One of the more remarkable developments over the last several years has been the evolution of Alabama from a defense-first, manage-the-game, smother-the-opponent-into-submission team into an almost comically explosive offensive juggernaut. The Crimson Tide have won five national championships since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. The 2009 and 2011 Alabama championship teams failed to crack the top 25 in touchdown rate on offense, and though 2012 Alabama was potent offensively, its defense still very much led the way. In 2015, Alabama's championship offense ranked all the way down at 45th nationally in offensive points per drive (2.4). And in 2017, Alabama's offense was decent but not special in most statistical categories, and merely average in some (62nd nationally in offensive first down rate).
Each of those five championship teams featured a defense that allowed less than 1.0 point per opponent drive, however, a hallmark of Saban teams in almost every year of his tenure. But things have been changing in Tuscaloosa, and the strength of Alabama's success has shifted considerably toward offense. Alabama averaged just over 4.0 points per drive over the 2018 and 2019 seasons after eclipsing 3.0 points per drive only three times over the previous 11 seasons. Their defense didn't fall off a cliff in those years, but there were signs it was weakening.
This year has been … something else entirely. Alabama's offense has been extraordinarily efficient out of the gate, averaging a whopping 8.7 yards per play on non-garbage possessions through three games, and ranking first nationally in points per drive (4.8) through three games. They lead the nation in yards per pass attempt (12.7) and rank second nationally in both passer rating and passing yards per game. On the ground they have scored 12 rushing touchdowns on only 103 attempts, a TD-per-rush-attempt rate that outpaces the rest of the nation by far.
The absurdity of their offensive prowess against Ole Miss last weekend was captured in a series of tweets by Rodger Sherman of The Ringer, noting among other statistical highlights that Alabama gained all but 41 possible yards in 11 drives against the Rebels, a 95% available yards rate. Sherman was more pointedly calling out Ole Miss defensive deficiencies than Alabama offensive proficiency with his tweets, but both can be true. Even woefully poor defenses are rarely dominated with as much explosive efficiency as Alabama brought on Saturday.
While its offense has soared, Alabama's defense has stumbled. They needed every bit of their nine touchdowns in 11 drives against Ole Miss to grab a lead and stay in front. The Crimson Tide allowed the Rebels to rack up 647 yards of total offense at a clip of 7.5 yards per play. Only twice previously in the Saban era (the 2018 national championship debacle against Clemson and a 2013 shootout with Texas A&M) had an opponent cleared that mark against Alabama. One game in 2020 does not a trend make, but Alabama's potential run to another national championship will certainly be harmed if its defense that can't make stops.
|Alabama Crimson Tide
Offensive and Defensive Points Per Drive in Saban Era
|Season||Off PPD||OPD Rk||Def PPD||DPD Rk|
|* 2020 points per drive results through Week 6|
In this week's FEI ratings, Alabama slips from No. 1 to No. 2 in part due to their drop in defensive efficiency offsetting their improved and elite offensive efficiency. The ratings continue to be somewhat influenced by preseason projections … and in the case of teams that have not yet played a game (including No. 1 Ohio State), entirely influenced by them.
Another note to keep in mind with regard to Alabama's dip in the ratings this week is the lack of interconnectivity between conferences. Alabama's results, as well as for every team in the SEC, will only be captured against SEC competition since their league plays zero non-conference games in 2020. This means that Alabama's opponent-adjusted results in 2020 will only be able to be calculated relative to an average opponent in the SEC as opposed to an average opponent across the country. The same will be true of the Big Ten and Pac-12 teams when those leagues get underway. Big 12 and ACC teams have some non-conference results already under their belts, though fewer than a typical season, so their opponent-adjusted ratings later this year will be rated at least in part relative to teams outside their league.
In theory, if given the exact same set of conference-only game and possession results in both the SEC and Conference USA, with no non-conference results sprinkled in, then the FEI ratings system as designed would rate the best SEC teams and the best Conference USA teams as relative equals. Whether this scenario is problematic probably depends upon your point of view.
We know historically that an average SEC team has been significantly better than an average Conference USA team. Does that matter in 2020? And can we measure how much it matters? Unless and until such teams play one another in the postseason, it probably doesn't matter much, but it does mean that the 2020 FEI ratings may need further scrutiny at season's end, and throughout.
2020 FEI Ratings (through Week 6)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. OFEI Offense ratings (OFEI) and DFEI Defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit. Ratings are based on a combination of opponent-adjusted results to date and preseason projections.
Points per drive are calculated based on the net scoring results of offensive drives (OPD) and opponent offensive drives (DPD). Available yards percentages represent net drive yards earned on offensive drives divided by available yards based on starting field position (OAY), and likewise for opponent offensive drives (DAY). Yards per play are calculated based on net drive yards earned divided by offensive plays (OPP), and net drive yards allowed divided by opponent offensive plays (DPP).