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Graphing the Tide vs. Georgia: long bombs, turnovers, and critical situations

Georgia won out on efficiency, but lost on key plays

2021 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

From a “data” perspective — and when I say that, I usually mean Bill Connelly’s SP+ system that this “efficiency and explosiveness” column is derived from — Georgia had a legitimate performance advantage going into this game. The larger media narratives (and, frankly, a reasonable eye test) said that Georgia had this one in the bag, if not exactly easily. We also had some counter-narratives that were popular around here ... e.g., Georgia’s weak schedule and lack of necessary or relevant experience.

But SP+ had Georgia at an easy, outright #1, at something like +33, and were outperforming the Tide in both defense (easily) and offense (barely). Yeah, you can cut different datasets different ways to craft your own story, but you’ll have to trust me that SP+ is a sophisticated and well-adjusted version of “metrics.” Numbers aren’t perfect, but I tend to believe that this system is at least informative.

Alabama was no slouch, though. Sure, Georgia’s top SP+ rating was significantly ahead of the other top teams coming out of rivalry weekend, with a ~4 point advantage on the Buckeyes (#2) and a significant ~7 point advantage on *Alabama (at #3). At the time, Michigan and **Cincinnati rounded out the other top spots, with relative dregs below. But, Alabama was indeed a top-3 team in this metric and certainly “deserved” its place in the SEC Championship after a treacherous season. That piece was a bit underrated in the “narratives” after everyone saw Alabama stumble around its November schedule.

But the metrics were a bit scary going in. In most projections of this game, Alabama would’ve lost, likely by something near the Vegas line or greater. Makes sense, Vegas. So I had to just put on my “fan” hat going into this one, expecting my team to win just because I felt like they would (and, um, because I really wanted them to?).

And apparently I was, and we were, rewarded for it. Roll Tide. Sometimes blind fandom wins out ... but I ran the numbers anyway. I’m combining the articles again this week, as I think there are notes of interest in most of the charts. Let’s dig in.

*I’ll refrain from adding external links here, but if you’re an ESPN+ subscriber (I know, I know), you can access all of Bill’s SP+ rankings there.

**Yeah, I know we have “ain’t played nobody” storylines going into our matchup with Cincinnati, and they’re not incorrect, but the opponent-adjusted SP+ has Cincinnati as a top-5 team, 4-points shy of Bama and 2 points better than #6 Texas A&M (yep).

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Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

Look, it was an amazing win! Going in with muted expectations made this the most fun I’ve had watching a game this year. (It also occasionally made me obnoxious for other reasons, but we managed to get past that quickly). Heck, it was maybe the most fun I’ve had watching a win — aside from Nattys — in the last few seasons!

But winners can afford some humility. And, look, the efficiency and explosiveness metrics do not agree that Alabama “shut down” the Bulldogs or terrorized them overmuch. In fact, these teams were remarkably even on down-by-down metrics.

And that’s ok! The Dawgs were accruing first downs and yards seemingly constantly for portions of the game, including most of the first half. They started the game with an explosive play, too (plus a ticky-tack penalty, to boot), and kept XR line alive well before Alabama got into the mix in the 2nd quarter.

Alabama enjoyed some time in the sun, too, with a solid mid-game surge giving us the advantage in both categories when the clock rolled over into the 4th quarter. What a moment to be a Gump! (Let’s not think about the knotted stomachs that then followed when the Dawgs started driving successfully again late)

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

The 1st quarter looks about how I felt during the game — Alabama was keeping it a low-scoring game and wasn’t letting it slip away too fast; but my, those Bulldogs did look something like their billing from the newspapers.

But what gets lost in the earlier cumulative graph is exactly how good that 2nd and 3rd quarter were for the Tide. After an explosive play or 3, things really opened up for the Tide; the 66% SR and 24% XR were both very high numbers for the 2021 version of this offense.

The 3rd quarter didn’t shine quite as brightly — at least in terms of down by down metrics, if not necessarily scoreboard — but we continued with downright good numbers and then the Tide defense clamped down to get the Dawgs under a league-average SR for the only time in the game. There’s a funny quirk here where the 3rd quarter SR you’re looking at actually only represents a handful of plays; aside from an explosive passing touchdown, the offense actually didn’t do much or have the ball much at all in this quarter.

The 4th quarter was ... frustrating. And long! But Alabama’s offense and defense each managed just enough success (including some timely conversions and turnovers) to keep this from getting scary at the end. Thank goodness for the mid-game scoring spree that preceded this late game headache.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

The play map is helpful on this one, given that the averages from above oversimplify the story. In an interesting reversal of the usual roles, Alabama won largely on the back of about a quarter and change of tip-top performance, and scraped by for much of the rest.

