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Paint by Numbers: Alabama

We’ve heard from Vegas and the pundits, so what do the statistics have to say about Alabama?

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NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I love numbers. Words are fine too, I guess. But numbers are the best. Numbers don’t lie. Numbers can be misunderstood, but they don’t lie. So in an attempt to wrap my head around this match-up with the King Kong of college football I’m going to retreat back to my comfort zone. I have scoured the interwebs in an attempt to find the correct numbers to explain what Washington is truly up against on New Year’s Eve. I’ll provide some analysis as well and hopefully it will be useful and relevant but at least the numbers will be 100% true.

The Elephant in the Room

The last five top-5 teams according to FEI
The last five top-5 teams according to Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings
The last five top-5 teams according to S&P+

A lot of people have been saying that Alabama is the best team since [insert team from long ago here]. The further back you go the less reliable the data becomes so I unscientifically chose to go back 5 years and looked at 3 of the more well-respected computer models out there. Different models are designed to show different results but they generally agree on the top teams. You’ll notice that this year’s Alabama team is the best in any of the 5 years for any of the systems. Only Jeff Sagarin’s system though thinks that Alabama is significantly better than the best from the recent past.

FEI has this year’s version of Bama only a tiny bit better than 2015 Bama. We’ll ignore the fact that last year’s team won the national title and move on. S&P+ has Alabama as barely better than this year’s Michigan squad who lost two games and didn’t make the playoff.

The other caveat is that this year’s Alabama team hasn’t played Washington yet. The other top teams in that span all had at least one bowl game against another top-5 team to bring their ratings down a bit. It is very reasonable to think that after playing Washington and hopefully not either Clemson/Ohio State that their overall rating dips closer to those of past great teams. All this to say that Alabama is very very good but maybe not quite a historical behemoth.

Line Drive

Alabama D-line ranks and Washington O-line ranks statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

I know most people won’t be familiar with these statistics but the alternative way to demonstrate how good Alabama’s D-Line is, is to just put up the GIF of Jonathan Allen imitating Superman. Adjusted Line Yards estimates the impact a defense has on stopping the run by discounting runs the further away from the line of scrimmage they go. In other words, a 10-yard run and a 50-yard run are viewed as the same. Once it gets past a certain point it’s the corner or safety’s fault the run went that far and not the defensive line’s. Since ALY is opponent adjusted and normalized so that 100% is perfectly average, we can say that Alabama is 63.2% better at stopping the run than the average team. Ohio State this year is 2nd at 37.2% better. That means the gap between #1 and #2 is the same as the gap between #2 and #36.

Standard downs are ones in which a team is still a threat to run given the down and distance. All other offensive snaps are passing downs. On standard downs, this will be a titanic battle of strength on strength. UW has been one of the best in the country at running when on schedule. But Alabama has been the best at stopping teams from running in those situations. If Washington can win that match-up or even play it to a draw it will vastly improve their chances of winning.

Running the ball for the UW O-Line is strength on strength but pass protection will be weakness on strength. Alabama sacks opposing QB’s on 10.7% of passing downs. Jake Browning gets sacked on 10.6% of passing downs. It seems reasonable to expect Browning to go down on about 1 of 10 pass attempts from long distance. Keeping the QB clean when the D-Line can get after the passer without fear has been a serious problem. UW has to find a way to regularly avoid third and 10 or they will be at a supreme disadvantage.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida
Jalen Hurts’ ball security could prove key in this game.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Turning the Tide

Statistic Alabama Washington
Statistic Alabama Washington
Offensive Turnover Rate 102 8
Defensive Turnover Rate 20 15
Alabama and Washington turnover rates courtesy of Football Outsiders

This may be the only statistic in existence in which Alabama has a national rank in the triple digits. Alabama has not been good at holding on to the ball. Jalen Hurts is tied for last in the country in total fumbles with 10 on the year in addition to 9 interceptions. This is an offense that can be forced into mistakes when facing a quality defense.

Meanwhile, Washington led the country in total turnovers forced. The defensive turnover rates above are as close as they are mainly because Washington has several special teams turnovers this year which aren’t reflected in defensive turnover rate.

The flip side is that the Washington offense should have the advantage in the turnover battle. However, most of the few turnovers that Washington has had have been in the last several games so that trend has to stop. The key will be to minimize the damage if UW does turn it over. Alabama leads the country with 10 defensive touchdowns and only one other team has more than 5. If Browning ends up getting stripped on a sack there’s a decent chance that it results in 6 going the other way.

Hit ‘em where it Hurts

Statistic Drop-backs Runs Com. % Yards Yds/Att TD INT
Statistic Drop-backs Runs Com. % Yards Yds/Att TD INT
No Pressure 288 22 74.6% 2311 8.8 20 4
Plays under pressure 113 22 30.6% 259 3.6 2 5
Jalen Hurts statistics by pressure courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Last year, Jake Browning was viewed as one of the top true freshmen quarterbacks in the country. This year, Jalen Hurts is pretty widely considered to be the absolute best true freshman quarterback in the country. He’s a fantastic athlete and is the best runner at QB that the Huskies have seen since (brace for it) Brandon Dawkins (shudder).

He’s not without flaws, however. When teams have been able to put pressure on Hurts and keep him from scrambling (not an easy task) he has been atrocious. Combine the pressure statistics with his propensity to fumble the ball and there’s your recipe for holding Alabama’s offense in check. This game will be where the blow of losing Joe Mathis for the season is felt the hardest. UW has to get pressure with 3 or 4 while using a spy to keep contain and force Hurts to throw the ball rather than gash the Huskies on the ground.