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Processing the Numbers, Repugnant Edition | The Iron Bowl

One final, familiar hurdle stands between the Tide and the division title.

I will not post a picture featuring an API player or coach, so have a cheerleader instead.
I will not post a picture featuring an API player or coach, so have a cheerleader instead.

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So how’d last week go?

I mean, it was a cupcake, how do you think it went?

Aren’t you supposed to be previewing something, nerd?

Right! Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide finish out the season in West Georgia when they face the API Warplainseagletigers[1] in the 80th meeting of the Iron Bowl. The game is on Saturday, November 28th at 2:30 PM CST / 3:30 PM EST, and will be televised on CBS. That’s right, Verne and Gary wanted to call another Alabama game so bad they petitioned the SEC for the right to do so. Joy.

1 | Or whatever their mascot is today.

Obligatory Rivalry Week Throwing of Shade

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 8.8% (59) F/+ 63.5% (1) ALABAMA
FPI 11.2 (31) FPI 24.3 (3) ALABAMA
FEI 0.054 (48) FEI 0.293 (1) ALABAMA
S&P+ 3.4 (63) S&P+ 24.4 (2) ALABAMA
Home Spread 13.5 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Defense
OFEI 0.22 (42) DFEI 1.1 (2) ALABAMA
OS&P+ 30.6 (54) DS&P+ 9.6 (1) ALABAMA
Rush OS&P+ 106.6 (52) Rush DS&P+ 159.8 (1) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 106.6 (48) Pass DS&P+ 153.2 (1) ALABAMA
SD OS&P+ 98.8 (78) SD DS&P+ 155.3 (1) ALABAMA
PD OS&P+ 119.1 (30) PD DS&P+ 148.5 (3) ALABAMA
OALY 106.5 (44) DALY 130.7 (2) ALABAMA
OASR 124.7 (38) DASR 195.3 (2) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
DFEI 0.01 (65) OFEI 0.42 (31) ALABAMA
DS&P+ 27.1 (56) OS&P+ 34.0 (31) ALABAMA
Rush DS&P+ 104.5 (50) Rush OS&P+ 119.1 (13) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 107.1 (43) Pass OS&P+ 110.8 (44) PUSH
SD DS&P+ 106.4 (43) SD OS&P+ 112.4 (28) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 108.0 (45) PD OS&P+ 114.7 (35) PUSH
DALY 103.8 (50) OALY 110.8 (28) ALABAMA
DASR 58.3 (122) OASR 114.1 (45) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Special Teams
FVE 0.05 (40) FVE 0.14 (10) ALABAMA
STE 0.07 (18) STE -0.02 (89) API
FGE 0.64 (2) FGE -0.21 (99) API
KE -0.01 (56) KRE -0.24 (127) API
PE 0.13 (102) PRE 0.22 (7) ALABAMA
PRE -0.01 (71) PE 0.13 (103) API
KRE 0.15 (15) KE -0.16 (6) PUSH

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of November 24th, 2015.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.

Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.

SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.

SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.

Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Special Teams Metrics

FVE: FEI Field Value Efficiency, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.

Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.

Line-Specific Metrics

ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).

ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:

  • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
  • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
  • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
  • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.

After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).

The Swanson Giddiness Index

Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index and the Alabama Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

So, to say little brother fell off a cliff when a whole slew of starters departed for various reasons after last season[2] would be a tremendous understatement. Last year’s crew was a unanimous top-10 team per the various metrics, and while they stumbled a bit down the stretch in losing four of their last five games, they were a tough out for in four of their five losses.[3] That was with ideal triggerman Nick Marshall at the wheel of the Gus Bus, however, and his absence this season has been felt rather strongly.

2 | Even though one decided to stick around for five games anyway.

3 | The exception being Georgia, who laid down a 34-7 whoopin’ in Athens.

As a result, the 2015 version of this group hasn’t fared nearly as well, and the overall quality metrics place them somewhere between the 31st and 63rd best team in the country. That is a comically broad range, but regardless of your metric of choice, the Tide — neck-and-neck with Clemson and Oklahoma for consensus top squad in the country — have a significant edge. Vegas has Alabama installed as a near two touchdown favorite, which depending on your current gump level may strike you as a bit low.

