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Graphing the Tide vs. Ole Miss

The numbers suggest that Alabama performed well (and that maybe the game shouldn’t have been so close).

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: the play-by-play graph is still getting a facelift, but we’ve got a refreshed running and passing chart and a new look at the opposing offense.

Last Saturday’s win against Ole Miss was a relief: a tough comeback victory to break a 2-year losing streak against a division foe. What we watched on Saturday may seem like the Tide eked out a 5-point, down-to-the-wire win... a close game between similarly-matched opponents (and perhaps a disappointment for a #1 team playing a now-#23 team with a now-losing record).

But the numbers give a cool perspective this week: the efficiency metrics depart from the box score in a meaningful way, telling instead a story of a team that thoroughly outperformed its opponent for 3 quarters, but struggled to make the scoreboard say so until the second half. First, a quick metrics review:

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") has different definitions depending on the analyst, but I use a generous one: a run of ≥12 yards, or a pass of ≥16, is a big play.

Success rates, big play rates

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

* NCAA average SR = 40%

Not seeing a chart here?

At first glance, this chart looks more lopsided than the eye-test would have suggested: wait, Alabama had above-average success rates for nearly the entire game, while the opponent couldn’t manage the same until the 4th quarter? Yessir. The team that was on its heels throughout the first half (and down 21 points for a bit) was actually holding on to the ball (~60% time of possession for the game), converting third downs and moving the chains. This was about which team converted on opportunities: the Tide missed a few big ones (the overthrown pass to Hale Hentges, the missed long field goal, a few penalties), while the Rebels’ less-frequent opportunities tended to turn into 7 points.

The 4th quarter was an interesting turn: after being up by 18 points early in the 4th, the Tide let Ole Miss claw back into the game in the waning minutes. Chalk it up to a “prevent” defense, some luck, errors, or a blend of them all, but Ole Miss’s 4th quarter was far and away their best: they picked up 9 of their 23 first downs in the 4th and added 16 points in a few minutes of game time. 3 of their 5 3rd-down conversions (for a total 3rd down conversion rate of 33%) were the Rebels’ last three 3rd downs, all pass completions.

This 4th quarter offense was the one that some gumps were afraid would emerge. On the other hand, the offense that piled up a 3-score lead earlier in the game was probably a luckier one, and one that made the most of errors and opportunities (likely due to heady play from Chad Kelly). The explosiveness numbers bear that out: Ole Miss is obviously an explosive team, and was true to that in this game, as they still managed to score points while performing inefficiently on offense. That the Tide nearly matched this explosiveness in the game is interesting, but in looking at big plays, there’s obviously a difference in the 12+ yard runs that Alabama was putting up versus the long-bomb completions that Kelly and the Ole Miss receivers managed.

Running and Passing (#RTDB)

Not seeing a chart here?

Note: the running and passing charts look a bit different this week, as we’re looking at the number of plays, rather than breaking down the game clock (hence the uneven quarters).

“Run the ball, Lane!” Alabama’s running game came out strong, with the first 7 running plays all being successful (and 8 of the first 10). That was 4 from Damien Harris, 4 from Jalen Hurts, and it maintained a 100% running success rate for half of Bama’s 1st quarter plays. For reasons well-discussed here at RollBamaRoll, Lane went away from the run after this initial success (hello, screen passes), and the Tide didn’t end up with a >50% run mix again until late in the third quarter.

As Alabama started running more after holding a lead in the second half, success rates settled—probably an effect of an obvious, run-out-the-clock script that the Rebels keyed into—but the overall running success rate for the game was still stellar, with nearly 2 in 3 runs being successful.

Passing efficiency dipped after an early successful short pass (to Hale Hentges), and hovered below average for the rest of the game. The Ole Miss cornerbacks were almost certainly underrated going into this one, as they managed to snuff out the short passing game as well as can be reasonably asked of them.

NEW: Running and Passing, Ole Miss

Not seeing a chart here?

New this week is a close look at the opposing running and passing metrics—call it something like a review of the defense. And the defense was good, on average: the problem is that being “good at stopping the run” isn’t as important with an offense like Ole Miss, who’s passing efficiency rates were well above average for the game.

Ole Miss tried to run more often than might be expected of them, even floating into >50% run rates towards the middle of the game, but this was mostly in expected short-yardage situations, or in scrambles: Chad Kelly was the “rusher” on nearly 40% of those runs, with a few of his long scrambles counting as explosive plays. One can assume that many of those scrambles were not called as running plays. Scrambles kept them alive during a few critical (often scoring) moments in the first half, but their running efficiency predictably fell off for the remainder of the game.

The Rebels’ passing efficiency was also held in check during much of the game, if you consider average performance “in check” for a passing-first team... which one might. A lot of those 50/50 balls were handled well by the Tide’s secondary; unfortunately, it just takes a few long completions to get points on the board (as Alabama found out, but with the roles reversed, vs. USC and Western Kentucky). Ole Miss’s 4th-quarter surge brought the passing efficiency stats up considerably, but otherwise the efficiency wasn’t anything special.

Parting thoughts

  • In post-game comments, Saban seemed tired, but happier than he was after previous games. It was a close game where Alabama gave up a lot of points, but the team did a lot of the things that Saban had been stressing: they ran the ball well, trimmed (a few) penalties, and didn’t take risky long shots down the field. The numbers each week have correlated pretty well with Saban’s grumpiness, so it’ll be interesting to see if that trend continues.
  • Joshua Jacobs made a few appearances at running back, with 2 out of 3 of his runs being successful. That isn’t many runs, so if he’s also being trusted to pass block already, then it’s an impressive development for a true freshman former-wildcat-QB.
  • After ArDarius Stewart went out of the game, Ridley pretty much picked up all of his targets (for 15 total passing and running targets). Gehrig Dieter had 5 targets, O.J. Howard had 3, Hentges 2, Cam Sims 1, and Joshua Jacobs 1.