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Was The 2019 Alabama Offense Too Good for Their Own Good?

Maybe Tua Tagovailoa was the cause for the Tide’s defensive decline?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When the Hurry-Up No-Huddle offense first started gaining popularity, it made its success on the fact it did not allow the opposing defense time to substitute or get ready for the next play. The downside, however, was going three-and-out in mere seconds put their defense back on the field with no time to rest.

There is a balance to any competitive strategies. There had to be disadvantages. Why else would a team like Alabama not take advantage of an offensive strategy that other teams (Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss) were using to flummox their vaunted defense?

Around this time, Nick Saban infamously asked, “Is this what we want football to be?” when talking about how forcing all the extra plays into a football game increased the chances of injury. Though all the headlines made it sound like Saban was complaining about other teams using strategies to beat him, he was actually speaking in purely a statistical sense. The more plays a player plays, the more chances he gets injured.

The injury aspect often gets overlooked, and the main talking point becomes how “going three-and-out so quickly does not give the defense time to rest and is less likely to play well.” It seems logical enough and was a good way to detract from these newfangled offenses.

I mean, who really wants to see that on TV on their favorite team’s sideline every week?

However, Nick Saban, ever the malleable strategist, joined in on the craze, rather than be left behind, and hired Lane Kiffin to run his offense with a new focus on spread formations, QB runs, and no-huddle as the preferred pre-play routine.

And, lo and behold, Alabama’s defense continued to be the stalwart presence every year, even adapting itself to become smaller, faster, and less reliant on substitutions and role players in order to better combat other spread hurry-up offenses.

Throughout the entire tumultuous decade that saw pretty much every single college (and now even most NFL offenses) begin the conversion to the spread and shotgun formation and the standard offensive philosophy that same sentiment remained:

Go three-and-out so fast, and your defense doesn’t have time to rest.

Then Tua Tagovailoa happened.

In the blink of a 26-yard conversion on second down, Alabama went from having a rush-first offense to one that seemed to score nearly at will through the passing game over the next two seasons. Rather than aim for 10 yard passes on 3rd and 10, Tua and his four potential 1st-round wide receivers were just as likely to score a touchdown on a slant route than be stopped and have to punt (and thank goodness for that.... Alabama’s punting the last two seasons has been rather unstable at best).

At the same time, we saw the Alabama defense begin to decline. From 2014-2017, Alabama held the #1 defense in the country by S&P+ rankings before dipping to 7th in 2018 (tying their 2010 low), and though the 2019 numbers are yet to be finalized, there’s no doubt they will have fallen even further this year.

That’s when a new kind of grumbling arose. Since the fates decreed Alabama could not exist with a generational offense and generational defense simultaneously, it stood to inscrutable reason that the causation (not to be confused with mere correlation) for the defensive decline was angering the old gods with a shiny, new-school offense that scored lots of points.

As I have countered all season when fans complained that the offense was scoring so fast that it made the defense too tired to do their job, “Well, should the receiver take a knee at the 10 yard line so Alabama can waste an extra 120 seconds and miss the ensuing field goal? Seems like that’s a less straightforward path to the whole concept of ‘scoring more points than the other team.’”

I know. Real fun at parties.

Obviously, those remarks never sway anyone, so I decided to turn to the numbers. I started running some about halfway through the season, but wound up holding off until after the season ended so I would have a full data set to play with.

The first issue I ran into was how to define what counted as a “short” drive, and how to categorize the opposing offense’s success. Is scoring in 3 plays the issue? But what if they took the full play clock on those three plays (120 seconds), whereas the offense going hurry-up on a 6 play drive only took 110 seconds?

As for opponent success, I looked at the yards, total plays, total time taken, and points on every single opposing drive that followed an Alabama drive. Because there are only three options for scoring, (0, 3, or 7) trying to create any sort of scatter plot trends of that metric was a fool’s errand. So yards were probably the best metric to use to measure the success of an opponent drive. It’s what we fans got most mad at in the heat of the moment anyway.

I thought Alabama’s total drive length (in seconds) versus the opponents resulting yardage the best way to represent the idea of “time to rest” — the argued determining factor in declining defensive performance. With under 150 data points and variables that depend entirely on human behavior, having any sort of R^2 value at all is highly unlikely, but Google Sheets rounded down to 0. Basically, regression says the calculated linear equation has absolutely no explanation for the resulting Y-axis variable.

Which is a lot of big words for: there’s no real trend here.

However, visually inspecting the graph does seem to confirm the very slightly positive direction of the trendline, especially as two of Alabama’s three longest drives of the season were followed up by opponents driving for more than 50 yards.

And in case you were curious, the positive trend was even stronger when looking at the opponent’s number of plays rather than yards (in case you thought that maybe a big coverage bust for a bunch of yards was not necessarily a factor of defensive fatigue).

Basically, the longer Alabama held the ball on offense, the more likely their defense was to give up more yards/longer drives. The opposite of the original premise.

I also tried to graph Alabama’s plays rather than total time holding the ball. It doesn’t really hold with the idea of more rest being the antidote for the defense, but it is another metric of “drive length,” and I hate for someone on Twitter to claim I’m not thorough.

