Attention, SEC: The Achilles’ Heel of the Alabama Defense

Three national championships in four years.  Dozens of draft picks making millions of dollars in the NFL. The Alabama Crimson Tide, led by defensive gurus Nick Saban and his henchman Kirby Smart, have been without question the most dominating team in college football for the last five years.  Viewed as the kings of college football, the Crimson Tide pride themselves on their defense.  Generally speaking, they have been almost impossible to score against.  However, the Alabama defense has been exposed the past two years against a certain type of offense- the hurry-up spread with a quarterback capable of evading defenders.

In the past two years, Alabama has given up more than 28 points only four (!) times.  All four came against teams who like to spread the defense out and quickly snap the ball.  Two of those games were against Heisman Trophy Wwnner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, while the other two came against Auburn and last year’s Sugar Bowl opponent, Oklahoma.  Three of those four games resulted in losses.

During the 2012 season, Alabama gave up an average of 250 yards per game and was top 10 nationally in third down defensive percentage.  Against Manziel and A&M, they gave up 253 yards passing alone.  Manziel and co. also rushed for 165 yards, and completed 61% of third downs, including an astonishing 63% on third downs 7 yards and longer.  The inability to get off the field on 3rd kept the Tide defense tired and thrown off for much of the game, as they were not allowed to sub on and off the field when the Aggies went up-tempo.  The long drives turned into points, and an ultimate loss at home for the #1 ranked Tide.  It was their only loss of the season in 2012, though, and they went on to win the National Title.

In 2013, the Alabama defense gave up an average of 13.9 PPG and was fifth in total team defense, giving up an average of 286 yards per game and only 180 passing yards per game.  Their third down percentage was 34%, good enough for top 20 nationally.  In the 10 games against non-hurry up offenses without a running threat at quarterback, the Tide gave up 60 points (6 PPG) and recorded three shutouts.  They gave up less than a touchdown and an extra point on average to 10 different teams, including only 17 to a top 15-ranked LSU squad.  However, just as in 2012, the Texas A&M offense was not too kind to the Alabama defense, carving them up for 42 points and over 600 yards, 350 yards more than their average.  Once again, A&M was able to convert on 3rd, especially 3rd and 7 yards or longer, converting 63% of their attempts and going 50% from 7 yards or longer, including a 95 yard touchdown pass.  Although Alabama won the game 49-42, it was not because of their daunting defense we had seen in years past.

The last two games Alabama played in the 2013 season were against Auburn and Oklahoma, two teams who like to push tempo and have quarterbacks viewed as run-first attackers.  Against Auburn, the Tide defense, which had given up an average of 100 yards per game rushing, gave up 300.  You could see as you watched the game how tired the Alabama defense looked, constantly seeing linemen and linebackers with their hands on their hips, gasping for air.  Why were they tired?  A common theme – inability to get off the field.  Auburn converted 53% of its third downs, well above the average Alabama gave up.  Those conversions led to many double-digit play drives that left the Alabama defense, and coaches, confused and exhausted.  Although it was (famously) the fateful play on special teams that eventually cost Alabama the game and a National Title berth, the defense did play up to its normal standards.  Why couldn’t they stop Gus Malzahn’s offense?  Their difficulty most likely resulted from the fatigue of trying to catch quarterback Nick Marshall, as he took off with the ball and ran on what seemed like every other play (he only had 97 passing yards) – in another spread offense with a quick-legged QB.

The last game the Alabama defense got exposed in was in the 2014 Sugar Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.  No one gave Oklahoma a chance in the game, especially their offensive side of the ball.  The Sooners threw out their freshman QB Trevor Knight, who in the six games he started or played significant time in, only had thrown 5 touchdowns to 4 interceptions.  He had completed roughly 57% of his passes, but he was a running threat (7 yards per carry).  Against the Tide, Oklahoma lit up the scoreboard, scoring 45 points and racking up 429 total yards.  Knight broke loose and completed 73% of his passes, throwing for 358 yards and four touchdowns.  As for third downs, Alabama could not get stops frequently enough, giving up an abysmal 5/10 on third downs longer than 7 yards.  Oklahoma was a 14-point underdog coming into the game, but eventually won by that same figure, making the Crimson Tide defense look foolish for not being able to stop a quarterback whose stats were very mediocre heading into the game.

Alabama has dominated this decade of college football, and they will likely continue to dominate as long as Nick Saban is at the helm with excellent recruits, facilities, and a standout coaching staff – Saban’s defenses are ranked in the top 5 nationally yearly.  But if the stats serve us right, don’t be surprised to see the Tide lose a game or two next year to a team that runs a fast-paced offense with a capable running quarterback.

by Evan Lalande, Birmingham-Southern College

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