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The Process by the Numbers: Part III - Running Man

Over the past two days we've looked at how Coach Saban's defense is aimed at getting opposing offenses off the field (Part I is here and Part II is here). What the numbers seem to be showing us is that Alabama's defense begins by shutting down the running game and subsequently creates ideal conditions for defensive backs to stymie first down conversions.

The upshot of all this is that it provides the Crimson Tide offense the opportunity to do pretty much the exact opposite. By forcing opposing teams to the air it speeds up their game and keeps them off the field. The goal of the Crimson Tide offense is the mirror image of that -- slow the game down and grind out possessions on the ground.

Having a Heisman-Trophy-winning running back and superstar-in-waiting backup helps considerably in achieving this goal but so too does having a beast of an offensive line. It's not by accident that the highest-paid offensive coach on staff is OL coach Joe Pendry who pulls in $40K more than OC Jim McElwain.

The Crimson Tide philosophy was explained point blank last February by Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart at the Coach of the Year Clinics:

Historically, the teams that can run the ball and stop the run win more games. Offenses today want to throw the ball. The players like it, and it is fun. At the University of Alabama, we are not about fun. We are about toughness, being physical and winning ball games. The players have fun by winning games and championships.

Once again, the numbers bear him out. Basically, the Alabama running game is producing close to twice as many  yards per season as it was four years ago (88.19%) and more than three times as many touchdowns (see Table 1). Our opponent's ground game has been slashed by nearly a third (31.42%) in terms of total yards and less than half as many touchdowns (see Table 2).


Certainly Mark Ingram's phenomenal 2009 performance helped that, but having a second tailback sensation in the backfield didn't hurt either. As Coach McElwain observed recently: "There is something pretty nice about having a fresh Trent Richardson or a fresh Mark Ingram in the game, rather than running them ragged." That "something nice" is a combined 2,462 yards rushing for the season.

The upshot of this potent running attack is a dramatically increased time of possession. In 2007, Alabama's time of possession season average was almost a minute less than its opponents and ranked 73rd in the nation. Last year, the gap between the Crimson Tide and its opponents in terms of season average for time of possession was more than seven minutes -- almost half a quarter -- good enough for fifth in the country  (Table 3).


Still, rushing alone doesn't win football games. In fact, more and more statistical analysis suggests that the opposite might actually be true. The venerable panjandrums over at Football Outsiders have looked at all the numbers and insist that "You run when you win, not win when you run." While their analysis is of the pro game they are currently examining the issue in regards to college football and, thus far, the same rule seems to apply.

But the point here really isn't that a team must emphasize the pass to produce, rather it's what Chris Brown has argued at some length over the years -- it is a balanced offense is the most likely to produce results. Which, you'll be happy to learn, is the hallmark of the Crimson Tide offense under Coach McElwain (Table 4).


Tables and Statistics

Table 1: Alabama Rushing Figures

yards attempts TDs
2009 3,011 601 31
2008 2,585 568 32
2007 1,940 490 19
2006 1,600 455 10


Table 2: Alabama Opposition Rushing Figures

yards attempts TDs
2009 1,111 393 5
2008 1,038 391 5
2007 1,614 470 14
2006 1,620 409 12


Table 3: Time of Possession (Season Average)

Alabama Opponents
2009 33:31 26:29
2008 32:03 27:52
2007 29:34 30:27
2006 32:11 27:49


Table 4: Alabama Offensive Yardage

Rush Yards Pass Yards Total Yards
2009 3,011 3,305 6,410
2008 2,585 2,396 4,981
2007 1,940 2,919 4,859
2006 1,600 2,767 4,367


Chris Brown, Smart Football

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