This time, it was almost perfectly a resounding “no slope” in regards to positive or negative trend. The more plays Alabama’s offense had the ball, the more yards the defense did or did not give up.

I’m being cheeky again. There was just no trend at all there.

I wasn’t done, though. Yards absolutely do not equal points, and points are what win football games. Though not as solid of means of statistical analysis as putting things on a scatter plot, I did look into calculating some averages for Alabama’s offense and resulting defensive performances.

Working with drive time first, I decided to split Alabama’s drives into two camps: those that lasted 157 seconds or less, and those that lasted 158 seconds or more (not totally arbitrary, as the average Alabama drive lasted 157.6 seconds this season, but also not truly significant a distinction without more context).

Similarly, I separated Alabama’s drives at 5 or less plays and 6 or more plays (again, the average for the Tide was 5.7 plays per drive).

Here were the results:

Alabama Drive Data 2019

Criteria Opp points/drive Opp yards/drive
Criteria Opp points/drive Opp yards/drive
Alabama 5 or less plays 1.471 27.01
Alabama 6 or more plays 1.484 27.21
Alabama 157s or less 1.481 26.52
Alabama 158s or more 1.472 28.06

Looking at it this way, Alabama gave up slightly more points and slightly more yards after drives longer than 6 plays.

But when looking at time of possession, their defense gave up slightly less points and significantly more yards after drives longer than 158 seconds.

Again, conclusively nothing to be gained here.

However, I thought that didn’t really encapsulate the issue we’re trying to look at here. Everyone agrees going three and out is bad, but we’ve been debating the merits of going three-and-score vs. extending your drives. So, I filtered out any short Alabama offensive drive that ended in something other than a score and re-ran the numbers.

Alabama Drive Data 2019 #2

Criteria Opp points/drive Opp yards/drive Alabama points
Criteria Opp points/drive Opp yards/drive Alabama points
Alabama 6 or more plays 1.484 27.21 4.274
Alabama 5 or less plays and a score 1.146 25.78 6.707
Alabama 158s or more 1.472 28.06 4.019
Alabama 157 or less time and a score 1.244 26.29 6.67

In this case, we saw Alabama’s opponents had their points and yards drop significantly when Alabama scored quickly than when Alabama had a longer drive (that may or may not have scored). I also added the average points that Alabama’s offense scored on those drives, for good measure.

Looking at it that way, if we assume an average of 12 drives per game, then Alabama would outscore their opponents 80-15 if they scored quickly on every single drive, whereas the final score would be 48-18 if they intentionally took their time on every drive.

While this does assume that Alabama’s offense can score at will on short drives but cannot do so on long drives (an unrealistic assumption on the former, obviously) and thereby inflating the Tide’s offensive points scored in the “quick drive” scenario, it does encompass what is the crux of the argument (and hence why I’ve spoken out strongly against that argument all season). Why would Alabama intentionally not score when they have the chance— i.e. a superior receiver outrunning everyone to the endzone— in favor of not scoring in order to use up more clock, with the byproduct of that being more chances to not score.

But on top of that school of thought not only intentionally gimping a potent offense, it doesn’t even help the defense. They gave up an extra 3 points per game by taking longer drives that might not score.

My conclusion from this is that, unequivocally, it’s better to score more points than not score points.

Sorry. I couldn’t help but throw that jab in there.

That aside, I think it was clear that shorter offensive drives did not cause Alabama’s defense to “be tired” on their next trip out on to the field. Which is really kind of ridiculous for collegiate athletes anyway.

And even further than that, Alabama’s defense statistically played better after the offense scored quickly than they did after the offense took longer and gave them more rest. Maybe it’s a psychological thing: the defense plays better when the offense does good things because...

*looks nervously left and right

momentum might be a real thing

*runs away from angry mob of Twitter eggs with pitchforks

All that said, I’ve had more explanations posited to me, such as the issue not being a drive-by-drive conditioning thing, but more a mentality due to an entire philosophy. Does the defense not feel the pressure to succeed because they know Tua Tagovailoa and his exceptional cast of offensive support would bail them out if they messed up (as opposed to the, say, 2011 defense that basically had to assume AJ McCarron and Co probably weren’t scoring more than 17 points)?

Could be. Though we could also say that maybe Jalen Hurts and Co in 2016 didn’t have to feel the pressure to succeed because they knew Jonathan Allen and the defense would bail them out. Until they didn’t in the championship game.

Which, coincidentally, is the same thing everyone said about Alabama’s defense against, coincidentally, Clemson in the, coincidentally, championship game in 2018 as well.

If that psychological issue is a fact of nature that cannot be overcome, then does that mean it is physically impossible for an elite offense and elite defense to exist in tandem on the same team?

Would Alabama’s 2012 team (#3 offense and #3 defense by S&P+ that year) be the proof that is not the case?

If you believe it is possible for both to exist, then does that not imply that the issue is not technically with the offense for being too good, but with the defense for not having the right mentality to be dominant as well?

I don’t know. And that’s what I get for trying to explain psychology and human physical performance by way of stats.

In any case, I’m open to more suggestions on variables to isolate to further test the hypothesis that has been permeating the Alabama fan base these past two years.