When API Has the Ball

As noted, the Gus Bus is not running quite as smoothly as it has over the last couple of years, as the losses of — excuse me while I take a deep breath here — Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, C.J. Uzomah, Brandon Fulse, and D’haquille Williams from last year’s group have totally gutted this offense. In case you were curious, the above list was the starting quarterback, top two running backs, top two tight ends, three of the four starters at wide receiver, and half the offensive line from 2014, which is completely absurd. This group is not particularly effective at anything, with their highest placement in any of these metrics being #30 overall in PD OS&P+. The once-vaunted rushing attack is slightly above average now at 52nd overall according to S&P+, and their pass ranking is just four spots higher. They do an ok job protecting the quarterback, with the 38th-ranked offensive line in OASR, but that’s pretty much where the positive outlook ends. The Tide’s defense is ranked 3rd or higher in all of the metrics you see here, plus #1 rankings in Havoc Rate[4] and the opponent-adjusted versions of IsoPPP and Success Rate. The only team that’s really done significant damage to this defense was Ole Miss, and I don’t think I need to rehash how fluky that game was.

4 | Basically the rate at which a defense accumulates what I call a Disruptive Play in Charting the Tide.

The prevailing narrative regarding the Tide defense over the last few years was how Saban’s defensive philosophy couldn’t work against the hurry-up no-huddle spread teams, and that the loss of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive backs coach in conjunction with a talent drain had completely screwed up the secondary. All of that is out the window at this point, as the talent level returned to 2011-2012 levels, Mel Tucker fixed the secondary, and the Tide’s combatted the no-substitution offense with a deeper defensive line that substitutes in a hurry. You will not be seeing Marshall and Tre Mason gashing the Tide at will like in 2013,[5] or Coates burning a gimpy Eddie Jackson to a crisp like last year. This defense is way too good, and there’s just nobody on this offense that seems particularly bothersome. Do you think Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber are succeeding where Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb failed?[6] Do you think Jeremy Johnson or Sean White and Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray are succeeding where Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Mississippi State’s passing attacks all largely failed? I just don’t see it happening. I do see a lot of Johnson running for his life, though.

5 | Or a certain former kicker missing a slew of makeable field goals.

6 | Remember, well over half of Chubb’s production came on an 83-yard run in garbage time.

When Alabama Has the Ball

API was a legitimately good team last season, but as they seemed unable to keep most of their SEC opponents from racking up points, the faltering of the team down the stretch was blamed almost entirely on the defense. As such, Ellis Johnson was let go in the offseason, and Will Muschamp aka Coach Boom aka the Savior of API was hired to come in and fix the defense. The coordinator of Saban’s teams at LSU, as well as the 2006/2007 API squads and the 2009 Texas team that made it to the national championship, Muschamp completely flamed out as a head coach at Florida but still carried the reputation of an effective coordinator. This was the answer — Muschamp was going to come in and turn everything around, Johnson would win all the Heismans and API would win all the titles.

I’d like to point out that API ranked 20th last season in DS&P+; this year, they rank 56th. Before you say “but what about DFEI?” — they’ve dropped from 56th a year ago to 65th. Their crap pass rush, 96th in 2014, is now 122nd in DASR, among the 10 worst pass rushing teams in the country. They’ve dropped 14 spots in DALY, 27 spots in Rush DS&P+, 16 spots in PD DS&P+, while remaining about even in SD DS&P+ and improving 16 spots in Pass DS&P+.[7] Just to recap, this defense has gotten demonstrably worse in almost every way, with a small improvement against the pass as the lone bright spot. To be fair they lost some talent on this side of the ball, but allegedly that was to be offset by the return of Carl Lawson. That hasn’t exactly panned out.

7 | Cut to the API fans not missing Jonathan Mincy at all.

Much like the defensive side of the ball, the Tide have a significant edge almost everywhere. The two exceptions are unsurprisingly in the passing game, where API’s improved coverage has their Pass DS&P+ ranking one spot ahead of the Tide’s in Pass OS&P+ and just enough in range on passing downs to keep it interesting. Probably the most important line on that chart is Rush S&P+, where the Tide ranks 13th on offense against the #50 ranking for API. Derrick Henry has obliterated better rush defenses than that,[8] and I see no reason why he won’t do it again on Saturday. API’s not much for generating tackles for loss either, ranking 99th in stuff rate, and unlike Arkansas — the only team to really stop Henry this season — they are middling to bad in both Rushing Success Rate and Rushing IsoPPP.

8 | Wisconsin, Ole Miss, and Georgia all rank within the top-30 in this metric.

