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Graphing the Tide, Iron Bowl Edition: It was all about those 3rd downs

Surprise: Bama was the more efficient offense

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn
Damien Harris tries his best (on limited opportunities)
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Losing sucks, especially in the Iron Bowl, especially after a (mostly) promising season. The Tide hadn’t lost a game all season (obviously), and aside from two games (vs Florida State and LSU), they racked up better efficiencies than the opponent each week. And guess what? They accomplished the latter feat again versus Auburn: according to my numbers (and Bill’s slightly-different numbers*), the Tide averaged out at higher success rates. Let’s get into it.

* my calculations are slightly different than Bill’s in a few small ways. The garbage time definition (which Bill considers but I don’t) didn’t affect this game, so I’m not sure what specifically is causing the difference this time.

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 and Explosiveness Rates

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

* NCAA average SR = 40%

Not seeing a chart here?

You could argue (let’s say, I would argue). that Alabama has slid into a few victories that looked bigger than the efficiency/explosiveness metrics would suggest. Against Florida State, Alabama relied on early big plays and special teams “moments” to put up a 3-possession win against the Noles, despite the fact that Deondre Francois and company were considerably more efficient than the Tide (39% SR to the Tide’s 29%). Later in the season, versus LSU, the Tide put up pretty weak efficiencies (33% to LSU’s 35%), but relied on explosiveness to seize the day by two touchdowns. Convincing victories? Maybe not.

But the tables are turned in this one, and Alabama landed on the worse side of that deal: it was close, but the Tide beat out Auburn’s efficiency by 2 points (42% to 40%), and nearly tied on explosiveness. So Auburn managed a win despite the gap, and now the fans and media (and even, gumps, gasp!) are calling it a “dominating” win, an a**-whoopin’, a slam-dunk November for the Auburn Eagle-Tigers. But I call bogus! To look at the scoreboard and pretend that the Tide were never in this game is to ignore all of the plays that did work (28 of them, by my count), and all the opportunity that was there until the 4th quarter mini-meltdown.

So, what happened? Why the gap between the scoreboard and the SRs? Well, for one, that 4th quarter explosiveness by the Tigers sticks out: they rode a hot home crowd and a tiring Tide defense to the finish line. But the bigger culprit is as follows...

Success Rate by Down

Down Alabama Auburn
Down Alabama Auburn
1st down 52% 34%
2nd down 43% 41%
3rd down 31% 50%
4th down 20% 50%

Yep, it’s all behind that 3rd down efficiency, folks. On 1st and 2nd downs combined, Alabama averaged a 48% SR to Auburn’s 37%. But d*mn if the Tigers didn’t seem to convert every 3rd down (or, at least half of them). So even though Auburn wasn’t doing as much with each down, they just got to play more of them (78 plays to Alabama’s 61).

Is this all to say that Auburn didn’t deserve the win, that Alabama was cheated by coin-flip odds on all-or-nothing downs? Well, no, Auburn played well and beat a very talented team by 12 points. But let’s be clear about one thing: 3rd down conversion rate is critical, but coaches don’t intend to get into third down situations at all! 3rd down is a sign that your offense didn’t do want it ultimately wanted to do on 1st or 2nd down (and that happened a lot for these Tigers). And teams that are dominating a football game don’t find themselves having to squeak through drives and roll the dice on nearly 20 third downs (plus a few 4th downs) over four quarters.

Whew. Anyway, Auburn did what it needed to on most of those critical 3rd downs. But the Alabama defense did what it needed to do for most of those 1st and 2nd downs, and the Tide offense, likewise, did lot of what it needed to do its 1st and 2nd downs! When the timing worked right, you saw things like the big #RTDB drive in the 3rd quarter; but when it didn’t (and it often didn’t) you saw a punt or a derp.

Running and Passing, Alabama

Not seeing a chart here?

The run rate chart should be a hot topic around these parts: at 54% overall, it was one of the lowest run rates that the Tide has put up this season (the lowest was 53% vs. LSU). But you can see where Brian Daboll was trying to run in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, as we peaked at a high 67% overall run rate during the 3rd quarter. Eventually we were playing the unfamiliar game of scoreboard-catch-up, though, so the passing game showed up (or, increasingly failed to show up) towards the end of the game.

Interestingly, the success rates for both stayed above league average for nearly the whole night, aside from the 4th quarter passing slump... not great timing on that one.


Explosive plays / Total Successful plays / Total catches / Total attempts

Total Runs

4 / 19 / 0 / 34

Total Passes

3 / 9 / 14 / 28

This one lines up pretty well with expectations: we had more success (plus one more explosive play) by running the ball. Really, those rushing success rates were pretty good by the end of the game... sigh.

