby boomer who last week fiercely defended his players with a rant aimed at fans who were expressing too much public criticism for his liking.

“We think we should win games by whatever,” Saban said. “I don’t think that’s fair to the players either, because our players work their butt off to be the best they can be.”

Saban followed that defense up with a halftime message with his team trailing at Auburn that at one time would have seemed unimaginable coming from his mouth.

“I told them to have fun at halftime,” said Saban, whose team rallied from 10-0 down in the fourth quarter for a 24-22 win. “Quit worrying about the result, and let’s just go have fun.”

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Saban, no doubt, has made a concerted effort to be more supportive and tolerant while maintaining a calmer disposition on the sideline to maximize the performance of this younger team.

“When you have an older team, you have a little more maturity in terms of leadership, guys buying in, guys understanding exactly and believing in and trusting in what they need to do to be successful,” Saban explained on Thursday. “I think sometimes that can be a little bit of a work in progress when you have younger guys as they develop into that.

“I do think the approach is a little different in terms of the patience you have to have and just trying to be a good teacher.”

So while the 2021 Alabama football team hasn’t always had the highest marks, winning their past three SEC games by 7 points or less, enough lessons have been learned to return to Atlanta to defend the SEC championship.

“A lot of young players on our team have developed this year,” Saban said, “but I think we need to continue to work in that direction.”

The winner of the SEC Championship Game will assure itself a place in the four-team College Football Playoff, which will be announced at noon on Sunday.

The CFP semifinals take place at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 31, at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla. The College Football Playoff National Championship takes place at 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

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