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16 “Decisive Once Again” Graphs from the National Title win

This time around, the play by play metrics line up with the scoreboard.

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama
Just two of the many contributors on offense on Monday night.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It was odd, and a bit bittersweet, choosing who to picture on top of the graphing articles this week: it’s my last time featuring most of these faces! But boy, what a way to go out.

I ended up trying to double-dip on offense for the main feature. All season, I’ve tended away from featuring Mac Jones—because QB’s show up all over the place as it is, and we have other folks that deserve highlighting—but Mac’s put up the most consistent performances that I’ve ever seen in these player charts.

So here he is, and he’s brought a friend: Najee Harris has been one of the most fun players to watch in our (spoiled rich) program history, and continued his varied contributions in the title victory. While Najee didn’t have eye-popping rushing efficiencies in this one—check out his funny “effortlessly” answer from his postgame interview for clues why—he was one of our top receivers on the day and always fought for a few extra yards.

For the All Graphs send-off, we’ve gotta go Defense. And I’m ... quintuple-ish-dipping (?) by just showing a handful of ‘em. Christian Barmore was a top tackler in this game, and had 4-for-4 Stops to help keep the Buckeye offense tamed. Hiccups or not, he and the defense did a nice job limiting the output of a dangerous offense and giving the offense breathing room to stay out in front.

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Team Success Rates (cumulative)

After the last (cursed) Bama title game in 2018, you had to see me gripe about the gap between the scoreboard and the actual play-by-play performance; Alabama was notably more efficient overall, and racked up respectable offensive stats ... aside from, uh, points.

It also happened the other way in 2015-16, when Alabama managed to beat Clemson for the title despite the Tide’s less efficient and slightly less explosive offensive output (thanks, special teams!). You could argue that advanced metrics are the most interesting when they depart from the obvious conclusions from the traditional box score, and both of those past games did just that.

But, thankfully, this year’s Tide Title wasn’t like that: the play-by-play metrics agree with the trends that we saw on the scoreboard. There was some back and forth early on through a (nice and quick) 1st quarter, but then Alabama was demonstrably and consistently better for most of the game. The eventual ~20-point efficiency gap—Ohio State’s slightly-below-average 39% vs. Alabama’s solid ~60%—is one that maps up intuitively to the 52-24 result.

This was also Alabama’s first actual title game walloping since the 2012 one vs. the Notre Dame Fighting Irish; even the efficiency gaps are similar (in fact, ND’s was a few points better than OSU’s). We’ve had a few close calls with our title opponents in the CFP era—in both wins and losses—so it felt good to get more headroom and decisiveness in this one. What a team!

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

Pardon the iffy visuals, but Alabama actually did edge out Ohio State in 1st quarter efficiency (55% vs 54%), so technically the Tide was more efficient in every quarter. That’s great! Really, the Buckeyes just had two strong pushes in the game—plus some points off a Red Zone turnover—to accrue their points, including some potent explosiveness in the 3rd quarter.

Otherwise, if your team can keep moving the ball and scoring points through every quarter, while only allowing the opponent to do that in half of the quarters (the 1st and the 3rd), then don’t be surprised if you win that football game.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

The Tide Play Map is rich with Crimson! For a team that passes as much as Alabama did in this one, they ran a lot of successful plays. The trend here—three quarters full off consistent positive performance, then a breather in the basically-garbage-time 4th quarter—is a really encouraging one that speaks to the “inevitability” of this victory. We weren’t just leaning on surprise-mystery tight ends, well-timed long shots, or anything like that; this was pretty much a wire-to-wire offensive domination.

Flipping over to the Buckeyes chart, it’s quite sparse in comparison. Justin Fields and company did get theirs, with a few concerted—and markedly explosive—bouts of success midway through each half. Heck, for a few minutes there, some of us were starting to fear that we had a 2014-esque Buckeye comeback on our hands :shivers:.

It didn’t materialize, though: Ohio State did keep drives going with some explosive catches—and, actually, several very long rushes—but it was just too inconsistent and too sporadic to beat a team that put up 35 points in the first half alone.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

You know, late in the first half I was wondering if Alabama was benefiting from an unusually strong 3rd down conversion rate; the Tide has been strong on 3rd down all year, but “betting all the marbles” on critical downs in a dangerous game to play.

But I was mostly wrong: the Tide’s 3rd down SR was good at 54% (nearly aligned with their season 3rd down conversion rates), but 1st and 2nd downs were even better. And success on early downs can help explain the resulting success on critical downs.

Albeit, we did see Saban and Sark gamble a bit—and win a lot—on 4th downs, which helps explain a slightly depressed 3rd down success rate. Some of those were just “future conversions” that were delayed until a 4th-and-short push. Thankfully, we converted them!

