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Unit Efficiency: Arkansas game

This past Saturday the Crimson Tide football team beat a supposed (we'll see where they stand statistically at the end of the season) top-12 Arkansas team by a whopping 24-point margin. Bama won the game so easily that Arkansas essentially waved the white flag early in the 4th quarter by resting their starting quarterback. The ease at which the Tide won the game against a supposed quality opponent has led many to begin lauding Alabama as a national-champion-in-waiting, or comparing the team favorably to past national championship teams at Alabama.

Not to say that those praises are off-base (hopefully they're spot on), but Bama's performance against Arkansas wasn't quite as dominant as the final result might indicate. Don't misread that--Alabama outplayed Arkansas statistically on both sides of the ball, but the offensive and defensive efficiency weren't nearly as thorough as the final score might indicate.

Instead--and this will come as no surprise to anyone who watched the game--big plays by the Tide defense and special teams provided most of the margin of victory. Now, of course, these big plays are part of the game, and certainly shouldn't be ignored or written off as mere "fluke". However, looking ahead and judging how good this Bama team really is right now, we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Alabama effectively executed a perfect fake field goal for a touchdown, but is that something we should expect to see replicated in every close game--or even once again at any point--the rest of the season? Similarly, can Alabama expect a pick-six in every close game? What about a punt return touchdown?

The answers are: of course not. That doesn't mean there won't be more big plays like that made the rest of the season, or that Alabama won't be the team making a disproportionate number of those plays, but it does mean that plays like those, which are rare even for good teams, shouldn't overshadow what the team did during the game in terms of its statistical efficiency. You may be saying, and rightly so, "I don't care about our statistical efficiency, I just care about winning, however it happens." That's a perfectly reasonable response, and in terms of winning an individual game, I totally agree with that.

However, what we're attempting to do by looking at Alabama's advanced stats and offensive and defensive efficiency is to gauge how strong each of the team's primary units is performing relative to its competition, and use that as a metric to assess where the team stands moving forward in terms of the strength of its component parts. We can't rely on defensive and special teams touchdowns every game, but we will have to rely on our offensive and defensive units to perform efficiently each and every time out, and in some cases we may even rely on them to overcome defensive or special teams scores by our opponents.

On that note, below the jump we'll share the statistical assessments of each Bama unit during the Arkansas game. The two-sentence summary? Alabama's offense and defense both outplayed their Razorback counterparts, but not nearly as thoroughly as the score might indicate. And the Bama special teams units were outplayed on the day--with the notable exception of the two touchdowns they scored, of course.

Offensive scoring efficiency  |  108.1%  |  Average

The Bama offense outplayed the Arkansas defense (sans both of their starting defensive ends), but only just slightly. The Tide had only nine non-garbage offensive possessions on the day, with an average starting field position of their own 26. Due to the very low number of possessions and the relatively poor field position, the expected scoring output for the offense was only 15.58 points.

Of the nine possessions, the offense produced two touchdowns (22% of possessions) and two field goal attempts: one extremely long (valued at only 0.11 points because of the low likelihood of a college kicker making a 54-yarder) and one extremely short (valued at 2.85 points because of the high likelihood of success). The other five non-garbage drives (55% of possessions) ended in punts. As a result, the offense produced 16.84 points on the day, just slightly above the expected value of 15.58.

Essentially, the offense was almost exactly as efficient as you would expect them to be against a defense of equal strength. Put another way, the offense's performance as a whole indicates they are at roughly the same level as Arkansas's defense is. Considering the Razorbacks--not considered an elite defense to begin with--were without two key starters and that almost half of Bama's scoring output came off a long screen pass that was inches away from being intercepted, it was far from a convincing performance from an offensive scoring efficiency standpoint. Nevertheless, it was an "average" performance" against what is probably a solid defense. Given the strength of the Bama defense, "average" may well be enough to get the job done in most games the Tide plays, but eventually the offense is going to have to step up its scoring rate against good teams.

Defensive scoring efficiency  |  76.1%  |  Above Average

The Bama defense managed to hold Arkansas's high-powered offense below its expected scoring output, which is a noteworthy feat. Arkansas's offense had 10 possessions on the day, with an average starting field position of their own 29 yard line. Due to the extra possession and the slightly better field position, the expected scoring value for the Razorback offense was 18.23 points, almost 3 points higher than Alabama's.

Of the ten possessions, two resulted in touchdowns (20% of possessions), while six resulted in punts, one resulted in an interception and one resulted in a turnover on downs. As a result, the Arkansas offense produced 13.88 points in scoring value, 23.9% below their expected scoring output of 18.23 points.

By holding a such a highly regarded offense to below it's expected scoring output, the Tide defense reaffirmed its status as an elite defense nationally. That said, the defense wasn't flawless, and Arkansas's offense still managed to approach their expected value. Still, while "above average" isn't "very good" or "excellent", it still indicates a very strong performance considering the perceived strength of the opposing offense. Again, though, let's not get too carried away comparing this defense to college football's all-time best until we see a little more, and find out just how good these opposing offenses really are.

Offensive field positioning  |  +0.46  |  Above Average

Once again, the best thing about this statistic from an Alabama standpoint is that it isn't a large negative value, meaning, of course, that the Tide didn't turn the ball over and put the Arkansas offense in good scoring position. This is the #1 biggest thing to look for here, as it is difficult for an offense to produce a high positive value in flipping field position, although the Tide did manage its modest total by advancing the ball to near midfield before two of its punt attempts. The Tide might can get by with "average" scoring outputs from the offense, but only if the offense keeps its field positioning stats close to neutral or better yet positive.

Defensive field positioning  |  +4.95  |  Very Good

Clearly, the big number here comes from the DeQuan Menzie pick-six, which allowed the defense to produce +5.06 points in value off the one play (it is less than 6.94 because it took away a possession from the offense). Aside from that one play, the defense actually ended up right at what would have been an "average" value of -0.11.

Special teams field positioning  |  +2.71  |  Good

Again, this big positive number is thanks entirely to one play, that obviously being the epic Marquis Maze punt return touchdown, which produced +4.86 points in value. Unfortunately, aside from that one play, the Bama special teams units were each outplayed, and would have ended the day with a "bad" rating and -2.15 points in lost value without Maze's big return.

  • The punt return unit led the way with a +4.39 rating, but again, without the Maze punt return touchdown, they would have ended with -0.47.*
  • The punting unit ended with its worst performance of the season, with only two of the six punt attempts resulting in above-average net punting yards. The result was a -0.67 field position rating. Again, though, the punting unit has been extremely successful in not giving up any big returns all season.
  • The kick return unit ended with -0.63 points in field position value on only three return attempts.*
  • The kickoff unit ended with a negative field position rating for the first time all season, ending with a -0.35 field position rating on seven kickoff attempts. Considering the number of kickoffs, this isn't a terrible number, but still, it's the first time all year an opponent has averaged starting beyond the baseline starting field position (their own 28) following kickoffs.

*The punt return and kick return numbers are heavily dependent on the opposing kicker's range, and so often these numbers are more indicative of the opponent's kicker than the unit itself.

Field Goal Unit Success  |  +7.16  |  Excellent

First of all, this number is huge because the field goal unit successfully converted a near hopeless field goal attempt (valued at only 0.11 expected points) into a touchdown on a fake field goal. Nevertheless, the credit for this play goes to the field goal unit, not the offense, for converting, and so that shows up here.

Aside from that unusual score, Jeremy Shelley and the field goal unit successfully converted all three PAT attempts (0.06 points in value added for each) and one very short 19-yard field goal (0.15 points in value added), for a modest +0.33 rating on the day.