Entering the 2009 SEC title game, Alabama's coaching staff knew at least three things about Florida standout corner Joe Haden.
One, his coverage was as effective as the hype suggested. His college career had already proven that, and a few months later, he'd be the seventh player taken in the NFL Draft.
Two, in Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong's man-heavy scheme, he'd spend most of the game locked onto Julio Jones, Alabama's star receiver.
Three, tape study showed Saban and his OC, Jim McElwain, that Haden wasn't nearly as comfortable covering receivers on the inside. He'd spent very little time there in his career and preferred playing on an island along the sideline, utilizing his skill of employing the boundary as a second defender.
The Tide elected for a strategy they'd used very little all season: Move Jones inside.
"Florida didn't have an answer," Greg McElroy, Saban's quarterback in the 2009 season, told Sports On Earth. "They had to tip their hand."
It simplified McElroy's reads and left an impenetrable Florida defense more vulnerable. McElroy averaged 13.3 yards on just 18 pass attempts while Heisman winner Mark Ingram pounded Florida for 113 yards and three touchdowns. McElroy's 239 passing yards were more than Florida had given up all season, and no quarterback had averaged 8.3 yards per attempt all year.
The Tide, of course, beat undefeated, No. 1 Florida, 32-13, and left a frustrated, two-time national champion Tim Tebow in tears on the sideline.
"He's always watching, always looking at things, always looking for a new approach," Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said of Saban.
Alabama is tuning up for another big game on Monday, when it takes on undefeated Clemson in search of a fourth national title in seven seasons. McElroy helped Saban win his first at Alabama year.
"I really think he views games like this the same as he does Tennessee-Chattanooga or Kent State," McElroy said. "You lose that one, you lose the championship just the same."
Monday will be the first time a Saban team has a little more than a week to prepare for a shot at a national title. Thanks to the College Football Playoff setup, the month-long layovers are reserved for the semifinals.
Instead, Alabama will have a slightly lengthened version of its usual game-plan prep time.
"After the first few months, you understand [Saban], you understand how to communicate with him, you understand how everything works and it's different," Kiffin said. "But once you understand it, and once you respect it, there's nothing that won't make sense."
During a usual week, Monday is reserved for "throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what works, what doesn't," McElroy said.
Tuesdays, work in practice is focused on regular down-and-distance situations. Wednesdays, the Tide zero in on red-zone and short-yardage plays.
That night, the game plan is finalized and select schemes tossed.
"It's very open and conversational. I remember always getting asked my opinion," McElroy said. "If there was a play or protection I didn't like, we took it out."
That set the stage for tradition McElwain installed alongside his offense when he joined Saban's staff at Alabama in 2008. There was no such thing as Thursday, only "Perfect Thursday."
By that point, practice speed picked up and players perfected the scripted plays heading into a Saturday matchup. Focus would shift to the concepts both sides of the ball figured to employ most heavily over the weekend.
"[Saban] is always changing. People think it's old school and it is how it is. It's not," Kiffin said. "Him allowing us to do what we've done on offense [this season] has been a great example of that. Going uptempo, going fast. We don't huddle hardly ever. I think everybody would have thought, 'Well, he's never going to do that because of the things he's said about it.' He figured out, 'OK, this is what's winning, let's go see if we can adapt and use some of this.'"
Monday night will not be business as usual. With a more traditional schedule leading into it, though, it'll feel a lot more like an average week for the Tide.
"He never made these games bigger than how they were," McElroy said. "He kept us focused on dominating every snap, and didn't focus on magnitude."
When you pair the most talented roster in college football on the field with its best game-week and game-day schemer off of it, you get a dynasty.