Alabama football: Forget the narrative, what about the football?
Good morning. The Rammer Jammer is a daily rundown of everything you need to know about Alabama athletics, published every weekday morning.
All the stats in this article come from Football Outsiders.
Let’s talk football, part one
At this stage, the narratives surrounding the coming national championship game are clear, if conflicting. On the Alabama side, the competing instincts of “a shambles after Lane Kiffin’s departure,” “They might actually give the ball to Bo Scarbrough,” and “Jalen Hurts is basically the second coming of Cam Newton” battle for airtime. For Clemson, it’s “Time for revenge,” “It’s time for Dabo’s breakthrough” and “DeShaun Watson is basically the second coming of Cam Newton.”
Offenses tend to garner more attention than defenses as matter of course, but the dirty secret about this game is that it figures to be a defensive struggle between teams with two fundamentally flawed offenses.
As a two-time Heisman finalist, Watson draws most of the hype as the leader of Clemson’s fast-paced offense, and appropriately so. Without Watson — specifically his passing — Clemson’s offense would be woeful. By S&P+, the Tigers have the sixth-best offense in the country, powered almost entirely by Watson’s passing, also No. 6 by S&P+. Clemson is, above all, efficient. Their “success rate,” which is essentially a measure of whether each play a team runs makes it more likely for it to get a first down, leads the nation. Their “explosiveness” rating is a relatively meager 20th.
The Tigers rushing offense? Hardly existent. They’re ranked 30th by S&P+. Their pass-to-run ratio is nearly 50/50, because they’ve been unable to move the ball at all on the ground, even with the quarterback. By yards per attempt, they’re 64th. By yards per game, 62nd. Either they can’t run the ball or they just don’t.
Incidentally, Washington rates better than Clemson in nearly every advanced category bar one: passing downs S&P+. In every other category, Washington has the advantage.
Alabama is by far the best in the country by every advanced defensive rating bar one: passing S&P+, where it is only ranked second. You can’t run the ball against the Tide, and you can barely pass, as Jake Browning learned. They’ve only got one weakness; the same it’s been for years: explosive plays. The major difference between previous years and this is that Alabama doesn’t give up explosive plays on “passing downs.” Essentially, when it’s second-and-8 or third-and-5 or more, Alabama gives up nothing.
In simpler terms, Clemson’s only offensive advantage is to hit big plays when Alabama’s not prepared to defend downfield in numbers. Last year, the Tigers did that by taking advantage of some egregious mistakes by Alabama defenders, particularly Minkah Fitzpatrick, who remembers that. And for all the talk of revenge on Clemson’s side, I guarantee Alabama’s defenders, who were so mad they could hardly speak after winning the national championship, will feel the same way.
- The must read of the day: Dalvin Tomlinson in the Players’ Tribune with a lovely and revealing tribute to his mother.
- OK, another must read: Jonathan Allen on his childhood and his ongoing search for his mother.
- Ever wonder what exactly Nick Saban does on the sideline?
- Another fascinating story: What it’s like to interview for a job with Saban — and Mrs. Terry.
- Saban has a recruiting lounge in his house.
- Cam Robinson called the Peach Bowl offensive performance ‘unacceptable.’
- For all the talk of distraction, Saban is laser focused on the title game on Monday, from Cecil Hurt.
- Jalen Hurts and Steve Sarkisian look sharp in practice. Hurts reportedly likes his new coach.
- Sarkisian has already made practice ‘faster and smoother,’ according to Calvin Ridley.
- Traveling to Tampa? Be prepared to adjust your travel plans.
- Bobby Williams went from an on-field role to “special assistant” this season. Here’s what that means.
- Roll Bama Roll’s countdown of the top moments of the season continues with Fitzpatrick’s 109-yard runback.
- For more statistical analysis, check these charts and bullet points from Roll Bama Roll.
- And 20 more stats to know before the game.
- For TONS OF DETAIL, here’s the Big Roll Bama Roll preview of the game.
- And a (slightly) smaller one focusing just on Clemson’s defense.
Let’s talk football, part two
So, that’s what the game looks like when Clemson has the ball. What about when Alabama’s on offense?
Clemson’s defense is excellent, also ranked sixth by S&P+. It gives up the fourth-fewest yards per play (4.39) and points per possession (1.25) in the country, and is only slightly behind in yards per game (310.6, good for eighth). All of that dwarfs Alabama’s offense, which is ranked 24th, 12th and 33rd in those categories, respectively.
But that obscures some of the advantages Alabama will have. For all of the anguish about Alabama’s under-utilized rushing attack, the Crimson Tide have the second-ranked rushing offense in the nation by S&P+. By yards per attempt, that falls to eighth, but that includes sacks as negative rushing attempts, of which Alabama takes many.
Clemson’s rushing defense is its biggest weakness, ranked 30th by S&P+ and 29th by yards per game. Alabama’s running backs should have a field day. Which is good, because Hurts might be fighting for his life. Clemson’s front seven is among the most active in the country and sacks the quarterback on 7 percent of standard downs and 13 percent of passing downs. The Tigers passing defense in general is ranked …. sixth in the nation.
The game hinges on how well Hurts, leader of the 25th-best passing offense by S&P+, responds to that — whether he gives up sack fumbles or makes hurried decisions against one of the top secondaries in the country. Much like the Peach Bowl, Hurts won’t have to win the game. He just has to not lose it.
Built by Bama
- Dabo Swinney isn’t the only former Alabama man at Clemson. Thad Turnipseed, former player and jack-of-all-trades at Alabama, jumped to Clemson in 2013.
- From ESPN, Julio Jones strives to have Jerry Rice-like work ethic.
Alabama’s basketball team has its work cut out as well, hosting Vanderbilt on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
The Commodores are fresh off a win against Auburn on Wednesday in which they bottled up what had been a fairly aggressive offense. If Alabama’s offense takes another step forward on Saturday, it can beat this Vanderbilt team, which has struggled against stout defenses. Alabama owns an advantage on the boards, 38.3-35.9, and holds opponents to 62 points per game. Vanderbilt, for its part, concedes 69 points per game, a nice stat for an Alabama offense that only averages 68 on its own. The Commodores move the ball well but get very few second-chance points, with only 27 percent of shots resulting in an offensive rebound.
Around the Capstone
- No. 3 Alabama gymnastics team opens its season on the road at No. 1 Oklahoma tonight at 7:45 ET.
- Also read this season preview of the Crimson Tide gymnastics team from Terrin Waack of The Tuscaloosa News.
- Swimming and diving opens its year with a pair of split dual meets on the road.
See y’all Monday morning.