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Graphing the Tide, 2022 Regular Season Recap

Piling up all of the Efficiency and Explosiveness metrics his season

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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For the first time, I’ve had the timing and tooling necessary to put together a Graphing the Tide season review! Alabama didn’t have the season that a lot of folks — myself included — had hoped for, so maybe it’s a good opportunity to look back on things with our updated perspective (and, in some cases, pessimism).

Success and Explosiveness by Game

Putting this chart together was a bit of a pain, I’ll admit, but look at all those pretty colors! These are the game-by-game results for efficiency (Success Rate, or SR) and explosiveness (Explosiveness Rate, or XR) for every game that Alabama played in 2022. The Crimson columns are the Tide offenses’ results, and the right-hand counterparts are the opponents’ results in each case.

Sure, a lot of us were there for every one of these Graphing articles this year, so there’s nothing strictly new in this bar chart. That said, it can be illuminating to see the patterns that emerge when you lay them all out.

The offense

First (and worst) of all is that 4-5 game stretch starting with the Arkansas game in early October (:cringe:). That several-weeks lull on offense starts against the ‘Hogs, which makes it tempting to explain that result — and the following against Texas A&M — on Bryce’s injury and absence. Which makes perfect sense, except that you have to extend that explanation to cover his first few games back, as the Tide offense posted below-average SRs against Miss State, LSU, and Ole Miss, too.

The Tennessee game might be an outlier on both sides of the football, given the relative weakness (at least occasionally) of the Vols defense. Things turned around for Bryce and co. by the Auburn game — the Auburn home game — but I’m not sure if that’s a “recovery” or an outlier. We’ll learn more in the Bowl game, I guess!

The defense

On defense, there wasn’t a “lull” so much as a consistent mediocre performance against Power Five teams. It wasn’t bad for the most part — and part of the explanation can still be on Bryce’s injury and offensive woes, TOP, etc. — but Vandy, A&M, and Miss State were the only P5 games that the defense really held the opponent well under NCAA efficiency averages. (And the A&M game ended up close due to other shenanigans, anyway).

Some of these are against at least reasonably strong offenses — Sark-led Texas, Kiffin’s Ole Miss, and up-and-comer Tennessee — but … even Auburn and LSU managed average+ SR’s against the Tide that they couldn’t seem to muster against other SEC opponents.

So, I think it’s fair to be disappointed in this defense given Saban’s background and the standard he’s set on that side of the ball over the years. (Or at least, most years). But I can’t help but think that these games would’ve still added up to a national title run with a bit better performance on offense. Maybe that’s more fan bias than analysis, though!

The next set of charts should look familiar, but for these I’ve rolled up all of the data from the season into a single view, e.g., season averages for the column charts and then season totals for the player charts

Play Type season averages

Ah, such a simple chart, but the root of so many season-long fan conversations. In the end, our passing game was indeed more efficient and much more explosive than rushing. With the way we calculate XR around here — any 15+ yard gain is an “explosive play” — it’s natural that passing shows higher XRs than rushing. That’s the nature of the game. But I’d like to think it’s also on Bryce Young, who’s scramble-and-improvise offense seemed to sacrifice a bit of efficiency for, well, explosiveness!

That said, it’s interesting that the rushing game was nearly as efficient, being only 2 points behind (46% SR to Passing’s 48%). This phase of the offense was sometimes maligned, especially when it couldn’t muster out a few yards in critical situations (looking at you, Texas game), but it definitely had its moments in the sun, and was notably above league SR averages.

Quarter season averages

This chart makes me laugh! (And then cry right at the end). For all of the common commentary about the “mentalities” of teams in many spots — “it’s a 3rd quarter team”; “they can never hold on to a lead,” etc. etc. — the Tide averages out pretty evenly across quarters on both sides of the ball. We’re talking a few points’ difference, but I suppose you could sell yourself on a few subtle storylines:

  • Bama’s offense had good 1st quarter plans, then blinked when the defense figured them out in the 2nd quarters before righting the ship at halftime.
  • The Tide offense also didn’t seem to feel very “explosive” coming out of halves; though maybe this is more about establishing the run during leads, etc.
  • The Tide defense had a habit of constricting slightly more and more as the course of the game wore on. This is an interesting one, given our tendency to think that defenses get tired later in games and start slipping up; especially for a few particular moments for this ‘22 defense: the LSU overtime, the A&M surge, the Tennessee rally, the Ole Miss surge. Frankly, I assign at least a few of those — A&M, UT — to officiating tomfoolery more than defensive lapses per se, but the results are the results.

As for the part that makes me cry: it’s that overtime line, which is the result of a small sample size from a single game vs. LSU. But again, that’s less “analysis,” and more a highlight (or, really, a lowlight).