The Dawgs’ chart, as is often the case with these; is the polar opposite. That offense was holding on to the ball for longer drives, converting more 1st downs and running the ball more to burn out clock. While they were grinding around in the middle of the field (and scoring seldom), the Georgia defense was keeping Alabama at only 4 or 5 successful plays per quarter in 3 quarters of this game!

But the Tide made up for it by accruing 19 successful plays (7 of them explosive) in the 2nd quarter alone. And we kept the lead due to how explosive our explosive plays were: that “Extra Yards” average line here shows what those will do to that metric (where we handily beat out the Dawgs).

What a topsy-turvy experience! Surely it was all part of Coach O’Brien’s master plan. If I were a Georgia fan, I’d be very frustrated at this graph: You’ve seen similar write-ups from me after Alabama losses, including our most recent one to Texas A&M.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

Newsflash: Georgia is better at running the dern ball! But Alabama is better at passing the dern ball! Nothing new there, but two tidbits stick out to me here ...

  1. Georgia has really gotten rolling in some games by putting up explosive rushes. Those are especially devastating for upstart teams trying to come back against that squad. In this game, though, we kept them to zero explosive rushes, including from scrambles! (Yes, that 3rd-and-15 almost-conversion was indeed shy of the 15-yard explosiveness threshold. Ok, just barely).
  2. Georgia’s passing offense was really decent, and was statistically more explosive — or, I should actually say “more often explosive” — than the Tide’s. That surprised (and frustrated) me — and sure, some of that was on broken tackles and a particularly nasty TE — but give some credit where it’s due: Stetson Bennett IV and the noblemen of his court put together an efficient and reasonably explosive offensive performance.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Woooo boy ... ‘aight, now we’re getting into some of the “critical situations” stuff that the scoreboard really hinged on. Like I said, the Dawgs truly were efficient and such overall, but that efficiency was often “allocated poorly” given the situation.

The first one is a class one: late downs! While the Dawgs did respectably on their few 4th down attempts, their 3rd down line is an absolute trough compared to their performance on other downs. A 25% SR — and not too much explosiveness to pair with it — is going to really hurt you on those downs.

All season I’ve been haunting these here Graphing Halls, with spooky predictions that the 2021 Tide’s “3rd down bump” would not always work out and would come back to bite us. It has somewhat happened once against LSU, and perhaps it will again in the Playoffs ... but for now I appear to have been wrong in my prophesies. Bryce Young and co. once again had their best performances on 3rd downs, with a slight SR advantage and massive XR advantage on that down. It still gives me the willies; but if it worked against this defense then maybe I should just get over myself.

In this game, the 3rd down slump did indeed happen, but it happened to the Bulldogs instead. And I thank St. Nick (Saban) and the Crimson spirit for that one.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

Another critical situation gap! These are often easy to see live (and they’re definitely easy to hear from commentators going on and on), but this Red Zone gap was important. Neither team was excellent in the Red Zone — both moved the ball much better when given more space — but outside of a few bad defensive plays tackles, Alabama was the decisive winner down there.

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

In another obvious newsflash: Georgia’s offense is good at converting on short yardage. Those were, in fact, practically the only 3rd downs they converted all night.

But, aside from that it was another near-reversal of the usual Tide trends from 2021. In this one, the Bama offense was remarkably consistent on accruing successful plays across all distances. Even short yardage, amazingly enough!

Georgia was consistent and respectable from most downs and distance, but had a really interesting gap in this “middling yardage” category. This 3-6 yard territory is one that can be commonly attacked with the rush or pass, so it’s a bit of an odd category. There are only a few things that come to mind that might be the cause for the gap

  1. Something about our defensive line, LBs, and rush protection in general in this game. We didn’t stop Georgia’s rushing behind the line of scrimmage often in this game, but we were able to generally keep them from accruing more than a yard or 2 past the line of scrimmage. Those “stops but not stuffs/sacks” aren’t as impressive real time, but they did indeed add up against this otherwise-formidable Dawgs rushing attack.
  2. Maybe it’s something about having the option to Rush or Pass in these middling yard opportunities: I’m not a film study person, but perhaps Stetson and the Coaches struggled to call effective plays when the situation wasn’t as obvious either way. That is, the offense could be unpredictable, but the defense could be too.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

If you flip over to the Georgia chart, you see one that honestly I’d kinda like our offense’s charts to look like. Nice balance and fairly consistent efficiencies, even if passing is a consistent relative over-performer.

But flipping back to the Bama chart ... makes me cringe a bit. That’s a bad rushing line! Yeah I should’ve known going into the game that our 1.3 available scholarship tailbacks — plus a then-maligned OL — weren’t going to give us a lovely Rushing SR line here. But this rushing attack was dead on arrival until midway through that fruitful (for the Tide) 2nd quarter.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

And part of that lacking rushing attack — one of the chicken and egg, you could say — was about the limited rushing attempts. This and the LSU game were our least RTDB games all season long. Given the circumstances, I get it (and I honestly appreciate if after seeing Bryce Young’s performance on the big stage), but it’s still a bit shocking to see in Crimson.

