Even though the University of Alabama football team has played in the last two national championship games against Clemson, it’s done so despite the Crimson Tide making more mistakes.
In this case, mistakes mean the three major negative statistical categories of turnovers lost, penalties and sacks allowed. Alabama’s overall numbers were up in 2015-16 — not just above average but collectively the highest since Nick Saban took over the program in 2007.
Yet looking at each category there are some obvious explanations as to why.
Although every coach will tell you that affecting the quarterback is crucial, sacks allowed have little statistical relationship to wins and losses. Nevertheless, they’re still something to avoid.
Alabama yielded 24 sacks last season after giving up 25 the year before. It didn’t allow more than 17 during three of the four previous seasons. Alabama’s average under Saban is 22.4
The rise may simply be a result of Alabama having more offensive snaps during the three seasons Lane Kiffin was offensive coordinator. It went from 826 offensive plays in 2013, to 1,018 during Kiffin’s first season, 1,088 in 2015 and 1,0156 last year.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense led the Football Bowl Subdivision in total sacks for the second consecutive season, with 54 (the 3.60 average was third). The Crimson Tide had 15 different players contribute to at least one.
Alabama fumbled 26 times, the most under Saban (the previous high was 24 in 2012), and lost 10 last season. The Crimson Tide have reached double digits in fumbles lost in four of the last five seasons. Their average is 8.9 over the past decade, but last year can’t be blamed on the running backs — they only lost two.
Having a true freshman quarterback was the primary cause. Jalen Hurts had 11 fumbles, five lost.
Hurts also finished with nine interceptions, all but one against an SEC opponent. But he didn’t have any during SEC Championship Game or the College Football Playoff. That was a reflection of his improvement and coaches putting him in position to be less at risk of a turnover.
Anyone who watched Alabama last season knows the importance of avoiding turnovers due to what the Crimson Tide often did after creating one. Alabama scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns, including 11 by the defense. The breakdown was six interceptions, five fumbles, three punt returns and one blocked punt.
This is the statistical category that will alarm Alabama fans for many reasons. Not only have the Crimson Tide committed more penalties over the last two years, but by a wide margin.
Some of that can be explained by more snaps and a true freshman quarterback.
However, Alabama had very few reoccurring transgressions last season. There were only three penalties that it was flagged for more than five times: 28 false starts, 10 pass interference calls and eight holds.
That’s the kind of thing that drives Saban nuts.
Some of the holding calls were not against the offense, and the pass interference makes sense. Alabama led the nation in rushing defense — 63.9 yards per game with Western Kentucky second at 97.2. Opponents had no choice but to pass and hope for the best.
But the 28 false starts were uncharacteristic. A team-leading eight were attributed to left tackle Cam Robinson. A couple were not attributed to a specific player.
Minimizing mistakes will be an obvious priority, but look for Alabama’s opponents to make more this season.
The 58 times they were flagged in 2016 weren’t just the fewest during the Saban er. According to teamrankings.com Alabama’s opponents had the fewest penalties called against them of any team in college football.
If they had been flagged the same as their season averages, they should have totaled 86.8 penalties. Despite the Crimson Tide’s pass rush, Alabama drew a holding penalty just once over the last eight games, and three the entire season.
Overall, in combined “bad things” of turnovers, penalties and sacks, Alabama averaged 8.6 per game in 2016. It usually leads the SEC, but last year was only fourth behind Auburn (7.2), LSU (7.8) and Mississippi State (7.8). Only three league teams averaged 10.0 or more, Arkansas (10.8), Florida (10.6) and Tennessee (10.1), but in previous years the gap was usually much wider from top to bottom.