Red Zone season averages

Here’s another metric where you tend to see stories but the averages seem to wash them out … at least for this team, this season. The offense neither under-performed or over-performed in the Red Zone. This is an area of the field where explosive plays are much less likely by nature, so I read this as “the Tide offense was equally as good in the Red Zone as otherwise; at least on average.”

The defensive story is subtle, but a little more directional. Indeed, opponents’ Red Zone success rates were 4 points higher in the Red Zone than otherwise (42% vs. 38%). I’m not recalling a lot of specific back-breakers at the goal line — maybe my beer-addled mind wiped them out — but obviously the Red Zone is an especially important area, so I imagine there’s some hint in here as to what happened to Alabama’s season. We let a few handfuls Red Zone plays go through that, had we held on to our non-RZ defensive efficiencies, we wouldn’t have. And that’s one of the many ways to lose really close football games!

Down Averages

The offense (by down)

First off, my “Bryce Young 3rd downs” gripes from earlier in the season don’t actually play out when you average everything together. You could argue that cupcake games and such might bury this perceived “big games” trend … but you’d still expect to see it in the data. Instead, we actually see slightly lower 3rd down SRs than we do on early downs. I think that observation of mine may have been more susceptible to highlights and particular situations/games rather than true season-long averages; and that’s backed up, I think, by that 3rd down Explosiveness Rate, which is the highest the Tide notched. That sure looks like “Bryce Young (sometimes) makes magic happen on 3rd downs” to me.

Speaking of XR: I’m surprised that our 1st down XR wasn’t higher. The “traditional take” on 1st downs is that your run/pass options are wide open, so you’re more likely to notch a big play there. And I think that was more true in a prior phase of the Saban era, with more play-action from slower QBs. But we haven’t really seen that trend the last few years, at least against competitive opponents. Insert your own criticism of the OC(s) there, if you like!

The Tide’s 4th down conversion rate was pretty good on average — their best down! — so that might say something about their propensity to pull out a few close wins in 2022.

The defense (by down)

The defense shows a much more heavy hand on by-down trends! The prior Red Zone chart suggested that the defense slightly underperformed in those “critical” situations within 20 yards of the End Zone. But this chart is a contrasting signal, suggesting that they did more of a “bend but don’t break” thing where opponents saw declining success on later downs.

Maybe it’s the “Lane Kiffin 2022 effect” — more coaches going for it on 4th down, even in tough spots, to try to come back against Alabama — mixed with some tendencies for cupcakes. Or maybe it’s something related to the Run/Pass mix we saw earlier (Will Anderson and co. defended the pass much better than the run); but in theory it should be a very good thing that the defense would clamp down successively with every down.

All in all, I think this mixed data “agrees” with our collective confusion as to whether this defense is really good or not. If they really were supposed to be a bend-don’t-break, then they basically followed suit except for in the Red Zone. And for a greedy Grump, I suppose we could’ve just asked to have slightly lower SRs across every down.

Distance-to-go season averages

Wait, I thought this was supposed to be a passing first offense led by a returning Heisman-winning QB? Why were we so much more efficient on short downs than longer ones? Part of it is likely “normal” trends, e.g., the shortest downs being literally the easiest (fewest yards) to convert, plus the longest plays often being in desperation situations.

But there must be something else going on here, too. I wonder again if we should have expected more on 1st downs: more explosiveness, and higher SRs given the options available to the OC on 1st down. Instead, we seem to see that XR spike on 7-9 yard opportunities, which are typically on 2nd and 3rd down and are conventionally more difficult to convert. Maybe that weirdness is also a result of Bryce Young scrambly-magic.

As for the defense, they largely followed the “normal modern trends” — it’s harder to stop a 2 yard run than a >10 yard play — but also showed a weird weakness on that same 7-9 yardage range. Maybe there’s some of the dreaded yolo-vs-Bama thing in the data there somewhere, or another bend-but-break vestige (e.g., let them gain 4 yards on 2nd down, just make sure to stop them on 3rd?). Strange.

And on to the Player totals (drum roll, please). Instead of averages, these are the total accrued plays that these players have been apart of in the 2022 regular season.

Passer season totals

Hey, Bryce Young was a good quarterback in 2022! And even with a multi-game injury situation, he was the go-to QB for the Tide all year long. His talents stand out especially in that 20% XR line: 1 in every 5 passes Bryce threw went for 15 yards or more (often much more). That’s something like a Tua-level explosiveness, and per earlier charts, it was especially on display on 3rd and 2nd down. Bryce’s INT numbers are also strong. Even with some funky ones in there, he only had 5 on the year against a tough schedule.

But … that overall 51% SR actually isn’t that fantastic! Sure, it represents a solid gap over the ~42% NCAA SR average (+9 points over the course of an entire season); but we’re talking about a “probable top-5 draft pick” making successful passes on only about half of his dropbacks. Cue the hard-to-resolve debate about Bryce’s receivers this year: were they the ones to blame for a good-but-not-great passing game performance?