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

There were actually a lot of plays (39 total, 25 for Bama) in the Red Zone in this game, which is unusual for the Tide this season. That means we got some good data for this chart this time around.

While both defenses were more stiff in the Red Zone than otherwise—the broadcasters were all over this tidbit about defensive strategy—Alabama won out handily in both categories. By holding Ohio State’s efficiency down in the Red Zone (and keeping them to a field goal and a turnover on downs during two Red Zone trips), the Tide defense did the team some huge favors.

That kind of stuff—unusual excellence in the Red Zone, combined with a timely Red Zone turnover—is the kind of thing that could’ve kept Ohio State in a game that, apparently, they shouldn’t have been that close in. Good thing they didn’t over-perform there.

Running and Passing

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

Alabama was way better than Ohio State at running that ball! (high fives)

Alabama was also better (and really, quite good) at passing the ball! (more high fives; my hand is starting to hurt).

So the story mostly tells itself. One interesting tidbit I alluded to earlier is those long, explosive runs, though. There are few things more frustrating than watching an opposing dual-threat quarterback run 30+ yards and flip the field on their own; and that happened with Justin Fields a time or two! But ... frustration aside, maybe letting the rare explosive scramble go is part of a sound defensive strategy: I mean, we held them to few enough points that we doubled their score and won the game handily. So what do I know!?

Rushing rate (cumulative), Alabama

Speaking of running ... Alabama didn’t want to do it all that much. We’ve seen unusually low rushing rates from a Gump team this year; and I guess it makes sense, given that our passing efficiencies and explosiveness have been pretty consistently better than our rushing stats, especially against the best teams on our schedule.

But this lull coming out of halftime was unusually low, even for 2020: we were down to a 27% rushing rate (!) midway through the third quarter after attempting 5 passes in a row. Heck, we ended the first half attempting (quite successfully) eleven (!) passes in a row.

Coach, why aren’t we RUNNING that DAGGUM BAWL!? Somebody’s gotta get rid of this Sark guy, he just doesn’t get our culture ‘round here.

It’ll be interesting to see if these rushing rates start to revert to a more balanced mix next season while we (presumably) figure out what to do with a less experienced (and more fleet-footed) quarterback in Bryce Young.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative), Alabama

Not much here that we haven’t discussed already—the Tide was good at running, great at passing, per season trends—but my these performances were very stable! (Nice work, Sark).

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative), Ohio State

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s results were ... less stable. Like I said, they accrued some highlights through timely explosive playmaking—and some killer passes and catches, I’ll add—but their efficiencies just slipped and slipped as the game went along and the Fighting Goldings apparently figured things out.

The tail ends of these lines are particularly beautiful: Justin Fields ended the game with eleven straight passes, and the last seven of them in a row were unsuccessful. And on the rushing line, they did technically find success on their last rush (a Fields scramble for 7 yards), but only 2 (!) of their last 15 rushes were successful. Lovely stuff, Tide defense.

Individual Players

Top Runners

Najee’s efficiency line isn’t as impressive as his “eye test” performance. For the second game in a row, he was often fighting defenders right at (or even behind) the line of scrimmage to gut out a few magical bonus yards. I couldn’t believe some of the negative plays he salved between the Ohio State and Notre Dame games! But often those modest gains don’t count as “successful” plays—not enough yards gained—so it depressed his Rushing Success Rate to a modest (but still good) 45.4%.

Mac Jones took a few “giraffe sprints” when necessary—apparently hurting himself in the process—to once again get the “only take it when it’s guaranteed” 100% efficiency award.

Brian Robinson started a bit slow, but rounded out with some gutsy plays of his own, ending with a pretty good 50% SR on 10 carries. He also nailed the Tide’s only explosive rushing play on the night—a 21 yard rumble in the 3rd quarter—plus two 13-yard (near-explosive) gains later on. I did not think it’d be Mr. Robinson standing out like that in this game, but I’m pleased and surprised, and more hopeful for his veteran presence next season.

Postseason phenom Trey Sermon was injured on the Buckeyes’ first rush, which was a boon for the Tide but a real shame overall. This isn’t the way you want to go out on the big stage, and I’m curious if he’ll choose to come back for another season.

Master Teague tried his best to pick back up his starting role and fill in for Sermon, but his 33% SR isn’t gonna cut it for winning a title game. So, Justin Fields’ timely scrambles were pretty much the lion-share of rushing success that the Buckeyes experienced. Per earlier note, I guess I’ll take it if it means our opponent is unsuccessful, overall.

Top Passers

Mac Jones! Per his usual thang, Mac Jones’s stat line a masterwork of consistency, with a pretty excellent 67.5% passing SR, again, and a great-but-not-Tua 21% explosiveness rate.

