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Graphing the Tide vs. Clemson (2016 CFP National Championship)

The score was close... but should it have been?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Slight change to your regularly scheduled programming this week. Your usual statistical pundit balloons is apparently busy participating in some activity he calls “real life.” I’m not familiar with this concept, but apparently it’s complicating generation of the article this week. I tried to get him to understand that advanced stats and football discussions are infinitely more important than this unnecessary distraction and that he needed to get his mind right, but to no avail. Rest assured, he will be flogged for his insolence.[1]

1 | None of this actually happened, no contributors were harmed in the making of this article, etc.

Until then, we need to talk about Monday. I know you don’t want to, but it’s important and we need to do it. This is going to be difficult to hear, but despite the fact the final margin of victory was only four points, the stats suggest it probably should have been more than that. There’s some good reasons why which we’ll get into, but be forewarned it’s not pretty from here. Well, except for the definitions, which are always a joy and a delight.

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%

Not seeing a chart here?

Not good, right?[2] The Tide ended up with a 28% success rate for the game, which as you might have surmised was their worst mark of the year. This was somewhat countered by one of their more explosive efforts — at least in terms of frequency — but that’s not really the Alabama formula for victory. Entering the game the Tide were 16th in the country in success rate with 47.2%, but only 48th in unadjusted IsoPPP[3] — steady production balanced out the relative lack of huge plays. Looking at this chart, Clemson’s defensive play forced the Tide into an entirely different approach, and unfortunately it worked like a charm. Well, eventually, anyway — the Tide’s final drive looked to be one for the highlight reels and retrospectives, as Jalen Hurts and ArDarius Stewart combined to produce three explosive plays in four snaps — bracketing a huge 4th-and-1 pickup by Damien Harris — and the go-ahead points.

2 | Except for the slick charts, of course!

3 | As far as I know balloons is the only one looking at something like XR, but IsoPPP’ll do for this bit.

Clemson, on the other hand, slowly wore down the Tide defense over the course of the game, chaining together success after success to extend drives and run up the play count. You’ll note the success rate just went up and up as the game wore on, which is a very Alabama way to go about winning a ball game. The 46% they tallied by game’s end was the highest allowed by the Tide defense this season, 7 and 6 points higher than the Ole Miss and Arkansas games, respectively.

Explosive plays, however, weren’t really there for much of the game — that actually wasn’t a huge part of Clemson’s offense this year, as they came into the game 97th in IsoPPP — but by the time the fourth quarter rolled around they piled up yardage left and right. The backbreaker was on the penultimate Clemson drive, where Deshaun Watson took the Tigers from their own 21 to the Alabama 1 yard line in just three plays, each of which were of the explosive variety.[4]

4 | Buoyed of course by the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Da’Ron Payne that ESPN helpfully declined to show. Thanks for nothing, REC.

Running and Passing, Alabama

Not seeing a chart here?

Well, he said he preferred balance, and that’s exactly what we got. After firing out of the gates with 9 runs in the first 14 snaps, Sarkisian quickly brought the split back toward 50%, giving us that very noticeable dip around the middle of the first quarter. The Tide offense would continue to hover around an even split, with a final tally of 32 passes against 34 runs.

Difficult to say whether that was the right call or not. The rushing success rate was trending upward until Sarkisian starting calling for passes, after which it steadily dropped through the end of the game. At one point the Tide had seven unsuccessful carries in a row bridging multiple drives in the second and third quarter, which seemed to be when adjustments by the Clemson defense began to pay dividends.

It’s tempting to say that perhaps the Tide should have kept running until Clemson stopped what they were doing. Direct your attention to the final drive of the first half for the Tide, where they took over at their own 40 with about 2.5 minutes to play. Three consecutive handoffs to Bo Scarbrough and 0 net yards later, the Tide were punting.[5] Again. Clemson had seemingly figured out the offense by this point, as the subsequent scoring for the Tide came off a turnover, a blown coverage, and the wacky final drive of the game.

5 | Offensive superstar J.K. Scott pinned the Tigers at their own 5, so it wasn’t all bad.

Oh, passing? It was awful. When Clemson allowed Hurts to throw both past the line of scrimmage and in the field of play, the Tide receivers either dropped it or he overthrew them,[6] with rare exception. I don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to talk about it, let’s move on.

6 | Or O.J. Howard picked off a first down. That actually happened.

Running and Passing, Clemson

Not seeing a chart here?

Notice when Clemson started making a game of things? It’s when they quit trying to run the ball and started chucking it down the field instead. That very clearly happened early in the second quarter, after the Tide had built a 14-0 lead. I’d credit the Clemson staff with making a good adjustment, but frankly their game plan in the first quarter would have gotten them blown out. Their offensive approach should have been primarily through the air from the get-go,[7] because the Tide secondary couldn’t cover a damn thing on Monday night. Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow were particularly damaging, and it is no coincidence that Clemson’s chance to win skyrocketed once they finally got involved in the game.[8]

7 | Before you go there, it’s not hindsight when you call it beforehand.

8 | It’s frustrating to watch an overrated staff stumble their way into a national title on the back of a transcendent quarterback. See: API, 2010.

The success rate chart just underlines that point. By the end of the game, there was roughly a 15% gap between success rates on passing and rushing for the Tigers. That’s enormous, and it would have been much worse if not for a tired Alabama defense missing tackles in the fourth quarter. I suppose the runs helped keep the Tide defense on the field, but other than that there wasn’t much of a point in trying to pick up yards on the ground against this group.

Parting Thoughts

  • So if it was this lopsided, how did the Tide stick around for so long? Turnovers, of course. Historically turnovers are worth about 5 points apiece, meaning a turnover-neutral view of this game would look something like 35-21, which feels more like what happened than 35-31.
  • Oddly enough, the Tide scored exactly 10 points off their two fumble recoveries. One led directly to a field goal, and the other produced the necessary field position advantage on the subsequent drive for an easy touchdown.
  • I’m a charter member of the #NeverDabo club, and honestly I didn’t see anything Monday that changed my mind. Bill C.’s Numerical pretty much ties Swinney’s success at the national level directly to his hire of Brent Venables, and this game was a perfect example of that. The Clemson defense kept the game reasonable while Swinney’s offensive staff bumbled through the first quarter, and once they remembered Watson, Williams, and Renfrow are pretty good at that whole passing thing, that same defense kept the Tide mostly in check for the remainder of the game. Venables and Watson have made Swinney look awfully good, and unless they can keep finding quarterbacks of that caliber, don’t expect them to become a fixture at this level.
  • Lastly, there will not be a season-ending Processing the Numbers, so let’s quickly hit that. Even after the loss, the Tide finished #1 in all four overall quality metrics, including the all-time high rating in F/+ at 81% — the first team to finish a season ranked higher than 80% in that metric. Unfortunately, they do not award national championships for that, but this was still a heck of a season.