All that said, there was never a real moment where we called for the backup QB per tradition, as Jalen Milroe posted a below-average 40% SR in his fill-in duties, plus a bad 3 INTs in roughly 2 games (only 2 fewer than Bryce). Jalen did show flashes as a runner (more on that later), and even as a passer did put up a respectable 15.4% XR on, again, relatively limited attempts.

Ty Simpson was “very efficient,” but had so few attempts on the season that it’s hard to judge his line. If he starts and gets a 60% SR next season at scale, we’ll all likely be very happy.

Rusher season totals

The rushers chart gives us a bit more data to play with, with eight rushers — really? Only eight? That feels low for an entire season — accounted for. The four “actual running backs” with the most carries averaged around similar efficiencies (Gibbs 43%, McClellan 48%, Roydell 51%, Miller 43%), which makes sense given the dependencies on the offensive line and situational playcalling to make the running game work. Roydell Williams comes out looking pretty nice there, but I’m especially impressed with Jase McClellan’s efficiency on a lot of carries!

Jahmyr Gibbs had to carry the load on volume — not an enviable thing when you’re trying to accrue stats against defending starters — and had a solid but uninspiring efficiency; but his explosiveness is very high for a tailback, and at 10% XR was almost double McClellans (5.7% XR), and 5x Roydell’s short-yardage-leaning performance (2% XR). We’ll miss that explosiveness from Gibbs next season, but it’s comforting to see our (probable) returning backs have delivered efficient performances to date. Plus, we’ll have some solid young talent on hand, too, per usual.

The quarterbacks did some legwork, too, with their scramble games. Bryce Young was excellent when evading defenders, putting up a 60% SR and 20% XR on his 30 rushes this year. Jalen Milroe was also solid with 48% SR and 18.5% XR on his nearly-as-many (27) carries.

Strangely, Trey Sanders’ struggling comeback story now includes oddly excellent efficiencies in mop-up duty. The “cupcakes mop-up” part of that is likely a big contributor, but still … those cupcakes were likely expecting rushes, and Sanders delivered on his limited opportunities in 2022. Hopefully that helps him land and transition well to his next stop.

Receiver season totals

I had to modify some display code to get this many receivers to show up clearly in the chart! That’s 20 receivers catching passes for Alabama this season, with 5 of those only catching one, plus another 3 only catching two. But only two of them — RB/hybrids Christian Leary and Jamarion Miller — did not record a successful catch. From Amari Niblack up, 13 receivers caught explosive catches from a Tide QB.

And the name at the top of this list — sorted by total attempts — surprised me! Jahmyr Gibbs was brought in to be this kind of flex back, and he apparently filled that role, with 42 catches this year (24 of them successful, which is also a team high) coming out of the backfield. You have to scroll down another 7 spots on this list to find the next running back on this list, with Jase McClellan’s 13 catches. I wonder how losing Gibbs will change the playcalling in this offense.

As for receivers: overall we see the “receiver by committee” effect that many of us have griped about this season. Including TE Cam Latu, the Tide had 5 receivers that caught 24+ passes, with only 13 catches separating Latu from leaders Brooks and Burton. And speaking of the latter two: we ended in a dead heat for “WR1,” which each of these wideouts pulling in 37 catches in 2022. Ja’Corey Brooks had the explosiveness advantage, with a team-leading 19 (!) explosive catches this season, but Jermaine Burton was actually the leader in successful catches (34). After the relative disappointment of Burton not being “Jamo part II”, that certainly surprised me! Brooks also caught more unsuccessful catches, which suggests a slight penalty due to play-calling or situational effects (e.g., screens, desperate scramble-tosses, etc.). There’s mostly good news, I think, to the fact that both of these leading receivers are trending towards staying next season. But the competition for WR1 is not over yet!

And let’s talk about the youngsters. Kobe Prentice came out hot at the beginning of the season, catching passes through the first few games before becoming relatively more absent late. But he held on to the lead regardless amongst the young wideouts. Isaiah Bond and Kendrick Law started making headway later in the season — perhaps a sign of things to come — but even combined they had 6 fewer receptions than Prentice alone. They all accrued explosive catches, but with lower XRs than the upperclassmen — wow Ja’Corey with that 51% XR – with Isaiah Bond having an especially low XR for some reason. Here’s to hoping that these youngsters pick up steam and round out a recently-relatively-weak (yes, we’re terribly spoiled) WR room.

We’ve got the Sugar Bowl to go, but otherwise this is it for Graphing the Tide in 2022. Notice something that I missed? Drop it in the comments and let’s figure it out! Despite some disappointing losses — and, honestly, disappointing analytics, to boot — it was a fun season sifting through the data with y’all. Have a Happy New Year and I’ll see you on the other side of the game vs. Kansas State. Roll Tide!