The low ranks in stuff rate, DASR, and DALY suggests this defensive line gets whipped in the trenches, and that means those tantalizing play-action passes may be available again this week. The Tide offense has been at its most lethal when Jake Coker has enough time to load up on the slower-developing pass routes, and if the sometimes-suspect offensive line doesn’t have to work too hard to keep Coker’s jersey clean, we could see a lot of explosive plays on Saturday. I’m not sure what you’re really supposed to do against this group if you don’t have a defense that does anything well. Sell out to stop Henry, and you’ll get killed over the top by Calvin Ridley and company. Keep safeties deep like the Viles did, and Henry drops a buck fifty on you. Pick your poison.

Special Teams

Daniel Carlson is a fine field goal kicker, 20/23 on the year and 4/5 from beyond 50 yards, with a long of 56. His efforts have earned API the #2 ranking in FGE, which you may note is far and away their best ranking in the charts above. It’s so good it swings an otherwise meh special teams unit to the #18 ranking in STE, which is leaps and bounds better than the Tide’s ranking in the same. They’re also pretty good on kick returns, with Johnathan Ford and Kerryon Johnson combining for a 28.2 yards per return average on the season. That’s unlikely the carry over to this game, however, as kickoffs have consistently been a strong point for the Tide this year. Adam Griffith rarely fails to make the end zone, and the Tide’s coverage unit is stocked with quick, hard-hitting athletes — even Evan Berry, an absolute demon on kick returns, only got loose once, and was held below his average on that return.

One thing I’ve noticed about these metrics is they tend to be easily skewed by a handful of bad plays, so despite the improved play of J.K. Scott and Griffith over the past few weeks, the Tide have barely moved at all in the rankings for FGE and PE. The same could be said for kick returns, where the Tide’s done just fine since the issues early in the season. One area that has only gotten better is on punt returns, where Cyrus Jones has returned three for touchdowns in the last two games, and is now second nationally in punt return yardage. API rates out very poorly in PE, and for similar reasons to the Tide: they’ve allowed a punt return touchdown, and their punter, while solid, is not exactly kicking the air out of the ball. Of course, you could say the same about Mississippi State, and we all saw what Jones did there.

Finally, the Tide have a significant edge in Field Value Efficiency, which is a product both of Griffith and Jones’ work, but also the Tide’s bevy of non-offensive touchdowns and turnovers gained, the latter of which ranks second in the conference behind Florida. API’s mark is solid but well behind the Tide’s, and having to work with long fields against this defense is not going to be fun time for their anemic offense.

Any intangibles to consider?

This is in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the Tide have won just four times in 12 meetings. Two of those wins have come in the last three meetings in that stadium, however, as the shift from a yearly tilt in Birmingham to rotating home-and-homes happened to coincide with the second dark age of Alabama football. The weather looks to be delightful, with partly cloudy skies, a high of 72, and no wind or rain in the forecast.

The injury bug has largely left Alabama alone this season, with Kenyan Drake’s broken arm the only significant injury on the docket at this point. Minkah Fitzpatrick is back practicing, but with a heavy brace on his knee, and it is unclear if he will be able to go this week. Dominick Jackson was also back practicing with the first team, and all signs are that he will be ready to go on Saturday. API’s lone significant injury is to starting center Austin Golson, who missed the Idaho game with a knee injury and is questionable to play on Saturday.

Finally, a common refrain about the Iron Bowl is that you can “throw the records out” when these two teams meet, as the importance of the game to both teams tends to elevate the play of the lesser team. While that may be true in general game flow — who can forget the 2009 edition, when a 7-4 API squad opened up a 14 point lead on the undefeated Tide before succumbing 26-21 — it’s absolute nonsense when it comes to the final outcome.

Since the series was restarted in 1948, the team with the better winning percentage at the end of the season has lost just 8 times, and in only three of those was the result a significant upset: 1949, when a 1-4-3 API squad beat the 6-2-1 Tide; 1984, when a 4-6 Tide team upset 8-4 API; and 1990, when the 7-4 Tide beat 7-2-1 API.[9] There’s an 80% correlation between the margin of victory and the difference in final win percentage in this series since 1948, which suggests the better team tends to win the game.

9 | This last one seems a bit tenuous, but API would go on to finish 8-3-1 vs. the Tide’s 7-5 mark, so.

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron foresees a big game for Henry. Ron’s pretty excited about that.

The Picks

I’m really hesitant to approach this with any level of smugness — the results in those two games that didn’t happen in this series weigh heavily on my mind — but I just don’t see a realistic scenario in which API wins this game. The Tide is just too good this time around.

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