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Alabama’s 2023 Offense just isn’t the same... Or is it?

Alabama points are way down this year, but so are total plays across the country

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Middle Tennessee at Alabama Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whether the blame goes toward offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, QB Jalen Milroe, the offensive line, or Nick Saban himself (or all of the above!), there’s no doubting that Alabama’s scoring is down this year. The offense just isn’t putting up the points that it used to.

The Tide is running at a measly 30.6 points per game - down 18 points from the ridiculous 2020 offense, and even down 5 points from the 2015 low.

There’s a cyclical correction going on in all of football, too. The NFL is currently averaging less than 22 points per game for only the 2nd time since 2009, and the NCAA is seeing an even bigger regression. In the college game, part of that is easily explained: the clock no longer stops on gaining first downs, and we’re down about 10 plays per game across the country.

Alabama is averaging 66.6 plays per game, down from 71 in 2022 and a whopping 78 in 2021. And while the Daboll, Locksley, Sarkisian years were also closer to 70 plays per game, the three Kiffin years (2014-2016) saw Alabama up around 75 plays per game. Essentially, the Tommy Rees offense is playing with 1.5 less drives, give or take, per game to get an extra score or two.

So, I wanted to look back at this same time frame* and try to standardize in a points per drive format, as well as looking at TD% and scoring drive %. All three metrics track pretty close together, with some minor differences. But ultimately, I think this is the true resulting metric of a successful offense or not.

* I am cutting off at 2014 for a couple of reasons. First, we all know there isn’t much to be learned from the McElwain years. Alabama won in a different era of football with defensive prowess that can’t be replicated in the modern game. Second, my data source changed how they tracked drive results, and it would require changing formulas in my Excel sheet.... And that’s just a step too far

This data had end of half and end of game drives mostly filtered out, except where Alabama either scored on the final play, or it seemed like they were actively trying to score. This also doesn’t include points from defense and special teams, so the scoring doesn’t get a big boost from the other units (Looking at you, 2016... We all know freshman Jalen Hurts wasn’t putting up 39 points per game).

Points per drive
Percent of Drives ending in a TD
Percent of Drives ending in points

In all three cases, the graph looks pretty similar. 2020 with Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and Devonta Smith is just mind-blowing. And the 2018-2019 seasons with Tua Tagovailoa were also well above anything college football should ever expect to see more than once every few decades.

We started to see a sharp decline when Bryce Young and Bill O’Brien took over, and an even further drop to 2023.

The drop is a little less pronounced when you factor in field goals: Tommy Rees’s offense is at least getting a lot of those, but the decline down to only 29% of the team’s drives ending in touchdowns has been stark.

Comparing to previous seasons, this offense is behind all of the offenses... Except 2015. Which, funny enough, is the year that keeps getting mentioned this season, with the QB rotation flubbing and an early season loss. That season ended with Jake Coker figuring out how to quarterback in the final 4 games, Derrick Henry winning a Heisman, and a crazy national championship win, so it’s easy to forget, in hindsight, just how gross that offense was for most of the season. Either Henry ripped off a 70 yard TD, or the drive went nowhere, and that was pretty much the gameplan for the year.

In 2023? Either Milroe rips off a deep shot for a TD, or the Tide winds up punting.

Hey, maybe you can take it as a positive that Alabama won a championship that year with a very similar team. Or maybe just be sad at how far the offense has fallen, and remember how much ridiculous luck it took for that 2015 squad to win it all. (RIP, Alex Collins).

There is one more specific stat I wanted to look at, and this one surprised me a little.

Percent of drives going 3 and out

This one... This one is bad. I honestly thought 2022 would be a whole lot worse than it was, as it felt like we had a streak of three and outs in the middle of last season that just seemed to last forever.

With nearly 24% of drives going three and out this season, it’s now wonder scoring is down. Again, while 2020 isn’t something we should ever expect any college team to achieve again... Being 3x more likely to go three and out than you were just 3 seasons ago is really, really difficult for Alabama fans to swallow.

And I can’t put it all on Jalen Milroe, since the 2016 and 2017 seasons both featured quite a few QB performances way worse than anything we’ve seen from Milroe this season.

Can you imagine if Milroe had 57 total passing yards in a game? Fans would RIOT. And in 2016, Jalen Hurts (the NFL MVP runner up last year) did just that as the Tide went on to win a playoff game.

No, Milroe’s doing quite OK in terms of many advanced metrics. If you like EPA (expected points added) he’s at a hearty 0.514 PPA/play, which includes his rushes and sacks as well as passing attempts. In 2022, Bryce Young was only at 0.456, and 0.494 in his Heisman-winning season. Tua Tagovailoa holds the top marks at 0.71 PPA/play in 2019.

In 2016 and 2017, Jalen Hurts was a 0.286 and 0.337, respectively. And Jake Coker in 2015? 0.315.

In other words, Tommy Rees and Jalen Milroe have teamed up for more effective QB play than all but Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.

No, the much, much bigger problem has been the rushing game. Going back to PPA/play, in most seasons from 2015 onwards, Alabama had a running back or two hovering somewhere in the 0.25-0.35 PPA/play range. Brian Robinson’s 0.19 in 2021 was the Tide’s worst rushing performance from a lead back... Until now. In 2023, Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams are sitting at 0.105 and -0.027, respectively.

In other words, Alabama loses points every time Williams touches the ball.

That is where the weakness of this team lies. The run game is not performing, and the entire offense suffers. Milroe is far from a perfect QB, but the big plays he makes each game make up for the lack of consistency on a drive-to-drive basis. The issue is that the run game is not consistent enough to extend drives, NOR is it making any big plays to make up for the lack of consistency (like Derrick Henry in 2015).

Want to get even more interesting? Alabama’s rushing plays are getting stuffed (stopped at or behind the LOS) 13.8% of the time. That’s better than every single one of Nick Saban’s teams outside of 2012 (13.7%) and 2017 (13.6%), and their success rate in short yardage power rushes? 85%. The best of Saban’s tenure.

In other words. Alabama’s attempt to bulk up along the offensive line did seem to work. They’re not getting pushed back, and the running backs aren’t getting stopped for no gain. But at only a 42% success rate, essentially the offense is just dooming itself with 2-3 yards runs. And not to pile back on, but Roydell Williams’ 43% success rate is buoyed by the season opener and the USF game. Outside of those two games against G5 opponents? 33%.

Are the running backs just unable to do anything to get past 3 yards? Are the playcalls so predictable that they aren’t getting into any space?

I don’t know. Don’t really have an answer. Maybe it’s just more Justice Haynes? Or maybe it’s Tommy Rees opening things up horizontally like he did in the second half vs Tennessee last week.

Whatever the case, Alabama’s offense clearly has some issues. Yet, not as many issues as the 2015 team... And that one went on to win a National Championship in what became a beloved season. So don’t count this one out just yet.