Top Passers

Speaking of Bryce’s great performance — it was great! At least in traditional stats. His 52.3% passing SR from this game is above average, if nothing amazing ... but I guess you could call that Amazing against a defense like this, right? And his explosiveness was along a similar trend, at a very respectable 18.1% XR. If one-in-five catches ends up being explosive, you know you’ve got a ‘slinger back there.

But, strangely enough, Stetson Bennett IV’s line is very similar overall: he even had a few extra explosive passes and fewer incompletions on more attempts. But the most important chunk of this bar chart is the last one ... 2 interceptions from The Dawg QB, and zero from the Tide QB.

Top Rushers, Alabama

The rusher charts weren’t exactly inspiring on either end, but I was a bit surprised at how well James Cook comes out in this one. The Tide defense was doing nominally well against this Georgia rushing attack, but Dalvin Cook’s little brother still put up 7 successful rushes for a ~64% rushing SR against Alabama. Maybe it was more about situational rushing on short yardage, but that’s a good (if limited) day out of a back on this stage.

Kenny McIntosh also comes out nicely on this chart on limited attempts. Thankfully, they were limited. Zamir White and co. weren’t so fortunate on their attempts.

For the Tide, this is a pretty ugly chart. Brian Robinson Jr., my boy B-Rob, gutted out a hamstring injury to play into this one. He’s being rightfully lauded for the effort, for blitz blocking, and for situational gains ... but otherwise his line here looks real bad. At least he got an explosive rush out of it.

Trey Sanders timed his performance well when we needed him the most, with a solid 50% SR showing on attempts. I haven’t looked at the film, but given the 0 sacks allowed in the game I have to assume he was part of that effort.

And the most efficient rusher from both teams was ... our quarterback, Bryce Young! That’s a bit of a scary position to put oneself in, but Bama had their backs to the wall and Young’s 3-for-3 (with an explosive play and TD in there) were timely and gutsy.

Top Receivers, Alabama

For all that the Tide’s rushers chart was lacking, the receivers chart is a thing of relative beauty. Jameson Williams gets the leading spot that is fitting given his highlight real: 3 explosive catches is a great game in its own right, but he had 4 other “normal successful” catches as well. Attaboy, Jamo.

But yeah, right behind him was a receiver that (per some discussion round here) we may have seen for his final time in Crimson. John Metchie III went out of the game with a non-contact injury that appears to be a serious knee issue. Very unfortunate for this relatively unheralded receiving threat, as he’s had a great latter half of 2021. Before he left the game, he put up 6 successful catches of his own, including 2 explosive and 1 touchdown. Thank you, Metch; I hope you heal up quickly and fully, and that you have all of the information you need to make a decision between the NFL and another year with the Tide.

Behind those two — and in part due to Metchie’s injury — we see a nice diversity of catches from two TEs (Latu and Billingsley), two young receivers (Brooks and Holden), and a few trusty vets (Bolden, and B-Rob out of the backfield). Interestingly, we don’t see Trey Sanders in the catchers chart this time, but I’ve got high hopes that we’ll see it again soon, like we did against Arkansas and Auburn.

Top Receivers, Georgia

You don’t need to see this Georgia chart to know how their receiving game went. We all saw TE Brock Bowers come down with catch after catch and rumble inconceivably through a bunch of 5-star defenders to get touchdowns and such. Maybe it was a “pick your poison” game plan but those 10 plays (ten!) were not fun.

Otherwise Bennett had a lot of targets, including all of the RB corps, and again James Cook comes out as effective. Maybe it makes sense that the too-frequent explosive passes from the Dawgs offense were being caught by so many players: it suggests something about playcalling, perhaps, rather than being able to contain particular players. Um, besides Bowers.

Bonus Graph: Baylor outlasts

But let’s not end on a Georgia player chart. Here’s the SR chart from that BigXII title game that came down to the last few inches.

I had a suspicion that, by the end of the 4th quarter and Oklahoma State’s near-comeback, that Baylor made have gotten lucky to pull this thing out at all.

In a sense, they did: this thing was truly down to four stops on a goal line stand, and it came down to a hair. But, no, Baylor was leading in efficiency through this game and were fine on explosiveness, to boot. Oklahoma State did make progress during a late game effort, but never closed the gaps on efficiency, and lacked the explosiveness to overcome that gap.

Anyway, it was an awesome game. We’ll be talking about it for a while — and I just had my turn — so for now I’ll give a hearty Roll Tide to all and congrats on the SEC Championship.