Previewing the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide Football Season

RBR readers: We have a favor to ask. Today we're treated to a preview of 2011 Crimson Tide football, courtesy of Bill C. of the indispensable Rock M Nation. If you're a regular reader of RMN, as you should be, you already know the exceptional statistical work that Bill does, and in particular how he uses it to preview games, teams, and seasons. Well, Bill is about to begin previewing about 80 of the 120 FBS football teams, and the idea is for the previews to be both informative and accessible.

That's where you come in. Bill has asked to preview Alabama here at RBR so that he can get your feedback on the content and style of the preview format. If you would, take a minute in the comments section to leave him some feedback. Did you read the whole thing? Did you understand it all? Was it accessible? What did you like and dislike about it? What's missing? What can be cut? Does the style and presentation work? If you encountered this on a website like sbnation.com would you have read it? Would you be interested in reading profiles like these for teams other than your own?

Any and all thoughts that you have: we want to hear them. Feel free to be critical, but also be courteous and respectful. Bill's put in a ton of work on this, and we're happy to have the opportunity to present it.  Without further ado.  - Todd

2011 Alabama Crimson Tide Preview

By Bill C., Rock M Nation

In sports, wins matter. Obviously. But I feel comfortable in saying that wins matter more in college football than in any other sport. In baseball, the best teams ever win 68 to 70 percent of their games. The '96-'97 Chicago Bulls won just 88 percent. It's been 35 years since the last undefeated college basketball team won the title, 38 since the 1972 Miami Dolphins did the same. But in college football, teams go undefeated almost every year. Sure, you occasionally get downright silly seasons like 2007, when a two-loss LSU team won the national title, but in a given year, wins -- pure, unadulterated wins of any form -- win trophies, get coaches ridiculous contract extensions, and, of course, get coaches fired.

Needless to say, then, Football Outsiders got quite a bit of negative feedback when, heading into bowl season, we had 9-3, 16th-ranked Alabama fourth in our F/+* rankings ... and undefeated, second-ranked Oregon 11th.

When evaluating the true quality of a football team, how much should wins matter? Your answer to this question completely impacts your view of the 2010 Alabama Crimson Tide. From the perspective of advanced stats, 'Bama was sensational, posting a +29.2% F/+ rating that really wasn't that far below their +36.2% rating of the previous season. Did they take a step backwards in 2010? Of course. This past fall, they fielded only the 13th-best team of the last six seasons; their 2009 team was third-best. But they did lose three times -- at home to F/+ No. 1 Auburn and on the road against No. 11 South Carolina and No. 13 LSU. Just about any team would have lost at least three times against the schedule Alabama faced.

But ... they lost. Three times. It's hard for some to get past that, and it's perhaps especially hard for 'Bama fans who a) have seen their team win bigger than any other program in this win-based sport, and b) had to watch their bitter rivals walking off with the national title. For them, 2010 was a frustrating experience. But with the bones of this program built as sturdy as any in the country, this type of "frustration" is both unlikely to continue and yearned for by most of the country.

2010 Schedule & Results**

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 12-1
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep San Jose State 48-3 W 42.1 - 2.4 W
11-Sep Penn State 24-3 W 39.2 - 20.2 W
18-Sep at Duke 62-13 W 54.1 - 15.8 W
25-Sep at Arkansas 24-20 W 40.4 - 25.3 W
2-Oct Florida 31-6 W 36.8 - 19.8 W
9-Oct at South Carolina 21-35 L 32.6 - 33.2 L
16-Oct Ole Miss 23-10 W 22.6 - 2.7 W
23-Oct at Tennessee 41-10 W 44.1 - 19.3 W
6-Nov at LSU 21-24 L 33.1 - 26.1 W
13-Nov Mississippi State 30-10 W 38.6 - 14.3 W
18-Nov Georgia State
63-7 W 36.5 - 9.8 W
26-Nov Auburn 27-28 L 29.4 - 18.8 W
1-Jan vs Michigan State 49-7 W 55.6 - (-4.8) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 35.7 18 13.5 3
Adj. Points Per Game 38.8 5 15.6 4

I don't make a habit out of quoting Lou Holtz (at least not without typing out a lithp). In fact, I go out of my way not to listen to a word Holtz is saying. But, credit where it's due: one of his go-to truisms is dead-on; you really do coach a different team every single week in college football. A measure like Adj. Score and Adj. W-L backs this up quite a bit. Technically, if you played at the exact same level every single week, your Adj. Score would be virtually the same. But that clearly doesn't happen.

Whereas Alabama's bowl performance against Michigan State was the second-best performance of any team all season in terms of Adj. Score (the only one better: TCU's pantsing of Utah), and while their shellackings of Duke and San Jose State were not far behind, they did have their moments of inconsistency. Their great individual-game performances were good enough to lead them to third place in the season's final F/+ rankings, but their lapses did indeed hold them back at times. In 2009, Alabama never allowed more than 24 Adj. Points in any single game; in 2010, they did so three times, twice in losses.

