COLUMBIA, S.C. – In a private moment Saturday night, Nick Saban was asked about No. 2 Alabama's offensive identity through three games.
With four of the best wide receivers in the country, Saban called getting all of them the ball a "dilemma." With a Heisman Trophy runner-up calling the shots for those receivers, he said, "I'm not apologizing for that."
What he didn't say -- out loud at least – is that this is what Alabama is at the moment. The defense is good, not great. Same with the running game.
Until further evidence -- or No. 1 Clemson eventually -- proves otherwise, Alabama football centers around one of the best passing offenses in the country.
Cover your ears, Bear Bryant.
Saturday's 47-23 win at South Carolina likely won't wipe the scowl off Saban's face. But it did crystallize what the Crimson Tide are going to be in 2019 -- a passing team centered around the amazing Tua Tagovailoa and four draftable receivers. Three of them -- Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith -- are projected to leave early for the NFL.
You might have heard of Tagovailoa already. His five touchdown passes tied a career-high. His 444 yards were a career-high. In doing so, he became the first Tide quarterback to throw for 400+ yards and five touchdowns in the same game.
"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," Saban said. "If we're making it work and we're moving the ball and we're making plays, why change?"
That statement alone should be worth a month's worth of calls on Birmingham sports talk radio where the daily refrain is summed up by, "Run the damn ball."
Call it part of Southern culture. Call it part of Alabama culture. Physicality means something in this part of the country.
It's just that, not so slowly, the culture in Tuscaloosa has changed. Alabama ran it for 76 yards Saturday, its lowest total since 2014.
Little of this should be a surprise. Saban committed to the spread option a couple of years ago. Alabama declared itself a passing team last season when 63 percent of its total yards came through the air. In his first year as a starter, Tagovailoa threw for 43 touchdowns and fell 34 yards short of 4,000 passing.
Through three games, those numbers look like piñatas to be shattered. With five more touchdown passes, Tagovailoa has now accounted for 13 touchdowns, 12 of them airborne. The Heisman he fell short of capturing last year is within reach with a quarter of the season now complete.
Saban said Bama chucked it 39 times in 64 total snaps because South Carolina loaded the box.
The result said, if everything else fails -- and it seldom does at Alabama -- the Tide can win with their elite skill players.
South Carolina made the decision to take Jeudy -- a projected first-rounder next spring -- out of the game. That strategy largely worked as he caught only six balls for 68 yards. Jeudy came into the game on pace for 117 catches this season.
All that did was open up the field for Smith to catch a career-high eight balls for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Smith's legend status is already solidified having caught the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Georgia for the College Football Playoff National Championship two seasons ago.
Another junior, Ruggs, had six catches for 122 yards. Sophomore Jaylen Waddle had only one catch, but through three games, the foursome has accounted for 62 of Alabama's 82 receptions.
"All the running backs knew it wasn't going to be a big game in the running game," said tailback Najee Harris. "Teams who stop the run first have man-on-man on the outside."
That should have meant a quick death for the Gamecocks. In fact, they were still in the game at halftime, down just 24-10. It should have been closer. Coach Will Muschamp throttled up the aggressiveness calling for a fake punt and fake field goal. Neither gadget play ultimately worked. In fact, the Gamecocks ran 24 consecutive plays between the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third. Total production: three points.
"The quarterback is outstanding, and their receivers are elite," Muschamp said.
There's your game right there. Saban and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian were content with a game plan that kept Tagovailoa in the pocket even when there were wide swaths of turf to run in front of him.
Why risk injury? That's why Alabama finds itself chasing Clemson in the first place. Tagovailoa was banged up at the end of last season with knee and ankle injuries.
"Is this who we are? I think it's still kind of early to say who we are as an offense," Tagovailoa said. "This is our first SEC game on the road. Whatever challenges we face next, you can probably come back in the 12th game and ask me that question."
If this is how it's going to be, Alabama is going to be wonderful to watch.
Not necessarily the winning and the dynastic tendencies and whatever weekly rant Saban is on.
Just, you know … fun.
Everything else is … details? Perhaps.
This isn't a vintage defense. Three freshmen are starting on a unit that was reconfigured after being Saban's "worst" since 2007. (The Tide were an "appalling" 16th in total defense last season.)
Judging by Will Reichard's two misses, there are kicking problems. (The "SEC on CBS" broadcast noted that Bama kickers have missed an average of more than eight field goals per season since 2007.)
All of it just doesn't matter at the moment. Sarkisian is the former USC coach. He was the quarterbacks' coach on the 2003 Trojans team that shared the national championship. He said that, for all the great USC receivers that passed through during that time, there none close to this collection.
As far as conference-opening statements go, this one was simple: Catch us if you can.
If you have to be reminded, this is a program that has won two Heismans since 2009 with big, bruising running backs (Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry).
"If you're a boxer, cut 'em and just keep working the cut and do it for 15 rounds in the game," Saban said.
That statement used to fit Alabama football. Now, if the Tide don't currently have the best passing attack in the country, it's one of them.
That's saying a mouthful at Alabama. Sometimes, it's hard to forget Tagovailoa might be the first quarterback (or player) taken in next spring's NFL Draft. Bama hasn't had a first-round quarterback selected since Richard Todd in 1976.
One final example of what Alabama has become. Harris provided the best highlight of the day, catching a pass and breaking two tackles to put Bama up two touchdowns in the second quarter.
To get to the end zone, Harris had a decision to make along the sideline: lower his shoulders and bowl over a defender or leap over him.
Let's just say Harris has a heck of a vertical.
"I always tell him not to do that. It could be dangerous," Saban said.
Why, Harris was asked?
"I can get flipped and hurt," he answered. "And coach wants us to lower our shoulders and hit more people. There's a time for that and a time for hitting. I guess that was a time to hurdle. I didn't want to lower my shoulder, so I just felt like it would be faster to hurdle."
How far away can we be from Air Alabama?