Saban Ball might not be as aesthetically pleasing as other styles in college football, but through the first three weeks of the season, it has been almost untouchable.
Sep 18, 2012 - Michigan averaged 4.8 yards per play and scored 14 points on Alabama, and most of it came well after the game was in hand. They have averaged 8.1 yards per play and 47.0 points per game in their other two contests.
Western Kentucky averaged 3.8 yards per play and was held scoreless by Alabama. In their other two games, they have averaged 6.6 yards per play and 47.5 points per game.
Arkansas averaged 2.2 yards per play and was held scoreless by Alabama. In their other two games, they have averaged 7.0 yards per play and 40.0 points per game.
Is there extra context here? You bet. Michigan torched Air Force and UMass. Western Kentucky did just beat Kentucky but was held to 4.4 yards per play in the process (their other win: Austin Peay). Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson midway through the UL-Monroe game and struggled to move the ball against the Warhawks after that. We don't want to ride these numbers too far just yet.
Still … it is impossible not to marvel. It also might be impossible to prove yourself more in just three contests than Alabama's defense has thus far. In 177 plays over three games, the Tide has allowed 630 yards (3.6 per play) and 14 points (4.7 per game). In Alabama opponents' other six contests not against the Tide, they have gained 7.2 yards per play and scored 42.5 points per game. That's why, in this week's S&P+ rankings (the other rankings will be updated later Tuesday), Alabama is not only an easy No. 1, but they are lapping everybody. They are as far ahead of No. 2 Oregon as Oregon is ahead of No. 15 TCU. The Tide's current defensive score (270.9) is so high that, if they didn't even bother fielding an offense, i.e. if their offense graded out as a 0.0, they would still be the No. 4 team in the country.
(In fact, they should actively attempt that against Florida Atlantic this weekend. If they actually try on offense, they could win by 75.)
Will these numbers go down? Absolutely. As teams play more games and opponent adjustments become a little clearer (after three games -- two for some teams -- we're still making some serious guesses with the numbers, right?), Alabama's ridiculous numbers will normalize quite a bit. But even taking this into account … wow, is it difficult not to start thinking of this team as Nick Saban's best yet at Alabama. (Please don't tell Nick Saban I said that. I wouldn't want him to try to intimidate me.) Things change, and for all we know a road slip-up is on the near horizon (Alabama does have to visit No. 4 LSU, No. 30 Missouri and No. 31 Tennessee). But Alabama's performance through three games has simply been astounding.
|Western Kentucky and Arkansas
|One back, two wide||3.35||17.6%|
|One back, three wide||2.40||18.6%|
|Two or more backs||4.16||41.2%|
|QB Under Center||3.97||33.3%|
Pretend for a moment that you are the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee or another one of Alabama's upcoming opponents. How exactly would you go about trying to move the ball against what has thus far been an immovable defense? Let's take a look at what Alabama and Western Kentucky tried over the last couple of weeks.
To be sure, WKU and Arkansas didn't find much that actually worked against the Tide. Of course they didn't. But the table on the right suggests the only thing that might: power. You can't beat them with speed, and you can't really beat them with strength, but you at least might gain an extra yard or two.
As I have written before, Alabama isn't nearly as aggressive as you might think. They are so fast and disciplined that they don't actually have to take risks very much; they will just react to what you are doing and eventually choke it out. They will line up in their 3-4, bring a fourth rusher from somewhere (you're not going to know where), and leave seven men to react and swarm. All you can really do is attempt to confuse them before the snap and, in theory, pop them in the mouth before the swarm hits. From Steven Godfrey's outstanding Western Kentucky embed piece last week:
When asked independently, several coaches endorse the Florida and Tennessee games from 2011. Alabama mauled a Tyler Bray-less Vols team 37-6 and knocked John Brantley out en route to a 38-10 win over the Gators. Both teams were without quality quarterback play and out-manned, but both were able to cause Bama's defense confusion on a per-play basis once the score was out of hand using shifts and motions.
Sure enough, deep in a series of cut-ups, specifically when UT and UF used U or 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends), you can see either Saban or Smart screaming madly on the sidelines, with more than one defensive back looking to them as the ball is snapped. And just like that, for just a single play in an otherwise meaningless rout, you can plainly see open spots to attack in the impossible Alabama defense. The offensive coaches are also confident that they're on the right path because both Florida and Tennessee are coached by ex-Saban assistants Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley.
"You can see times on here when Tennessee moved and everybody [on the Alabama defense] was trying to talk to each other and Tennessee was ready to go," Taggart says. "I think they’re so locked in, so zoned in to how they play everyone else, and then when you get a team that moves a lot, it goes against some of the principles of that defense."
When Western Kentucky and Arkansas lined up with one back alongside the quarterback in the backfield, their per-play success rate was horrific, and they were lucky to gain even three yards in a given play. The pistol formation was useless; the shotgun was only slightly better. But if the quarterback lined up under center, or if they lined up with a couple of backs in the backfield (or both), they were able to at least grind out a mediocre living.
Passing out of a two-back set was strangely effective. WKU's Kawaun Jakes and Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell combined to complete 10 of 14 passes for 113 yards and an interception from this look, though they also had to endure three sacks for 13 yards. Even counting sacks, though, that is still a per-play average of 5.9 yards. These passes were primarily quick-hitters, passes of eight yards or fewer through the air, to a tight end or running back; typically the tackle was made immediately, but occasionally there would be yards after catch. WKU running back Kadeem Jones broke three tackles in turning a three-yard pass into a 21-yard catch-and-run, while fellow running back Antonio Andrews gained 13 yards after catch in three receptions.
As we see, both the Hilltoppers and Hogs found it difficult to sustain a drive like this; the scoreboard is pretty good evidence of that. But to the extent that they had any success, it came like this. This is bad news for upcoming opponents Ole Miss and Missouri, of course, each of whom operate spread-oriented offenses. But combine this with Michigan's ability to occasionally get receivers open on intermediate routes (without anybody to throw strong passes to these players), and you begin to see the formation of a gameplan. Grind out a couple of yards at a time on the ground, and lean on short pass after short pass, and you might be able to get a shot or two downfield. As evidenced by the fact that neither Arkansas nor WKU could sustain a drive, this is clearly a strategy with almost no margin for error. But it's the only thing that worked even a little bit. Alabama was too fast and too disciplined to fall for anything else. Perhaps a more experienced Tennessee offense can operate more effectively in 2012, or perhaps LSU's four- or five-headed running game can carve out some success in Baton Rouge. Or perhaps not.
Heading into 2012, I figured Alabama's defense would be consistently outstanding again but might be sporadically vulnerable, probably to deep passes, because of some experience issues. Glitches could come at anytime -- we are only one-quarter of the way through the regular season, after all -- but they have been nonexistent thus far. Alabama has proven that their overall level of quality is going to be as good in 2012 as it was in 2009-11, and it might even be higher. Saban Ball might not be as aesthetically pleasing as other styles in college football, but through the first three weeks of the season, it has been virtually untouchable.