In all, however, Nick Saban proved in 2010 that turnover in personnel does not matter much when the coaching is strong and the talent is ridiculous. But when you are playing in the SEC, of course, even the slightest step backwards can cost you positioning on the totem pole. Inexperience can matter in random series of moments, but as whole you can survive changes in on-field personnel when your recruiting and development are this good.

And in case I didn't emphasize this enough ... damn, was that bowl performance impressive.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
(Efficiency)
PPP+ Rk
(Explosive-
ness)

OVERALL 3 5 4
RUSHING 3 5 4 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 4 5 6 9
Standard Downs 4 4 5 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 6 18 4 93
Redzone 41 31 51
Q1 Rk 5 1st Down Rk 1
Q2 Rk 2 2nd Down Rk 7
Q3 Rk 2 3rd Down Rk 8
Q4 Rk 74

(Note: don't be too thrown by Alabama's poor fourth-quarter rankings. To make sure the sample size is healthy, I use all plays for the per-quarter ratings, including those from garbage time possessions. Teams winning a lot of blowouts tend to see their fourth-quarter numbers suffering because the backups were in. Then again, telling Alabama fans to "ignore the poor fourth quarter numbers" after the Iron Bowl probably won't get me very far.)

The Alabama offense has steadily improved in each season that Nick Saban has been aboard. The Tide ranked just 58th in Off. S&P+ in 2007 but improved to eighth in 2008, seventh in 2009 and third in 2010. Obviously this coincides rather perfectly with the upgrade in talent (amazing how that works). To the extent that Alabama had issues in 2010, it certainly didn't come on the offensive side of the ball.

One interesting note from the table above: perhaps because of their trust in personnel (quarterback Greg McElroy, receiver Julio Jones and two dangerous receiving options in the backfield), the Tide took quite a few chances on passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more). They had no trouble dumping off to backs (of their 72 passing downs completions while the game was "close," 16 went to either Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram), but they took shots downfield quite often. Julio Jones caught 21 passes for an average of 14.1 yards on passing downs while the game was "close," Marquis Maze caught 15 for an average of 11.4, and Darius Hanks caught nine for an average of 16.3. The result of this downfield passing was twofold: 'Bama ranked fourth in Passing Downs PPP+ (explosiveness) but just 18th in Passing Downs Success Rates (efficiency). That slight inefficiency was just about the only thing resembling a weakness for this offense (along with a puzzling lack of success in the red zone).

The skill position lineup will experience a decent amount of turnover next year without McElroy (71% completion rate, 9.5 yards/pass, 20 TD, 5 INT), Jones (1,133 rec. yards, 7 TD), Ingram (875 rushing yards, 282 rec. yards, 14 TD) or H-Back Preston Dial (264 rec. yards, 3 TD), so it will be interesting to see if that results in a decrease in aggressiveness in second- or third-and-long situations. Will the coaching staff take fewer chances with less proven weapons and a new quarterback (whoever that may be)? Will a few extra touchdown drives result in field goals without one extra big play? A few field goal drives in punts?

Passing downs might be uncertain, but Alabama certainly has the pieces with which they can continue to succeed on standard downs. It is difficult to expect much of a dropoff at the running back position when Trent Richardson (700 rushing yards, 266 rec. yards, 10 TD) takes some of Ingram's carries and Eddie Lacey (406 rushing yards, 7.2/carry) and/or Fill-In-Random-Blue-Chipper-Here (Dee Hart, whose name was prominent in FaxGate? Jalston Fowler?) takes some of Richardson's. Ingram's footwork was fabulous, and he was as efficient a runner as one could imagine, but Richardson is explosive, dangerous, and brutally strong. Entering his third season, he should be ready to put up some semi-ridiculous numbers unless too many other back are stealing his touches the way he stole Ingram's.

Of course, you need more than a good runner to succeed on standard downs. Four starting linemen return, as do three others from the OL two-deep; meanwhile, receivers Maze (557 rec. yards, 3 TD) and possession weapon Hanks (264 yards, 3 TD) could succeed with some of the targets that went toward Jones. And by my count, they've signed, what, five four-star receivers in the last two recruiting classes? Six? The depth at receiver is somewhat unproven, and we'll see what happens at quarterback, but there are options aplenty if the staff (including everybody's favorite strength and conditioning coach) can push the right buttons.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 7 8 8
RUSHING 11 17 9 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 7 8 10 22
Standard Downs 4 4 10 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 3 18 2 64
Redzone 1 1 1
Q1 Rk 8 1st Down Rk 4
Q2 Rk 8 2nd Down Rk 4
Q3 Rk 13 3rd Down Rk 6
Q4 Rk 4

In football, as in life, it's all relative. Most fanbases -- approximately 115 of them -- would have loved to have Alabama's defense in 2010. They both attacked ferociously and prevented big plays. They were the best in the country in the red zone. They were fabulous on first, second and third downs. They got better (for the most part) in the fourth quarter. Despite a heavy amount of inexperience, they were great. And they also potentially cost Alabama a shot at a second straight national title.

