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Giving Away Money: Cotton Bowl Semifinal — Alabama Defensive Efficiency

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Can Cincinnati’s offensive line hold up? That will determine how well UC plays.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Chick-fil-A Kickoff - Alabama v Miami

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Man, there is a monster defense out on the field that the Crimson Tide will have to contend with.

Check out these numbers.

  • Overall defensive efficiency — 3rd
  • Defensive explosive play efficiency — 3rd
  • Defensive play efficiency — 3rd
  • Negative drives forced — 5th
  • Defensive rushing efficiency — 3rd
  • Defensive passing efficiency — 11th
  • Opponent 3rd down conversions: 32% (8th)
  • Points per drive allowed: 1.6 (2nd)
  • Defensive disruptive play percentage: 30%
  • Defensive disruptive drive percentage: 26%
  • Rushing TDs allowed: 8 (4th overall)
  • INTs: 15 (10th)
  • Turnover Margin: +11 (11th)
  • Sacks: 46.0 (3rd)
  • TFL: 106 (4th), TFL PG: 8.15 (3rd)
  • Forced Fumble Rate: 4.38%
  • Fumble Recovery Rate: 50%

Cincinnati is a machine, aren’t they?

Well, the Bearcats are good to be sure. But those are the numbers for the Crimson Tide, and Alabama does in fact contend with an elite defense every week: in practice.

Because, as we discussed in the SEC Championship breakdown, the Alabama defense isn’t just better than you think it is, or as is commonly maligned, it is elite by almost any metric you want to choose. And, alongside the Tide’s success on 3rd down, the Alabama defense vs. the Cincy offense represents the single greatest mismatch in the game.

It is not all roses, to be sure...at least on paper, where ‘Bama is a pedestrian 23th in drive efficiency. A great deal of that is the defensive strategy at play. Pete Golding may not willingly concede drives between the 30s, but Alabama plays far less aggressively in the middle half of the field, and is content to lay back and wait for mistakes to come: and come they have. At almost +1.0 per game vs. teams with winning records, ‘Bama is 7th in forcing TOs vs. opponents over .500.

The three areas that particularly stand out, however, are the ‘Bama rushing defense vs. UC’s run game, Cincy’s many turnovers, and the Tide’s ability to create negative drives for the Bearcats.

Taking the last point first: If there is any area where UC has been weak this year on offense, it is in its inability to prevent negative drives. Whereas Alabama gets ahead of the chains (particularly on first down), UC has had much less success doing so. Even against their very weak schedule, Cincinnati is just 44th in opponent-adjusted drive efficiency.

How do you project that though to this game? A few ways, but mainly by looking granularly at the data.

  • Well, Cincy has done some great work this year protecting the quarterback, but in two games against Power 5 conference teams, the Bearcats allowed 6 sacks, and give up 1.79 sacks per contest against all teams with winning records. Likewise, the Bearcats do not surrender many TFL — just 45 on the year. But fully 10.0 of those TFL happened in their two games vs. Power 5 conferences, and 7.5 of them were against Notre Dame alone.
  • Similarly the Bearcats have lived and died with their rushing attack setting up Desmond Ridder’s PA passing. But this is where the talent disparity most shows against the Big Boys: In all games vs. teams with winning records, UC averages just over 5 YPC, and schedule wide, it’s 5.68 YPC. But in games against Notre Dame and Indiana, that plummeted. The Bearcats’ ground game sputters all the way down to 3.28 YPC. This is definitely a stat where averages don’t serve you well: Against soup cans, UC averages 190 YPG rushing and 5.75 YPC. Against Power 5 foes, it drops to 118 YPG — and beyond that, the ground attack has been hit or miss all season: Against Tulane, Tulsa, ECU, Murray State, Indiana and Notre Dame, the Bearcats were at or under 4.0 YPC. But when they could run, they did run: UC was over 7.0 YPC vs. Houston, Temple, UCF, and SMU. This is one reason that the drive efficiency numbers have been weak for UC.
  • And, finally, there is the matter of Cincinnati’s carelessness with the ball. The Bearcats have been ungodly at forcing turnovers this season: a national best 33 forced. But the flipside to that is how careless UC has been with the ball on the other side of the field. They have lost 19 TOs as well, including fumbling as many times as Alabama has total turnovers (10), and throwing almost that many interceptions (9). That has coincided with a significant drop in forced TOs. Like the rushing yards above, the Bearcats have feasted on bad teams to buoy these averages. Of the 33 TOs forced by UC, just 11 came in 7 games against teams with winning records (including Murray State). The other 22 TOs came in 6 contests against bad teams below .500. And, in their two games against Power 5 teams overall, UC was just +1 on the season.

TL; DR: Putting it all together, when the UC offensive line gives up negative plays, its running game has been too erratic to yield a consistent, efficient drive-based offense. It really has depended on the team it is facing: Opponents that have sold out to stop the rushing attack have succeded on a per-play average (<4.0 YPC), and on the scoreboard — UC went 2-4 ATS vs. teams that shut down the running game. In particular, the offensive line has struggled mightily to open holes against Power 5 talent, underperforming YPG and YPC allowed by both Notre Dame and IU.

Given Alabama’s ability to both create negative plays, and UC’s propensity to turn it over, the Alabama front seven vs. the UC running game figures to be the Tide’s single greatest mismatch of the entire game. And as Cincinnati presses, expect that havoc to only increase, and UC to turn it over as they have all season when the ground game sputters.

The projected inability of Cincinnati to consistently move the ball is but one reason Alabama is at -14, and climbing.

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