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Graphing the Tide vs. Miami: passing, 3rd downs, and continued stomping

The new look is still a good look

NCAA Football: Alabama at Miami Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Roll Tide, and welcome back to another football season! We’ll pick up where we left off last year with Graphing the Tide (um, we decisively won a national title a handful of months ago), but with a few updates to your favorite football graphing column.

  1. More games! With a new data source and hand-rebuilt pipeline, we should be able to look at more graphs from more games this year. It’s a work in progress, but expect to see more graphs from more non-Alabama games as the season goes on.
  2. No tackler data: unfortunately, tackling data just isn’t standard in a lot of play by play data, so I must drop that portion of the analysis. Honestly, tackling data is a weird dataset because defense is reactive and so prone to other effects rather than those players’ individual performances, so I don’t see it as a major loss.
  3. Some tweaks (and more to come). You’ll see explosiveness over time, some shading to show league averages, more chart-team-switching, “unsuccessful catches” data, and more improvements as the season goes along.

Anyway, let’s get into it.

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Success Rate (SR) and Explosive Rate (XR) by Team

For a quick primer: this is analysis based on Bill Connelly’s SP+, which tries to tell how well teams did outside of the usual highlights and semi-random occurrences of stuff like fumbles.

Success Rate (or SR) is a measure of “which plays worked,” that is, plays that scored, achieved first down, OR gained enough yards to be deemed a statistical success. “Enough yards” is 50% of needed yards (for a 1st down or score) on 1st down, 70% of needed yards on 2nd down, and 100% of needed yards on 3rd and 4th down.

Explosiveness Rate (or XR) is a bit more of a homegrown concoction that helps us talk about how BIG the plays were. These days on RBR, we just call any 15+ yard gain an “explosive play,” whether it’s run or pass. Imperfect, but it adds important color.

And there you have it above: Alabama came in with above-average Success Rates, Miami achieved well under average SR’s (though not horrible), and also lagged several points behind in Explosiveness Rate. In case you were wondering: the scoreboard victory by the Alabama Crimson Tide was not a fluke, it was indeed a solidly winning performance.

Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

Perhaps it’s to be expected, but this wasn’t the flat out dominance that we’ve seen from the Tide’s best games the last few years. The SR and XR leads were large and consistent throughout the game, but Alabama chugged along with low-to-mid-50s on SR, instead of the 60-70% we saw at times from offenses led by Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa (and, of course, Najee Harris, Devonta Smith, and others).

It’s a great outing for a first-time offense with basically all new skill talent, but it’s something to look out for if we’re hoping to win shootouts again this year.

One special thing to note for our defense: the Miami Hurricanes didn’t notch an explosive play until nearly the end of the first half: that 0% line is a sight to behold for defense lovers in Crimson.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

The Play Map shows stark differences in this one: Alabama was chugging along with successful plays between 5-20 yards for much of the first half, doing it’s best NFL team impression to simply move the chains and keep the drive (and clock) going.

The longest play — an out-of-the-deep end 94 yard bomb and run to transfer Jameson Williams — didn’t come until the 3rd quarter; and no other play passed 40 yards.

That goes for the Hurricanes, too: their explosiveness was dreadful, with just a flurry of barely-explosive plays right around the halfway mark, and one 30-yard pass after that.

Really, outside of two drives, Miami wasn’t able to do much. And outside of that one gap, Alabama just kept on pressing and playing the game it presumably wanted to.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

Hey, what’s all this I heard about Alabama becoming a run-first team again and dominating in the trenches? What we saw on Saturday was actually a pass-first offense that was both more successful (53 to 46%) and more explosive (15% to 11%) passing the ball than it was running. I guess coach O’Brien saw what they had with Bryce and this new-ish receiver crop and thought we’d just ... pick up where we left off last year.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

You can see it in the Rush Rate chart as well: after the first few plays, Alabama didn’t hit a 50% rushing rate all afternoon! Things were getting toasty in the trenches as we closed out the first quarter, but from there the coaches let Bryce Young (and actually, Paul Tyson to a small extent) air the ball out through the middle quarters and even some of the 4th.

