Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Jan 2010
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
One game remains on the 2009 college football slate, as Alabama and Texas face off tonight for the BCS national title. Join us tonight for a Cover It Live chat (see bottom of post), starting at 7:30 p.m. EST. In the meantime, the 7DA crew has a unit-by-unit preview for you.
Brian Fremeau: For those following the FEI content here throughout the season, you know that I’m very focused on field position and its impact on a game. Not only do adjustments for starting field position help calibrate and normalize the offensive and defensive metrics for both FEI and S&P+ ratings, but the impact of one drive can have a ripple effect on the field position flow throughout the rest of the contest and dramatically alter the outcome.
A lot of Texas’ success this year stemmed from excellent starting field position, especially relative to its opponents. The FPA metric ranks them No. 6 in the nation. FPA represents the share of starting field position value for each team in a game. Teams with an FPA over .500 win 67 percent of the time. Teams with an FPA over .600 win 90 percent of the time. Texas had six games in 2009 with an FPA over .600, more than any other team in college football (Alabama had only one such game). Most of those games were blowout victories for the Longhorns (Oklahoma State, Missouri, Baylor), but Texas needed every bit of its significant FPA against Oklahoma to eke out a three-point victory in October.
Alabama’s closest calls in 2009 were in games in which it held a small field position advantage (.526 FPA against Auburn) or a significant disadvantage (.427 FPA against Tennessee). And in its biggest game of the year and against its toughest opponent, Florida, the Crimson Tide overcame its second-biggest FPA disadvantage (.438) to dominate and win going away. They’ll be hard pressed to duplicate that feat against an almost impenetrable Texas defensive front seven, but its certainly worth noting that field position may be less of an issue for Alabama than Texas.
Here’s a breakdown of each team, its frequency of strong starting field position (Poss Pct.), and its success at reaching the end zone from that field position this year (TD Pct.):
|Starting Field Position
(Yards from End Zone)
|99-80 Yards||79-60 Yards||59-40 Yards||39-1 Yards|
|Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.||Poss Pct.||TD Pct.|
As pointed out in the ESPN Insider article, one thing that doesn’t show up in these season-long numbers is that Texas struggled against the toughest defenses it faced this year offensively, whereas Alabama’s defense played well against the strongest offenses it faced. Will the trend continue? I’ll be paying attention to special teams and turnovers that can tilt the field position balance in either team’s favor, but I’ll be expecting Alabama to roll either way.
Rob Weintraub: For a school with such luminous alumni as Ricky Williams, Earl Campbell, and Cedric Benson, these Longhorns don’t run it often -- or particularly well. Their leading rusher, Tre' Newton, only managed 513 yards on the season. Cody Johnson is the designated sledgehammer at the goal line, a 250-pound touchdown machine who has scored a dozen times in each of his first two seasons in Austin. But with Terrence “Mount” Cody clogging the interior arteries, and Alabama’s fast and powerful linebacking corps filling gaps and taking away the perimeter, any yardage the Horns get on the ground will be set up by the pass.
Quarterback Colt McCoy is a dangerous runner from the pocket, with severely underrated wheels. Whereas Alabama was on the look out for Tim Tebow’s scrambles, McCoy might be able to slip to the second level. Superstar linebacker Rolando McClain becomes the key figure -- his ability to run down and stop Tebow was a key element in slowing the Florida attack.
Bill Connelly: When Texas has decided to run the ball this year, they have actually done it rather well. They have used it in extreme moderation, however. Of the 694 plays they attempted this year when a game was in "close" status (within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, and 16 points or fewer in the second half), they only attempted 294 rushes (not including sacks), or 42.4 percent of the time. On standard downs, when teams average about 60 percent rushing attempts, Texas only ran 54.2 percent of the time. Meanwhile, on passing downs, Texas put a lot of faith in Colt McCoy, running only 25.8 percent of the time (national average: 33.3 percent). The running game is a mere complement to the Texas offense, but it is a decent one.
|Rushing: Texas Offense vs. Alabama Defense (S&P+)|
|Rushing Success Rate+||121.1 (9)||128.4 (5)|
|Rushing PPP+||140.7 (11)||159.0 (6)|
|Rushing S&P+||127.6 (11)||139.6 (4)|
|Standard Downs Rushing S&P+||125.0 (12)||140.9 (2)|
|Passing Downs Rushing S&P+||123.4 (32)||127.1 (24)|
|Adj. Line Yards||100.0 (71)||127.0 (4)|
It is hardest to run on Alabama on first downs -- they rank second in the country in 1st Down Rushing S&P+ -- so unless Alabama is overplaying them, Texas will utilize as many quick, horizontal passes on standard downs as they can manage. (And if they are overplaying them, then maybe the running game will open up.)
As will be a trend throughout the S&P+ analysis, rushing yards will be hard to come by for Texas in the red zone -- Texas ranks 12th in Red Zone Rushing S&P+, but Alabama's defense ranks first.
Rob Weintraub: Alabama is almost certain to emulate Nebraska’s scheme in slowing McCoy’s aerial progress. The Huskers spread seven defenders in a matchup zone across the short routes, taking away the quick-hitting passes the Horns’ offense is based upon, and they got pressure from the down linemen. While Alabama doesn’t have Ndamukong Suh to wreak havoc, Marcell Dareus will cause problems for the Longhorns' offensive line. Nick Saban likes to bring pressure with his defensive backs as well, so look for Javier Arenas to move around and come at McCoy from various angles.
Jordan Shipley had an excellent season as McCoy’s primary target and is adept at working open on intermediate routes. The Longhorns get stagnant when they look to force the ball to Shipley, however, and he is sure to draw extra coverage over the top. So Texas’ "other" receivers, especially Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll, will be important, especially on deep and intermediate routes. Without the threat of the deep ball, Alabama can strangle Texas by choking off the timing patterns underneath.
