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Graphing the Tide vs. Texas A&M

The numbers tell the tale of a well-disguised whoopin’.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The big SEC West top-6 matchup of the weekend eventually turned into a lopsided affair, with the Tide coming out on top 33-14. While the box score shows a close game up until midway through the 3rd quarter, the efficiency numbers tell the “blowout” story that was creeping beneath.

Metric definitions

A "successful" play, as defined by Football Outsiders, is basically when a play gains enough yardage to keep the offense on track, i.e., 50% of needed yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, or 100% on 3rd/4th. A "big play" (aka an "explosive play") is any play that gains ≥15 yards (run OR pass).

Success rates, big play rates

Big play rate (XR) and Success rate (SR)

* NCAA average SR = 40%

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Overall: The Tide achieved their highest total success rate of the season, at 57%, while holding the Texas A&M to a below-league-average 32%. That’s a pretty amazing gap considering that the Aggies were up 14-13 midway through the third quarter. But it was the same thing that happened to the Tide against Ole Miss: failure to convert on ample opportunities. Alabama moved the ball well pretty much all game long, but had a few sequences that ended in field goals (made or missed).

Progression: The best quarters were the 1st and 4th, which were bookends to a consistent afternoon on offense: aside from a lower SR% in the 2nd and a lower XR% in the 3rd, the quarters look similar. That’s a relief to anyone that likes a balanced approach over the boom-and-bust progression we’ve seen in a few games, notably vs. USC (cold, then hot) and Arkansas (hot, then cold).

Defense: A solid game overall for the defense, as they held Texas A&M to below-average success rates in 3-of-4 quarters (and with no explosive plays, or really much of anything, in the first quarter). However, the Aggies did end up with slightly higher big play rates than the Tide, at 12%. The sore thumb here is the 3rd quarter, where a few big passes, a few big runs, and a 15-yard Knight QB scramble gave the Aggies a 20% XR for the third quarter (and some points, to boot). While a few of these were of the how-the-hell-did-you-catch-that variety, this is something to keep an eye out for when Alabama plays against solid passers, especially with senior safety Eddie Jackson out for the season :(.

The only other teams to have higher success rates against Alabama were Ole Miss (39%) and Arkansas (40%). Both of those teams feature pass-heavy offenses led by solid quarterbacks—surprisingly, for Arkansas, on both counts—so this does give some hope that LSU and Auburn won’t have success without those elements in place.

Running and Passing, Alabama (#RTDB)

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Overall: the Tide offense played a great game, with running and passing almost never slipping into average or below-average success rates. Both running and passing ended up at strong (if not earth-shattering) mid-50s success rates, with #RTDB the ultimate (if slight) winner.

Pacing: Alabama held the ball for a lot of the first half, and especially in the first quarter. The first half drives had play counts like this, in order: 10, 14, 12, 8, 3, 8 6. Bigger scoring plays in the late second half contributed to shorter TOPs and fewer plays per quarter then.

Balance: The Tide ran the dern ball in this one... the 66% cumulative run rate matches a season high watermark, the other game being against Arkansas. Alabama tried to keep things relatively balanced in the first quarter, mostly with Hurts passing to Calvin Ridley to counter to the run, but reverted back to the very-successful running game in the 2nd quarter.

Kiffin started the second half airing it out, this time mixing in the tight ends (especially O.J. Howard) and ArDarius Stewart. Thankfully, the passing success rates remained stable (and put up points). This trend continued after Texas A&M took the lead in the 3rd quarter, as the Aggies defense started improving against the run in the 2nd quarter. After regaining a comfy lead in the 4th quarter, Alabama’s run game came back via Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris.

There was a moment in the 3rd quarter where the run/pass balance was nearly 50/50, until the Tide utterly abandoned the pass in the 4th quarter... which was a whopping 16 runs in a row with zero passes. Amazingly, the success rates stayed above average throughout. #RTDBL.

Success: Alabama’s first 5 plays in a row were successful, with the last 4 of them being running plays. The overall running success rates did settle after that unsustainable first quarter, but remained above-average throughout the game (even in the brief garbage time). Passing was up and down early on, but never a poor performer: in fact, it climbed slightly through 3 quarters before the Tide stopped passing.

Running and Passing, Texas A&M

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Balance: Texas A&M started leaning on the pass more heavily in the 2nd quarter, when the score was close but the stats weren’t, but by the second half they were putting together a very balanced attack that didn’t waver through the rest of the game.

Success: Surprisingly, the Aggies did have some success on the ground: during their successful spree in the late 2nd and early 3rd quarter, their rushing SR%s were above average. Thankfully, that settled back in to below average by the 4th quarter. The passing game, aside from a handful of big catches, never threatened from an efficiency perspective, as it was below average throughout the game (and really slipped during their 4th quarter throes of impending defeat).

Run direction

Run Direction Plays Success Rate Big Play Rate
Left end 6 67%
Left tackle 5 40% 20%
Left guard 8 100% 13%
Middle 5 40%
QB draw 5 40%
RB draw 0
Right guard 9 78% 22%
Right tackle 9 33% 11%
Right end 5 20% 20%
Reverse 0

This was a home game, so we get run direction stats! Thanks, Tide staff (maybe Sarkisian?). As always, keep in mind that the per-game numbers here are small, so only the big, obvious trends are really noteworthy.

Inside: First of all, Ross Pierschbacher must’ve eaten his Wheaties on Saturday, as there were eight successful runs behind left guard, with zero unsuccessful ones. An honorable mention goes to his counterpart, Lester Cotton, who helped shepherd in a 78% success rate and 22% big play rate over right guard. Perhaps the common factor here is Bradley Bozeman at center: while QB draws and runs up the middle settled in at a league average 40% SR, the inside running was fantastic overall.

Outside: Runs over the right side weren’t as successful, and not for lack of trying, with 14 runs going behind the right tackle or over the right end. This could be due in part to the boom-and-bust tight end blocking, which makes sense given that a few of the successful runs actually were big plays (where blockers all nailed it all at once, presumably). And with Lester Cotton in at right guard in this game, this side of the line is definitely the younger one.

Things were better over the left end, with Bama’s more experienced duo putting things together for above-average success rates and a handful of good plays. This is doubly impressive against an all-American defensive end like Myles Garrett (though some have noted that he’s not known especially for run-blocking). All in all, it seems that Cameron Robinson did his job on Saturday.

Personnel and parting thoughts

  • We found O.J. Howard! He was finally targeted more than a few times in this game, with 5 of his 6 targets being successful plays. Adding (re-adding?) that dimension to the offense should scare some opposing safeties into conservative play.
  • Calvin Ridley was the most targeted receiver of the day, though only 4 of his 9 targets ended up successful. It’s hard to tell which of these is just a stats book oversimplification, though, as Hurts seems to look Ridley’s way when he’s throwing the ball away.
  • Otherwise, receiving diversity was very low: the only other names to appear are Josh Jacobs, Miller Forristal (on an incomplete pass out of the backfield), and ArDarius Stewart (who’s often been the #1 target in games this year). Stewart’s long catch in the 2nd quarter was timely and impressive, though.
  • This game, like the Ole Miss game, is a good example of where efficiency/explosiveness stats help to provide a counterpoint to conventional metrics: anyone looking at the box score would see that Texas A&M had the lead “late in the 3rd quarter,” but the on the field differences were obvious: one team was really mopping things up, save a few missed opportunities and big plays by the opponent.