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Giving Away Money: Cotton Bowl Semifinal — Alabama Offensive Efficiency

The Tide does so many things well, even when it’s ugly: But this game will be won or lost on 1st down

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Georgia Bulldogs v Alabama Crimson Tide

Photo by Steven Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

In our lead-up the College Football Playoff Cotton Bowl Semifinal tilt between Alabama and Cincinnati, we’re going to break down some efficiency comparisons between the two, and see where the line stands.

As of today, 23 December, the spread has edged up slightly to ‘Bama -14, from -13.5. The moneyline, always a heavy ‘Bama number, has gone up 10% in the last week — from -$500 to -$550.

What are people seeing that is driving this, exactly?

In two words? Offensive. Efficiency.

Alabama has been an absolute machine offensively (2nd overall), despite its poor rushing game (57th in efficiency), a porous line (105th in sacks allowed, 35.0), and the numerous tackles for loss it has allowed (114th in the nation, almost 7 per game).

Where is the efficiency coming from then?

Two things: A dominating third-down conversion rate (1st overall), and a hyper-efficient passing attack (3rd overall). It is an offense that may have negative plays, but doesn’t have negative drives (7th overall in that category). Even after a negative play, Alabama has either been ahead of the chains, or has gotten ahead of the chains on the next play to make third down a manageable one.

And this is where Alabama has a not-so-secret weapon: Brian Robinson, Jr.

You can see how this particularly is illustrated on first down. B Rob has a decent 4.92 YPC average, and has notched a 1000+ yard, 14-TD season. But where he has been outstanding is on first down: He’s averaging 5.91 YPC on first down. If you give Alabama three additional downs to make 4.09 yards, you are essentially conceding drives.

With each successive down, that mark drops some. But, on 3rd and 4th down, B Rob is still averaging close to 4 YPC — leading to 53 of his carries being Alabama first downs. In some ways, he compares favorably too (and even outperforms) Najee Harris in this category. Last season, 64 of Harris’s rushes were for first downs, but his YPC on 3rd down was much lower than B Rob’s (3.30 vs. 3.94). Robinson isn’t the home run threat of No. 22, but in terms of a grinder he’s even better on these critical drives than Harris was, and he even has more explosiveness than you’d think (32 rushes of 10+ yards vs. 47 for Najee).

You can’t scheme for that either, because any analyst worth his salt has to factor in what Bryce Young does on 3rd down — he’s a monster.

For the year, Young has a passer rating of 175.3 — on 3rd down? Bryce has been at his very best: and the longer the better. Overall on 3rd, BY’s QBR is 205.16. On 3rd with 7-9 to go? He is an ungodly 24 of 29, with a passer rating of 256.56. Fourth down isn’t much more stressful: he’s a cool 3-of-4, with three first downs, and a touchdown.

The one area where has struggled somewhat is on 3rd and 10+ — BY is just 50%, and that is how three of his 4 interceptions occurred. But again, getting Alabama into 3rd and 10 is very, very difficult because of how well the Tide gets in front of the chains on first down.

It seems simple to say that this game will be won on 3rd down. On paper, it is even true. And, yes, it is easy to praise Young’s work on 3rd down, and the team’s absurd 61% conversion rate against teams with winning records and 50% against ranked opponents.

No, the real dirty work here will be done on first down, not third — keeping those conversions manageable, keeping jerseys clean, and keeping yellow hankies off the field. In that respect, Brian Robinson could be Alabama’s most crucial player, the one who determines the Tide’s title ambitions.

And that is somewhat surprising for a team that has to throw the ball, isn’t it?

Go forth lads and lasses to profit and a fat bank. You can also check out plenty more at our SuperGroup.