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Graphing the Tide vs. Miss State: You were right; the offense was bad!

The stats match the eye test, not the scoreboard, in this one

Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images

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Most of the time, this column exists to counter some natural narratives:

  1. The scoreboard. Whatever the scoreboard ends up reading, all sports narratives are retroactively written to match it. The Tennessee game is a great example: had the refs held a bad flag, we’d have been talking about the Tide’s “determination and fight in a comeback effort.” Instead, a few points get moved around and we get variations on “this team is terrible, no heart, no coaching, no nothin’.”
  2. The highlights. Highlights are fun! And sometimes they truly do represent what happened in a particular game. Again, Tennessee’s 5-6 massively explosive plays come to mind. But often they represent the exceptions, rather than the representations, of a game.
  3. Good luck. Bad luck. Oftentimes, the team that “played better” on a down-by-down average (hence, this column) just doesn’t end up winning. The ball bounces in funny ways; success is distributed unevenly between “critical” and “non-critical” downs, Red Zone flukes, bad reffing, etc. etc.

All of these are natural (and deserving) parts of a football story. But they tend to be so varied in their abilities to really “describe” how a game felt down by down. This column tries to toss most of that out the window and just talk about the averages, though: when a team had the ball, how often did they move it well? When their opponent did, what usually happened?

And running the charts for this (sneakily miserable) game reminded me, again, of why I do this. This 30-6 spread-covering victory was nothing how the scoreboard looks (see #1 above), was not represented well by its Bryce-scramble highlights (see #2), and saw the losing team on the receiving end of some bad breaks (see #3). Let’s get into it:

Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

Yep. My takeaway is similar to many of you RBR’ers bemoaning the offense during and after this one. The eye test was correct! And, in fact, the Tide offense was actually less efficient on average than the Mississippi State offense that it outscored by several touchdowns.

Sure, garbage time is something of a factor: that last long drive from the Bulldogs — the only one where they managed to get multiple 4th down conversions to continue, by the way — certainly helped MSU show better face at the end. But their Success Rate was pretty steady throughout the game, mostly hanging with the Tide throughout the second half.

As for the Tide, they showed out in the 2nd quarter enough to barely scrape past the NCAA SR average for a few fleeting moments, before descending and taking a light nap through the rest of the game. It’s a good thing Bryce Young and co. were so explosive at those moments in the 1st and second quarter, because we coasted on that the rest of the way.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

Blegh. These charts are gross!

I’ll give credit where it’s due in that same spot, right at the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd quarter: between Bryce Young, Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Traeshon Holden, they strung together several explosive plays in that part of the game. (Note that this chart blends together drives, so there were not actually 3 explosive plays in a row; these were across a few drives). And now that I write that out: I suppose I should praise the diversity of targets in this particular piece of the playbook! If the offense had looked like this the entire time, we’d be already clearing out space for another CFP trophy.

But the offense didn’t look like that the rest of the time. The running game fell into a slumber again after Gibbs’ explosive TD; and, in fact, that 19 yard rush was the Tide’s only successful rush of the first half, and only 1 of 5 successful rushes all day. The passing game held on a bit better — it’s led by a Heisman winner, after all — but drifted through the remaining quarters and settled at a mediocre 41% SR. We did register another two explosive catches during the second half (Bryce to Burton for 17, Bryce to Brooks for 18), but by then they were rare and not particularly explosive anyway. But the rushing game was bad.

As for the Mississippi State chart: it didn’t fare well, either (that second quarter passing sequence is likely a hearty compliment to the Alabama perimeter defense), but their numbers climbed from the end of the second quarter and through the rest of the game. They had enough gaffes to barely turn it into any points; but on efficiency they were getting back to the numbers their opponent was putting up.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

I’m starting with the Mississippi State chart here because it’s dramatic and interesting. Their rushing game was working reasonably well in the first quarter (actually, less good than I remembered watching it live, but well for MSU); and they were really putting up an effort to show another side of Mike Leach. But a few breaks later, and a few big Bryce scramble-passes, and they were down by multiple touchdowns. So on comes the Pirate, on comes the passing game. Their rush rate took a smooth slide and settled in a more familiar (for them) 25% cumulative rush rate.