Bill Connelly: When Texas is in high-gear on offense, both the quick-hitter passes and the deep routes are working. One thing that somehow doesn't matter: down and distance. For the second straight season, Texas has played at a higher level on passing downs (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more) than standard downs.
|Passing: Texas Offense vs. Alabama Defense (S&P+)|
|Passing Success Rate+||119.4 (14)||138.2 (3)|
|Passing PPP+||142.4 (15)||195.6 (3)|
|Passing S&P+||128.4 (14)||160.5 (1)|
|Standard Downs Passing S&P+||114.9 (31)||156.7 (3)|
|Passing Downs Passing S&P+||155.7 (6)||184.2 (5)|
|Adj. Sack Rate||107.4 (53)||127.1 (22)|
Passing downs success is usually variable from season to season; there is a low correlation of success from year to year. Texas, however, has been the exception to the rule, and one has to credit McCoy (and the McCoy-to-Shipley combination) for that. The short passes don't always result in major success -- the Longhorns rank only 31st in standard downs passing -- but they set opponents up to get burned on deeper routes later on.
Rob Weintraub: Having the Heisman Trophy-winning running back in the backfield is a good place to begin. Will Mark Ingram overcome the historic Heisman hangover in bowl games? Texas' top-ranked rush defense will be out to continue the Curse of the Stiffarm and will undoubtedly have a bulls eye on No. 22. Alabama's excellent offensive line has imposed its will all season, and will look to wear down the athletic Longhorns defense. Texas hasn't faced a rushing attack built for four quarters of power football all season, and may not be able to hold up. The best running team Texas faced all season, Texas A&M (No. 25 nationally) put up 190 yards on them, and the Aggies don't have anything like Alabama's varied ground attack.
Ingram's backup, Trent Richardson, is an electric talent who will be tough to handle on the edge. Both backs will be used on screens and draws as Alabama looks to take advantage of overaggressive pursuit.
Bill Connelly: If there were a case to be made against Mark Ingram winning the Heisman, it is that Alabama ranked only 23rd in Rushing S&P+ this season. (Don't tell that to the Florida defense that was scorched by Mr. Ingram in the SEC Championship.) The Texas defense holds a sizable advantage in most S&P+ categories here, and if they can slow down Alabama's running game, outscoring the Tide suddenly gets a lot easier.
|Rushing: Alabama Offense vs. Texas Defense (S&P+)|
|Rushing Success Rate+||111.4 (26)||133.8 (2)|
|Rushing PPP+||130.5 (24)||195.2 (1)|
|Rushing S&P+||118.4 (23)||153.2 (1)|
|Standard Downs Rushing S&P+||115.4 (32)||138.4 (4)|
|Passing Downs Rushing S&P+||113.7 (45)||288.7 (1)|
|Adj. Line Yards||115.8 (15)||152.3 (1)|
If it is possible for a Texas defensive line to be underrated, this one is. After losing a lot of star power in Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller from last year's line, Texas' stats have not regressed. The line holds its own very well and frees up the linebackers to play well without having to take many chances. Texas' defensive success was almost boring this year -- they shut down an opponent's rushing game, usually with ease, and leveraged opponents into passing downs, where a risk-taking secondary racked up as many interceptions as anybody in the country. With Ingram taking on this stout rushing defense, this could be the most interesting matchup in the title game.
Rob Weintraub: With so much focus on the Alabama's run game, the Tide coaches will likely try to establish the pass early, as they did against Florida. That could be problematic, as they haven't faced a pass rush as difficult to handle as Texas' (thanks in part to some excessive boozing by Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap). Texas pulled opposing quarterbacks down 37 times. Sergio Kindle gets most of the publicity, but Sam Acho led the team with six sacks. Alabama's line is a drive-blocking machine, but the tackles aren't especially nifty. They are susceptible on the edge. Kindle is excellent at floating back into coverage and helping the Texas defense confuse enemy offenses.
Quarterback Greg McElroy is a rhythm passer who has succeeded when defenses are looking one way and he goes another. Texas has forced 24 interceptions this season, mainly by dictating which way the quarterback looks. Assuming wide receiver Julio Jones is the main focus of attention, counterpart Marquis Maze once again becomes a key player, as he was in the SEC title game. His ability to exploit matchups in the slot and on sluggo (slant-and-go) routes will be a determining factor in Alabama's success through the air.
Bill Connelly: Despite the gaudy big-play (i.e. sack and interception) figures, Texas is somewhat vulnerable to a steady, efficient passing attack. That is good news for Alabama, who had one of the steadiest, most efficient attacks in the country, thanks to McElroy.
|Passing: Alabama Offense vs. Texas Defense (S&P+)|
|Passing Success Rate+||126.8 (4)||111.4 (24)|
|Passing PPP+||179.5 (2)||155.9 (14)|
|Passing S&P+||148.1 (3)||128.5 (18)|
|Standard Downs Passing S&P+||141.5 (2)||124.5 (16)|
|Passing Downs Passing S&P+||147.1 (13)||171.1 (9)|
|Adj. Sack Rate||154.5 (20)||122.2 (26)|
When Alabama has the ball, the S&P+ figures tell a different tale than one would expect. Texas almost appears to hold the advantage in the running game, while Alabama stands to gain from smart passing and decision-making. It goes without saying that turnovers could make a huge difference, but against a defense that relies so heavily on turnovers, Alabama will go a long way toward a win simply by not doing anything too stupid.
FEI: Alabama 27, Texas 18
S&P+: Alabama 23, Texas 17
Rob: Alabama 28, Texas 16
10 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2010, 1:19am by Will Allen