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The least-disciplined Alabama football team of recent vintage: The penalty catastrophe

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Did you know you can write 3000 words about penalties?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Alabama at Texas A&M
Someone has to be the goat for this cover photo. Sorry, Jed
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This was a trying season for Alabama fans who prefer their football to feature less SEC officiating and more actual plays. There is no doubt that officiating cost Alabama at least one game, and a very probable spot in the College Football Playoffs. So, I went through the play-by-play for all 13 Alabama Crimson Tide games this year and teased out the penalty epidemic.

This is the first of two parts (maybe three). Today, we discuss the scope of the problem and how it historically compares. Next week, in part two, we’ll break down the offenders and offer possible suggestions for the trend (and there are trends), and how to possibly ameliorate the issue.

Play to a standard. Back to basics. Master fundamentals.

We heard that all offseason and going into fall camp from Nick Saban. With a new coaching staff that Saban was more comfortable with, we expected to see some changes. And, in some ways, it was a success. Alabama finished 11th in missed tackles on the season — a marked improvement from last season’s 26th place finish. And those missed tackles cost the Tide dearly in 2018.

But, in other ways, the Tide slipped remarkably in those very same fundamentals. Notably, this was the least-disciplined Alabama team of the Saban era. And, as with last season’s missed tackles, that loss of discipline would cost the Tide dearly.

The Crimson Tide was a magnet for flags in 2019 — and we don’t mean the discretionary sorts, where they call holding in the trenches. No, the Tide was a instead a mess of false starts, hot tempers and personal fouls, and some damning special teams penalties. In fact, Alabama finished 114th in the nation in penalty yards per game — out of 130 teams. It would finish T-109th in total penalties and 113th in total penalty yards.

Over 13 games, Alabama was flagged 95 times — an average of 7.3 times per contest. That cost Alabama 855 yards on the season. To put that in some perspective, Alabama was 6th in the nation in total offense, with 6640 total yards (510 yards per game). The Tide racked up 65.8 yards per game — almost a 13% loss of production and field position.

It wasn’t one unit that was to blame either. Of Alabama’s 95 accepted penalties, 44 occurred on defense, 41 on offense. It was truly a team-wide dysfunction too. They say there are three phases to the game. Well, Alabama didn’t forget that — the Tide added another ten flags on special teams — everything from lining up offsides to holds to blocks in the back. There were an additional thirteen penalties that were declined or offsetting (In that category, the defense had nine infractions, the offense four.)

So, yeah, it could have been even worse in terms of penalty volume.

Some games are just rugged high-penalty affairs though. Third Saturday comes to mind, as does the chippy season opener versus Duke and the sloppy refball that Alabama-Ole Miss engaged in. But, of Alabama’s 13 games, only three teams had more flags than Alabama: Tennessee, Michigan, and Southern Miss. Even Western Carolina and New Mexico State were more disciplined.

But, it a highly penalized Alabama team really markedly different from recent years?

Short answer: Yes
Long answer: Yes, but it’s complicated

Arkansas v Alabama
Multiple personal foul offenders, all
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The dirty secret is that Alabama, for all of the talk of The Process and playing disciplined and to a standard, takes a ton of penalties. It is an aggressive defense, a chippy offense, and a great many are effort related. But, man, do Nick Saban’s teams lose a ton of yards (Bold indicates national title teams):

2018 wasn’t exactly a picnic with the flags either — Alabama was 93rd in flags and 94th in yards lost.
2017: 48th in penalties, 32nd in penalty yards
2016: 90th in penalties, 54th in penalty yards.
2015: 93rd in penalties, 108th in penalty yards
2014: 42nd in penalties, 36th in penalty yards
2013: 38th in penalties, 37th in penalty yards
2012: 11th in penalties, 12th in penalty yards
2011: 3rd in penalties, 2nd in penalty yards
2010: 28th in penalties, 9th in penalty yards

So, what’s going on here?

There has been a general trend in increasing penalties as the Tide’s tempo has increased and as Alabama is running more plays. That makes a certain sense. But, even so, the title teams of the 2015 and 2017 seasons won despite their propensity to draw flags, not because of their aversion towards them. It also comes as no surprise that following the Tide’s coaching staff diaspora, which really began in earnest following the 2012 season, also saw Alabama draw more and more flags — look particularly to the 2018 and 2019 staffs, both of which had been revamped and rebuilt practically from the ground up.

There is a very good argument to be made that this staff turnover had a negative affect on the every-down coaching and development of the players under their charge. The Tide’s annual turnover to the NFL, and the recent injury crises has also not benefited the chemistry.

New schemes, new faces, new coaches.

Yet, for all those mitigators, there were some warning signs in the types of penalties that Alabama took in the 2019 season that must give one pause when contemplating Alabama’s chance to reach the College Football Playoffs in 2020.

Next week, we’ll talk about that.