Alabama ranked in the Top 20 in almost every category in the above tables, Top 10 in most. But there were a few flaws. They didn't generate nearly as much of a pass rush as one would expect, and considering how much they, like the Alabama offense, attempted to attack on passing downs, that did hurt them occasionally. They prevented big plays as well as anybody in the country, but they allowed you to be somewhat efficient, especially in passing downs situations (meaning, they sometimes allowed you to gain nine yards on third-and-8, but not 90).

In the end, to the extent that the Alabama defense had issues, it came in the form of their inability to stem bad momentum. Arkansas scored 17 points and averaged 8.9 yards per play in the first half against the Tide before the well dried up. South Carolina started their game by scoring three touchdowns in three drives and averaging 9.9 yards per play. After a woefully ineffective first half, LSU caught fire, scoring 18 points and averaging 9.9 yards per play in their first four drives of the second half. And in the third quarter, Auburn scored 21 points in four drives, averaging 9.0 yards per play. Even the best defenses allow successful drives. Alabama's problem, inasmuch as they had one (again, their overall numbers were strong), was that they allowed momentum to carry over into multiple drives in key moments. The good news: they can pin this on youth. They have plenty of reason to believe they won't have the same trouble next fall.

Gone are defensive end Marcell Dareus (27.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU), DE Luther Davis (16.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU), LB Chavis Williams (7.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks) ... aaaaaaand that's about it. Everybody else who mattered, returns. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw (42.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 1 FR, 2 PBU) was the primary attacker in Alabama's 3-4, and he was incredible. Along with weakside assassin Dont'a Hightower (49.5 tackles) and middle linebacker C.J. Mosley (48.5 tackles and two picks as a freshman), the Tide will have one of the best linebackin corps in the country. Strong safety Mark Barron (64.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 1 FF, 6 PBU) also returns. And when you recruit like Alabama, you are constantly bringing in some young hotshots ready to challenge for immediate playing time (like Mosley). Damion Square is the only truly proven playmaker on the defensive line, so I expect an interesting competition for playing time there.

Alabama's 2010 Season Set to Music

The entire Tupelo Honey album from Van Morrison. I mean, it was really, really good -- occasionally beautiful -- but it was no Moondance, if you get what I'm saying.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Typically, when you turn things around as suddenly as Nick Saban did in Tuscaloosa in 2008, the momentum is short-lived. As a whole, a team's four-year history is as or more predictive than last year's performance -- the correlation between a team's four-year F/+ rating and the next year's performance is 0.765; the correlation between last year's performance and next year's 0.767.

Alabama improved from 39th to seventh in F/+ from 2007 to 2008 (as a more extreme example, they improved from 55th to eighth in S&P+), but signs pointed to Alabama taking at least a small step backwards in 2009; most hugely-improving teams (think Ole Miss 2008) do just that. Instead, they took another leap. They ranked first in F/+ in 2009 and third in 2010. Nick Saban figured out a way to sustain sudden improvement, and he did so with top-notch coaching and ridiculous recruiting. Across the way, Gene Chizik will be attempting the same thing. Auburn improved from 61st in 2008, to 28th in 2009, to first in 2010, but without Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, etc., they might find sustaining this leap rather difficult. Alabama appears to be here to stay, but we'll see if I'll be saying the same thing about Auburn this time next year.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 4
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 1
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +11 / +16
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (6, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -8.7

Let's see ... top five in four-year F/+ ... check. A seemingly sustainable turnover margin (unless the winner of the quarterbacks derby does a nice Jarrett Lee impersonation) that wasn't bolstered by a ton of lucky bounces on fumbles ... check. A healthy number of overall starters returning ... check. Signs point to Alabama being ranked at or near the top of the 2011 F.O. projections. The Yards Per Point margin is a bit alarming -- thanks to great red zone defense, they were much more efficient on offense than their opponents were (even though they weren't as good as one would have expected in the red zone themselves) -- but the vast majority of our projection factors point to good things in 2011. This despite losing a Heisman winner, an All-American receiver, a stud defensive end, and a quarterback who lost three starts in his high school and college careers. These losses are just part of the "college cycle," of course, when you recruit like Nick Saban does. Hug your All-Americans on the way out of the door, and welcome the new set.

 

 

---

* F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

*** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

**** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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