A ”successful” play, as defined by Football Outsiders, is 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 “explosive play”) is any play that gains ≥15 yards (run OR pass).
Success by Quarters
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This whole thing is so bizarre and terrible. After I spent last week defending the fact that Clemson didn’t “dominate” Notre Dame as much as it seems... the Dabo Tigers went and pulled the same garbage again this week against Alabama.
Except it’s even worse, as the team that lost the game by 4 scores in this one had a nearly 10-point overall efficiency advantage. And according to Football Outsiders’ postgame analysis (which accounts for garbage time), Alabama posted a 59% SR over Clemson’s 41%. What!?
So we can just dust off those outtakes from last week and use them again: the Tigers won convincingly using the same strange formula of “pretty poor performance on everything except for 3rd downs and the 2nd quarter.” Though there are a few additional caveats this time around:
- The red zone performance gap between the teams heavily contributed to these numbers: Tua Tagovailoa and the team were tallying lots of successful plays in the less valuable middle of the field, but very few inside the 20s, while Trevor Lawrence and his crew either played excellent red zone plays — the first outside run with Travis Etienne comes to mind — or they skipped the red zone completely with long bombs (especially late, and usually on critical downs).
- The game seemed pretty out of hand by the early 4th quarter, but to Clemson’s credit their defense really clamped down instead of letting Tua do the usual Tua thing... especially with his recent history of second half championship comebacks.
- Similar to Notre Dame vs. Clemson, Alabama had their best quarter in the first... and Bama’s quarter was big, with that insane 73% success rate (which is similar to the Tide’s SR vs. a bad Oklahoma defense). Unfortunately the 13 points in that quarter were the only touchdowns we got all day, and the success rates — while pretty good up until the 4th quarter — slid as the game went on.
- Alabama was less explosive than they’ve been... I believe since Tua took over. That 11% isn’t miserable (ND put up 7% against this defense last week), but it’s not good and it’s apparently not enough to keep coach Lockley’s offense moving.
- Turnovers and turnovers on downs. Yep.
A lot of red up there, eh? The red squares, especially: those represent Alabama running the ball all over Clemson’s front 7, routinely going for 4-13 yards through the first 3 quarters. We’ve even got a few circles (passes) sprinkled in there, though not as frequently successful (and not as long) as we got used to seeing this season.
If you switch over to the Clemson chart, then ... things look oddly sparse, don’t they? But I guess that’s how it goes with the all-or-nothing offense we’ve seen from the Tigers during the postseason. Their explosive rate (13% XR) was not much higher than Alabama’s; unfortunately, though, those big plays were bigger... see those 3 passes and 1 run that went for over 30 yards.
I mean, Clemson managed to put together something like a “minimum viable blowout victory”: this is not very many successful plays (28 to Alabama’s 43), and they weren’t explosive very often, by XR, but they just had a few little flurries of success and a few huge plays to keep them firmly on top. Very frustrating for a Tide fan hearing about “dominance” from its national title opponent.
Success by downs
In his postgame recap on SBNation, Bill Connelly called Clemson’s timing “beyond impeccable,” in reference to when they managed to make things work (and/or, when things just worked out for them, which certainly happened a handful of times). Bill also calls out some of the success-by-downs weirdness that contributed to these charts looking so lopsided in favor of Bama. I agree with him on both counts.
But how did this happen? Clemson came into this game with the 25th-best 3rd down conversion rate in the league at 44.4% (against a bad conference slate, to boot), but cruised through the postseason with a 50% 3rd down conversion rate against ND and a 66% rate against Alabama.
Was their schedule so easy this year that they were playing vanilla while building a “postseason playbook”... or even just a “3rd down playbook”!? The trends are baffling and bizarre, and I won’t apologize for implying that a lot of this was just well-timed luck. Like I mentioned last week: the coach’s plan is never to fail on 1st and 2nd down before you pull out the really good plays for 3rd and long. Every play has some chance to succeed or fail: for Clemson, the successes came on do-or-die moments... the Tigers did and the Tide died.
Running and Passing
Running the dern ball worked. And, in fact, passing the dern ball worked pretty well, too: both tactics delivered above-average success rates for basically the entire game.
Unfortunately, both running and passing SR’s slid through the game. Had they stayed propped up at even first-half levels, you could see Alabama putting together another bundle of points and staying in this thing. As it was, the declining success rates combined with bad timing and missed opportunities was too much.
Running and Passing, Clemson
Again, it’s just remarkable that these charts are for the outright-victorious team: the passing was good, with that 47% SR by the end of the game, led by Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross (11 catches with a pretty good 45% receiving SR).
But normally it wouldn’t have been good enough to make up for that lack of running success: early in the 4th quarter, the Tiger’s rushing success had dipped to 21%, which was one third of Alabama’s 62% SR it was putting up at that point in the game. Whatever.
A final word
The Tigers won out solidly in the most crucial categories in the game. Period. But hell, you’d think that the “dominating” national champ would at least have the decency to outplay the other team on a majority of the snaps.
I guess that’s not how teams win every time, though. After all, the Tide have won (and lost) games where the victor was less efficient than the loser:
- CFP final ‘15-’16: Alabama (40% SR) beat Clemson (45% SR) 45-40 — maybe Saturday’s loss was an (exaggerated) karmic payback for this first game, the Jake Coker + O.J. Howard + special teams jamboree.
- CFP final ‘16-’17: Alabama (28% SR) lost to Clemson (46% SR) 35-31 — Ok, now that was a huge SR gap. The final play was dramatic, but the Tigers were the better team almost all game. Alabama almost pulled one out of a hat in this one... if we’d done it, that would have been a huge efficiency-defying victory. Again, field position was big.
- 2017: Alabama (29% SR) beat Florida State (39% SR) 24-7 — this one was a few big plays, turnovers, and special teams magic.
- 2017: Alabama (33% SR) beat LSU (35% SR) 24-10 — this one was thanks to JK Scott, as field position was the key difference.
- 2017: Alabama (42% SR) lost to Auburn (40% SR) 14-26 — similar to Saturday’s game, 3rd downs were the critical metric; with just a few plays going one way, it quickly turned into “wait, why are we down by multiple scores?” ... similar to this game.
- 2017: Alabama (37% SR) beat Clemson (30% SR) 24-6 — the victor had the higher efficiency, but not nearly as dramatic a spread as the scoreboard... a similar outcome to last week’s Clemson vs. Notre Dame game.
- 2018: Alabama (44% SR) beat Georgia (45%) 35-28 — this one was so close; it’s not uncommon to see this kind of split, as it was basically even on efficiency.
Just looking again at those odd games from 2017: why was that the Bama team to win it all, and not this (better) 2018 team? During this wonderful dynastic run, the Tide have retained this bittersweet edge to it, as our best teams are the ones that lose (see: the previous championship loss to Clemson, the kick six in 2013, the lost 2010 season).
Maybe it was time again for Bama to experience one of these games: where the big plays and bounces don’t go your way, where the other coach’s bets pay off and yours don’t, where other talented freshmen are the long-shot heroes. I thought we were experiencing some version of that against the Georgia Bulldogs (albeit, with them actually being more efficient across downs for most of the game), but Jalen Hurts and team pulled that one out in the end. I guess we weren’t as lucky this time. Doesn’t feel good, does it?
Well, Roll Tide anyway.