Mac has put up more explosive numbers earlier in the season, but it’s tapered off in the latter half; my guess is that it’s more to do with the defensive strategies we’re seeing—plus, missing a fully-healthy Jaylen Waddle—than it is with Mac’s ability to find receivers. The efficiency line handily speaks to Mac’s receiver-finding abilities, thank you very much.

Justin Fields was sometimes explosive (16.6% XR) in the passing game too—he seems to have made that a habit this postseason—but he was inconsistent and limited in his attempts. That ~41.6% passing SR is actually Ok—near NCAA league average—but in the modern Playoff it doesn’t seem like that’s going to result in a win very often.

Top Receivers, Alabama

In some ways, this is a delightfully diverse receivers chart—keep them guessing, Mac!—but there are definitely some “top targets.”

DeVonta Smith did his thing per usual, even with all these other receivers on the board: his 5 (!) explosive catches for a 31% Explosiveness Rate and 81% Success Rate (!) are just the most Smitty numbers ever. And all of this happened in just one half! Heisman storylines have a way of setting up for disappointment, but DeVonta Smith gave us a really magical farewell game to remember him by. Gonna miss you, dude.

John Metchie III delivered a nice line, with a 58% SR and 2 explosive catches. Listen, we’re gonna have to get used to a post-Smitty (and post-Waddle, and still a post-Ruggs, and post-Jeudy, etc.) reality someday soon. While I don’t think we’ve seen much star-studded “receiver leadership” from Metchie so far, there’s talent and room for him to grow there. I’m glad he’s on our side.

Najee Harris is our third leading receiver, with an explosive catch (that awesome catch-and-wiggle-and-run-and-jump TD) and a line (62.5% SR on 8 attempts) that a “normal” receiver would be very pleased with. Sigh, I guess we’ll need to backfill this guy too.

It was a joy—and also pretty painful, at times—seeing #17 Jaylen Waddle back out there. A perfect 3-for-3 catch efficiency with a 33% XR is quite a line for someone who can barely walk around. I hope he didn’t meaningfully aggravate his injuries during this game, because for a few drives in the second half, I felt safer having him back out there.

Xavier Williams made another one of his rare appearances; I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of him and our fancy-fast TE Jahleel Billingsley show up more on this chart next season. I’m disappointed that Miller Forristall didn’t accrue any successful catches in what’s likely his final game with the Tide, but he had a good season this year and he’s got another Natty under his belt, so that’s pretty cool, too.

Top Receivers, Ohio State

Uh, that Chris Olave guy is good. If we didn’t already have a Smitty racking up stats in this game, I’d say this Olave line—save the middling explosiveness—looks kinda like a Smitty line. He’s a junior, so I’m unclear on his draft stock and all that, but I imagine he’ll be a strong contributor to his team again next year.

None of the running backs accrued successful catches, so that’s an encouraging sign for anybody worried about the Tide Defense’s bugaboo of “the RB catching stuff out of the backfield.”

Top Tacklers, Alabama

Whew! We’re close to the end, folks. And I’ve got a really nice defensive chart for you. Remember, these plays shown here are Ohio State’s plays, and the “success” (filled in bars) or lack thereof (empty bars) reflect the perspective of their offense. So, when we’re looking at this chart with Alabama defenders on it, we want to see empty bars that show the opponents’ offense being unsuccessful.

And the good news is that ... we did! Plenty of big empty bars here: Christian Barmore, Christopher Allen, Will Anderson, Dylan Moses, Christian Harris, and Ben Davis (!) all accrued a few Stops (tackles on unsuccessful Ohio State plays) each, which is a great spread. Interestingly, LaBryan Ray was limited in his contributions on his game back, even if he did contribute to half of a Stop.

Even the DB’s got in on the action, with Josh Jobe, Patrick Surtain II, and Daniel Wright (!) getting some Stops.

Sure, we had some Safeties and Linebackers chasing runaway Buckeyes from time to time—Harris, Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, and Brian Branch all got some good workouts in—but these success ratios are good for a defense facing a title contender. I mean, there aren’t many plays or tacklers here in general; the former is a very good sign, though we did choose to keep our starters in for basically the whole game.

Check out the All Graphs article for the remainder of the graphs.

And here we are. What a season! What a championship! For a stats column, writing about decisive wins isn’t the most interesting version of sports data journalism: “oh look, these charts generally agree that we won all of the games this season, and rarely with controversy.” But if that means we’re getting big wins and shiny trophies and everybody’s happy inside of the confetti clouds ... I’ll take the statistical boredom any season, any time, you name it.

Congratulations, Roll Tide, and stay safe y’all.