The Tide chart matches up intuitively with what you saw: a rushing game that was hardly working was kept away from in the first quarter and a half; but as a team gets a big lead, it’s incentive to rush go up even when it’s not working at all.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

Both of the offenses were much worse than the ones we saw in the Bama-UT game the week prior — so there are fewer successful data points overall — but the tendencies of these charts were a bit flipped from that one. Mississippi state appears to be the one with more consistent (if not profound) success, with successful plays sprinkled throughout the game aside from a few soft spots in the second quarter and the middle of the second half.(Note: this is actually refuted in an interesting way in the Drives chart later!). And this time the Tide were the ones with erratic, but explosive success: those little moments (again, long-ish passes) were what kept the scoreboard sound and the storylines generous for the Tide. But there just weren’t many plays here in general for Alabama, and where they concentrate in this chart, you see a lot of unsuccessful plays, too.

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

The Tide offense was generally more explosive than MSU’s, with high XR’s in the first half and middling-and-matching ones in the second half. But Alabama’s offense only “won” on efficiency during one quarter of this game (including a tied XR in the 1st quarter)! That isn’t very confidence-inspiring.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

Both of these charts feel empty and dull, but the the more interesting of the two is likely the Bulldogs’ one. That’s four drives with 13+ plays in them, which is both exhausting, but also likely an outcome of Leach’s aggressive approach on 4th downs. For what it’s worth, only one of those drives resulted in anything resembling a point.

But this drives chart refutes by earlier rumination about Miss State’s consistency! In fact, their long drives were largely interspersed by 3-and-outs, suggesting that they were experiencing much of the same “erraticism” that the Tide offense was during this one.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

Ouch. A big blow to the #RTDB movement around here. This was a bad rushing performance, and not even a great defensive rushing performance from the Tide. I suppose the passing lines made up for it — and apparently the scoreboard agrees — but this is definitely not what I expected to see coming out of this game.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Ok, we’ve been back and forth on this ever since Bill O’Brien took the job and Bryce Young got the starting snaps. But I think this 3rd downs “bailout” effect is Bryce, not Bill. We didn’t see it as much when Milroe was playing: we didn’t see it in the A&M game, and the second half of the Arkansas game was so bare that the downs data doesn’t feel representative of Milroe’s time on the field.

And it was obvious to the eye test in this game especially! On 3rd and long, we know that we’re passing the ball and that the receivers need to get down the field a bit. That’s Bryce time: the initial routes wouldn’t work, so he’ll scramble around and usually find a receiver, thereby extending the drive and letting us Gumps all continue to pretend that this offense is good. I keep saying this isn’t sustainable — and in big moments it has failed us, like it did last week — but with how often we see it I suppose I’m mostly wrong.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

This Red Zone data is so sparse for MSU that the chart comes out hilariously. No, MSU was not a monster in the Red Zone: they just barely ever got there and had enough late-downs success in garbage time to finally score a TD in Tuscaloosa. The Tide’s chart isn’t meaningful, but it’s interesting to see a few explosive plays in the Red Zone (which is rare just by nature of the length of available field there).

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

The Tide converted short yardage reasonably well. That’s great! And it’s not always the case with this offense. But none of the other distances look very friendly to the Tide. Again that 10+ yards SR looks bad, and likely led to a lot of the 3rd-and-long scramblies that we had the pleasure of watching through this game.

Top Rushers

This chart depresses me, so I’ll spend little time with it. Gibbs was our #1 back, with a still-not-great 40% SR and an explosive rush. Jase McClellan managed a single successful rush in six attempts. Otherwise, nothing. Not even a Bryce scramble!

Top Passers

We’ve gotten into this patter with Bryce, where we’re seeing some explosive passes and middling-to-acceptable SR’s, but a lot more short unsuccessful passes, too. I think those are check-downs to backs (especially to Gibbs), but it’s an effect we didn’t see in early Bryce games, where catches were almost always long enough to be successful plays too.

MSU QB Will Rogers threw a billion times and didn’t have great rates either. The problem is, mailing in this kind of efficiency doesn’t necessarily do much on the scoreboard when you don’t have many explosive catches happening, and 5% is a very, very low XR for a QB.

Top Receivers

This chart is again a bit odd — which of these teams would you think had won the game, if you didn’t know the score already? — but the Tide has two things going for it. One is the diversity of targets, with eleven players targeted (including a Mr. Tyler Harrell!). Another is the explosiveness out of some of these catches/receivers. The Tide had twice as many explosive catches as the Cowbell receivers, especially coming from Ja’Corey Brooks and Jermaine Burton. It’s a surprise they show up so late on the chart (this is ordered by team, then the order they appeared in play by play data); but if you squint hard, that looks like a #1 and #2 wideout! Ja’Corey gets the article feature for reeling in 3 explosive catches.

I, for one, will be appreciating a bye week. Hopefully the offense will sort out this mess and will manage to have a good game at the same time as the defense again. Roll Tide and enjoy your week off.