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Can Alabama win a championship with their 2020 defense?

Will the lack of an elite defense prevent the Mac Jones-led offense from being able to win it all?

Mississippi State vs Alabama Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Six games into the 2020 season, and it’s pretty well unanimously agreed that, once again, the Alabama Crimson Tide is looking like the best team in the nation. And it wasn’t extra rankings coming from winning a championship the year before: Alabama dropped all the way to #13 at the end of 2019 and then sent the best QB in school history to the pros.

Instead of rolling over and dying like a good dynasty, though, Alabama came right back and has put together an EVEN BETTER offense than the one with said Best-QB-in-school-history. In an all-SEC schedule (no North Texas or New Mexico State to pad the stats), the Tide has put up over 40 points in all but one game— a 38-point outing in the season opener. That includes two different teams that were, at the time of the kickoff, considered to be the best defense in the SEC.

That mantle now belongs to Kentucky, a team that Alabama has yet to play.

The Tide offense is unquestionably the best in the nation, with the passing game able to land deep bombs at will and a rushing attack that pretty much never gets less than 5 yards every time Najee Harris touches the ball.

Unfortunately, a series of busted coverages against Texas A&M and a horrendous all-encompassing defense effort against Ole Miss and the fighting Lane Kiffins soured fan opinion on the Tide defense. They’re since recovered their mojo and only allowed 17 points in the last 10 quarters against Mississippi State, Tennessee, and half of the Georgia game, but the concern over the defensive play is still there.

“We might be winning these SEC games, but Trevor Lawrence is going to shred this defense.”

“We won’t be able to rely Mac Jones being able to hit all these deep balls against a Brent Venables defense, and our defense won’t be good enough to win a championship if the offense is slowed.”

That’s a standard refrain from pretty much any Alabama fan in existence, and while it may seem ridiculous to fans of other programs, the National Championship game after the 2018 season broke the Alabama fanbase. That was the first and only blowout loss of Nick Saban’s 13-year tenure, and the resulting PTSD resides in the memory of a certain unnamed defensive back not even trying to run downfield as his receiver catches a wide open bomb for a touchdown.

And while Alabama’s offense has seemed to become even more dangerous than what we saw in 2018 and 2019, the defense seems to have regressed a bit (which hurts, considering that their losses in those seasons saw them give up 44, 48, and 49 points).

For 2.5 years now, Alabama has embraced the idea of a high-flying, quick-scoring offense. That leads to more possessions each game, and, naturally, more points scored. However, I’ve maintained this whole time that total points is not a good measure to compare to previous defenses. If a team is adding 10% in extra possessions compared to a previous season and their scoring defense is also up 10%, then wouldn’t the actual defense be performing at a similar level?

We’ve seen the revolution in Nate Oats’ basketball team as the Tide has pushed the tempo, and, as a result, gave up more points. Fans understood and accepted that points per possession mattered more than total points per game when comparing to the past.

So why haven’t we bought into points per drive yet?

With this in mind, I wanted to take a look at the season-long drive data for each Alabama national championship squad (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2017... That’s a lot of Natty’s!) and compare their per-drive efficiency on both offense and defense to what we’ve seen from the 2020 Alabama team so far.

I filtered out every non-Power Five game as well as postseason games so that the stats most accurately match the 6 SEC games that Alabama has played this season. End of half and end of game kneel down drives were also removed from the data, and all points scored from defense and special teams were removed. So “points/drive” accurately reflects the points scored on drives that were actual attempts at drives.

Though every college football smart guy worth their salt will tell you that yards don’t matter, I wanted to look at that stat first. Keep in mind the general shape in a per-year trend. The scale will look almost identical to points/drive.

Not a whole lot to say here, but MAN that 2011 defense wasn’t fair to the rest of college football. Aside from that, about 22 yards/drive has seemed to be the normal number for any of Alabama’s championship defenses. And while the 2020 offense has improved by almost 40% from the average Alabama offense, the defense is giving up north of 50% more yards.

But, hey, yards don’t equal points, huh? In fact, Alabama has consistently done better at keeping the points gap much larger than the yardage gap. This year, for example, Alabama has 1.4x more yards than their opponents, but 2x the points. That 2x mark is right in line with the 2009 squad and better than 2015, but lagging behind 2012, 2017, and that utterly ridiculous 2011 team.

I wanted to look at things a little differently than just an easy points/drive, though. What if, instead, we wanted more of a drive efficiency? Basically, how often does Alabama complete a drive without getting stopped (and, conversely, how often do Alabama’s opponents complete their drives)?

I repeat: That 2011 defense was on a level that will never, ever be seen in college football again. Only one out of every 14 drives turned into a touchdown.

While I tend to view kicking a field goal as a win for the defense, they are also kind of a win for the offense. A stalemate, I guess? In any case, it felt wrong to not consider them as part of offensive efficiency, as they do result in points.

So I took the percentage of drives that ended in a made field goal and multiplied by a factor of 3/7 (weighting that percentage to match the value of a field goal vs a full touchdown), and then added it to the percentage of drives ending in touchdowns. That felt like a good compromise between giving the offense credit for getting points and the defense credit for getting a stop.

I called the final result “drive efficiency.”

And, to be honest, it looks pretty much just like the TD% charts. With the exception of Leigh Tiffin in 2009 (which explains why that’s pretty much the only bar that has a fairly significant change from the previous graph), Alabama just doesn’t kick too many field goals.

In order to better look at the team as an overall unit, I took these efficiency numbers and got a ratio of Alabama’s offense to their defense. In other words, a ratio of 2.0 means that Alabama was 2X more efficient at turning drives into points than their opponents were.

This gives a single number for each season’s squad, and gives us a good benchmark to compare 2020 to. This season’s defense is inarguably worse than all the past teams, but the offense is so, so much better. Is it enough?

Well, by this metric, is a little better than that 2015 team and a little behind 2009. But it is lagging significantly behind 2012, 2017, and 2011 (of course, everyone lags behind that team. Man, if only they could have kicked a field goal correctly in that one game).

So while this team is obviously weaker than most of the Alabama championship teams in the past, it’s not the weakest, and can absolutely go all the way.

Finally, I wanted to look at one other metric. This one was simple. I just took the points per drive of the Alabama offense and subtracted their opponents’ points per drive. For example, a 2.0 would mean that Alabama scored 2 more points per drive than their opponents.

By this metric, the 2012 and 2020 teams both got a significant boost, leaving 2009 and 2015 in the dust. Those also are the two worst of the group in terms of defensive TD%, so I have to think that using a differential favors offense a little more than a ratio. If anyone has an idea of the implications of this, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Overall, I think it’s clear that, despite the weaker defensive play this year, Alabama should definitely still be a viable championship contender when compared to past iterations. On top of that, 17% of their stats from this season are weighted down by that Ole Miss fiasco that’s looking more like a one-time thing and not a season trend. I expect the defense to only get better going forward as it’s diluted with more normal stats.

Plus Alabama can kick field goals now. Might as well go ahead and call the season and give ‘em the title.