Success by Runner

Explosive runs / Total Successful runs / Total Attempts

Jalen Hurts

2 / 8 / 14

Bo Scarbrough

1 / 3 / 7

Josh Jacobs

0 / 4 / 6

Damien Harris

1 / 3 / 6

Robert Foster

0 / 1 / 1

For better and for worse, Jalen Hurts was again our leading rusher, with twice as many rushing attempts as anyone else (remember, I don’t count pure sacks as runs, but I do count scrambles as runs). For what it’s worth, Hurts did turn more than half of those into successful plays, including a few explosive ones.

The rest of the chart tells the Tale of the Woeful Gump, 2017 edition: the runs were sprinkled out over the rest of the “starting” RBs, and it wasn’t all that many added up. I was surprised to see that Damien Harris didn’t have higher SRs than the other backs, as I was among many fans calling for more attempts from him. It turns out that Josh Jacobs was actually (technically) the most efficient back on the night.

Robert Foster shows up here for that 1st quarter sweep play (?), but I could’ve sworn that was more like a jet-sweep pass rather than a run. Maybe I’m mistaken. Anyway, it’s the first time we’ve seen him here all season, and it was a successful play. RoFo seems to be a lost cause by now, but I wish we’d used his speed more on these sweeps and such, as they worked on the rare occasions we used them (all late in the season).

Success by Passer

Explosive passes / Total Successful passes / Total completions / Total attempts

Jalen Hurts

3 / 9 / 13 / 27

JK Scott

0 / 0 / 1 / 1

Is it too early to laugh that JK Scott shows up on the passers chart? It’s pretty funny. That was a horrifying moment for an Alabama fan, but you’ve gotta give JK and Andy Pappanastos credit for putting together a desperate game of catch when things hit the fan. If it had worked, it would have been legendary.

It’s just a shame we didn’t see Tua Tagovailoa on this chart, too. #teamTua, #finally, #reluctantly.

Success by Receiver

Explosive catches / Total Successful catches / Total catches / Total targets

Calvin Ridley

1 / 3 / 3 / 6

Robert Foster

0 / 0 / 1 / 2

Irv Smith Jr.

0 / 0 / 1 / 2

Damien Harris

0 / 2 / 2 / 2

Cam Sims

1 / 1 / 1 / 2

Bo Scarbrough

0 / 0 / 2 / 2

Jerry Jeudy

1 / 1 / 1 / 1

Hale Hentges

0 / 0 / 0 / 1

The ball distribution wasn’t bad, with eight receivers showing up here, thought most of the receivers didn’t tally plays that were actually successful. And it’s no surprise that Calvin Ridley headlines the list again—Jalen just went to him whenever he could find him, context be damned. As a sad footnote, both of Damien Harris’s catches worked quite well, though trying similar things with Bo Scarbrough didn’t result in the same. I remember at least one of those plays perfectly :(.

Running and Passing, Auburn

Not seeing a chart here?

Auburn came out passing a lot, only getting into 50%+ run rates at the end of the 3rd quarter. The overall trend isn’t a surprise, given that they were trying to run clock in the 4th quarter, but it’s interesting to see this “tough SEC offense” passing this much (and having such success doing it against a talented secondary).

The running success rates climbed over the course of the game, but they never really got there. The Auburn rushing game vs. Bama’s injured front seven was supposed to be the key matchup of the game, but if it was, then the Tide won that one. Instead, it was a squirrely Auburn passing game—featured especially on 3rd downs—that decided the thing in the end. I wonder if this sheds some new light on the relative quality of Alabama’s secondary and front, or if this is more a function of Jeremy Pruitt pulling DBs into blitzes and sacrificing pass plays for it.

Parting thoughts

Parting thoughts? Booooooooooooo Auburn, and booo all those who are overstating this margin of victory. We’ll be talking about this Alabama team’s mistakes for a long time, but they did a lot of what they needed to to win this game. The scoreboard shows a 12-point difference, but it wasn’t because somebody was getting a beating. We’re used to seeing Alabama dominate around these parts, so the contrast here is a painful one; but if this team was as efficient and as explosive as the other team all night, you can be sure that they had a good chance to win this game.

At this point I’m OK to let the chips fall as they may, but I’d almost rather Alabama match up with somebody fun in a NY6 bowl (can we please match up with one of these amazing B1G teams somehow?), and not devalue the Iron Bowl. But if Alabama lucks into a better situation come Sunday, who am I to say these guys don’t deserve it?

Roll Tide all.