If we hadn’t just grounded the ball again to close the game, we’re looking at something like a 40/60 rush/pass split, which is pretty crazy for an offense with an inexperienced QB and this kind of running back depth!

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Alright ... I don’t love this chart. But I’ll split up the takes; choose according to your taste.

Glass half full take: one of the things that’s sometimes held back Saban’s best teams is 3rd down conversion rate: if it lags the rest of the Tide’s solid performance, we still at times lose games out of that. Fortunately, we seem to have overcome that and now have exceptional 3rd down success rates, so don’t worry about it.

My actual take: this smells a bit like a Clemson or an Auburn chart — exceptional 3rd down performance that masks some relative lagging on the other downs. Clemson has made hay with this — see the 2016 and 2018 National Titles (or, just don’t) — and Auburn beat that Jalen Hurts 2017 team on this, but waiting around until 3rd downs to “be good” is a risky strategy.

I don’t think Alabama was at much risk of dropping this game after the opening quarter, but this is the kind of fragile stat that can, with just a few bounces or breezes, could have dramatically soured the flavor of this game. I think the margin of victory was a bit exaggerated here due to the Tide’s over-performance on 3rd downs (which checks out given that Miami didn’t have horrible SRs, nor Alabama amazing ones). I’d love to see our 3rd down SRs continue to be this successful, but let’s keep an eye on these early down efficiencies and hope that they climb. I’m not ready for a season of 3rd-and-long prayers.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

This is one of those cases where the play counts aren’t significant for one of the opponents — I promise I’m working on a way to show that better this season — but it’s still funny and telling. Miami had a terrible Red Zone efficiency and got stuffed on their only deep drive, while the Tide just cruised along, staying efficient and even putting up more explosiveness inside the Red Zone.

Top Rushers, Alabama

Look, I know that I said this was a passing-first offense (or at least, game), but I had to put Brian Robinson Jr. on the game photo because I just think he’s fantastic. A rare (these days) bruiser with good speed and second push; I’m perhaps in the minority in that I hope and expect him to continue to be RB1 (even if just barely) this year.

After BRob, I was a bit surprised to see Trey Sanders put up some quick work to be the second most successful Tide back by volume, and the most successful Tide back by SR. I hope he’s back and stays well!

Top Passers, Alabama

Bryce Young had a pretty great day for a debut — though you’ve already heard that. What I’m glad to see is that we’re already using the new and improved “unsuccessful catches” metric here. Bryce’s overall passer SR wasn’t amazing at 52.6%, but a lot of those unsuccessful plays were still indeed catches, not incompletions. Hopefully we pick up that SR even further from it’s above-average place, but that he’s on target for so many of these is encouraging.

Top Receivers, Alabama

And there’s another surprise! I’ll fix the ranking method soon, but for now Jameson Williams nets out with the highest SR of the group (100% SR on 4 catches). The others are the ones you saw in the headlines so far: John Metchie III is starting to make the most of being wideout #1, and our tight end room, lead by Cameron Latu is suddenly deep and, um, very utilized? This will take some getting used to.

Otherwise, it’s good to see so many names here. Brian Robinson didn’t have the success that Najee Harris often had in this chart, but with two catches here there’s still opportunity ahead. I’ll be interested to see if coach O’Brien reinstates more tailback passes as the season progresses, or if we stick with the tight ends and wideouts.

Bonus chart: LSU lost

In an illustration of our new graphing capabilities ... here’s a data set from another game! LSU lost to the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12. The Bruins were the more explosive team from the 2nd quarter, and they just barely slipped ahead in efficiency with a huge 4th quarter, but all you need to know is that this loss wasn’t a game time fluke, the baby bears team did indeed beat the tigahs.

Roll Tide! Check out the all graphs article from this game for more. I’ll see you, with more graphs in hand, after the next one.