SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
Wire photosNick Saban’s Alabama team has areas of vulnerability Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes can attack.
Alabama can win games with its defense. It has three wins in which it scored 25 or fewer points; only Missouri (four) has more this season. The Crimson Tide can also win with their offense. They have an SEC-high seven wins in which they scored more than 40 points, including a 55-44 win against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Alabama's offense ranks fourth in the nation and its defense is 12th. TCU is the only other team in the top 12 of the FBS in both stats.
Yet, as its loss to Ole Miss indicates, Alabama is not invincible. Below, we look at some areas in which the Crimson Tide excel and others were they might be vulnerable.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama is on pace to finish with its highest offensive efficiency in the eight years under coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide rank 10th in the FBS in yards per play and points per drive, even though they have played seven of the top 20 teams in defensive efficiency.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have led the way on the ground. Yeldon and Henry have both rushed for more than 800 yards, averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry and scored at least 10 rushing touchdowns. The only other FBS school with two such running backs this season is Arkansas with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
Blake Sims has been the facilitator for the passing game. He has posted an 88.4 Total QBR this season, second-best in the FBS behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Since 2004, two SEC players have had a higher Total QBR in a season than Sims (Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel). Both won the Heisman in those seasons.
As good as Sims has been, Amari Cooper has been better. Cooper leads the FBS in receiving yards (1,656) and receptions (115) and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns (14).
Yet, if the Buckeyes are able to take away Cooper, Alabama might be in trouble. Cooper has 100 more targets and 1,217 more receiving yards than any other player on the team. DeAndrew White is second on the team in receiving, and on one play – his 58-yard touchdown against Missouri – he gained more yards than he had in all but two games this season entering the SEC Championship.
When Sims is throwing to Cooper this season, he is completing 71.0 percent of his passes, averaging 10.2 yards per attempt and has 14 touchdowns and one interception. To put that into perspective, Mariota is the only other FBS quarterback averaging more than 10 yards per attempt this season. When Sims is not passing to Cooper, he completes 60.5 percent of his passes and averages 7.9 yards per attempt. The FBS averages are 60.0 percent and 7.3 yards per attempt.
Defense is where Alabama has always hung its hat under Saban. For instance, the Crimson Tide are allowing 16.6 points per game this season, fourth-fewest in the FBS. Yet, that is on pace to be the most they have allowed since 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa.
Led by defensive tackle Johnathan Allen and linebacker Reggie Ragland, Alabama is as good as it gets against the run. The Crimson Tide have allowed three rushing touchdowns, five fewer than any other FBS school. They really buckle down around the goal line. On goal-to-go rushes, their opponents have run for minus 16 yards and have scored a touchdown on two of 24 carries (8%). That is on pace to be the second-best percentage in the last 10 seasons, behind Notre Dame in 2012.
If there is one area in which Alabama has not been as strong on defense this season, it is against the pass, especially the last few games. The Crimson Tide are allowing 223.7 passing yards per game, on pace to be their most since they allowed 227.8 in 2003. Big plays have been a big issue. Opponents have 39 completions of 20 yards or more, the most Alabama has allowed in at least the last 10 seasons.
Downfield passes have been the main culprit of late. On passes thrown 25 yards or longer downfield, the Crimson Tide have allowed an SEC-high 16 completions. In their last three games, opponents were 12-of-21 on such throws, compared with 4-of-30 to start the season.
Even though Alabama has 2014 first-team all-SEC punter JK Scott and 2013 SEC special teams player of the year Christion Jones on its roster, the Crimson Tide have been below average on special teams this season, ranking 101st in efficiency. How has special teams play affected Alabama this season? Look no further than its 23-17 loss to Ole Miss. In that game, Jones had a fumble in the fourth quarter on a kickoff, which set up the game-winning score, and kicker Adam Griffith missed 46-yard and 51-yard attempts. This season, Alabama has made 64 percent of its field goal tries this season, 93rd in the FBS. Dating to the start of the 2011 season, Alabama has lost five games. In those five games, its kickers are 5-of-16 on field goals, including 2-of-11 from 40 yards or longer.
Combining offense, defense and special teams efficiency, Alabama ranks second behind Oregon in overall efficiency. There are holes, as noted above, that Ohio State can exploit. The Buckeyes, with Cardale Jones at quarterback, scored three touchdowns on passes thrown 25 yards or longer in the Big Ten Championship Game, their most in a game this season. On special teams, they rank second in average starting field position and lead the nation in opponents’ average starting field position. If Ohio State can continue to play well in these areas during the Sugar Bowl, it may well be the difference in the Buckeyes pulling off the upset of No. 1 Alabama.
Sims prolific, precise
En route to setting a school record for passing yards in a season (3,250), Sims kept the chains moving for Alabama:
- On passes thrown 5 yards or shorter, he completed 20-of-21 attempts for 155 yards and a touchdown. Those were the most completions and yards on such throws in a game in his career.
- On third down, Sims was 6-of-6 passing and was sacked twice. Entering the game, he had converted an FBS-best 52 percent of his third-down passing plays.
- On play action, Sims completed 10-of-11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown for an average of 12.0 yards per pass. Without play action, Sims averaged 8.1 yards per attempt.
Sims was 23-of-27 passing, setting a record for the SEC Championship Game for completion percentage (85.2 percent). The record was 77.1, set in 2004 by Auburn’s Jason Campbell.
Sims’ favorite target, as usual, was Amari Cooper. He had 12 catches after hauling in 13 passes in the Iron Bowl last week. Saturday’s game marked the second time this season that Cooper has had at least 12 catches in consecutive games. One other player in the FBS has had as many as one: Colorado's Nelson Spruce in September.
Cooper has the SEC single-season record for receptions (115).
Alabama's SEC dominance
The victory gave Alabama its 24th SEC title, 11 more than any other team. (Those totals include shared titles.) It was Alabama’s fifth SEC Championship Game win. That's second to Florida, which has had seven victories in a game instituted in 1992.
On the other side of Alabama’s success was Missouri’s struggles. The Tigers are 0-4 in conference championship games, the worst record in FBS history.
But it seems lately there have been a rash of songs inspired by that very passion. Most are -- let's face it -- pretty terrible. Every once in a while, though, we run across one that might actually pass for, ya know, music.
(Remember the Georgia woman who was really excited about getting Todd Gurley back from injury?)
Well now, on the eve of the SEC Championship Game, we have two songs of the South from a pair of fans who (honestly!) have really good voices. Or at least much, much better than what we normally expect to see from people who take the time to write songs about SEC football.
First up, we have Michael Mason, a crooner from Alabama who loves him some Crimson Tide. He's also a big fan of Amari Cooper, a Biletnikoff finalist who has broken essentially every school receiving record there is to break. In honor of that historic season, Mason came up with "That's Amari," based off Dean Martin's 1953 classic, "That's Amore."
Our second contestant is Ben Coulter, an Arkansas resident and independent country singer who performs a song written by Jeff and Carolyn Noble called "I'm A Bielemer," after second-year coach Bret Bielema. Coulter sang it Friday morning in the studio of KATV's "Good Morning Arkansas" in Little Rock.
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So who sang their SEC song better? Give us your take in the comments section.
The bad news for the top two teams in the College Football Playoff rankings -- Alabama and Oregon -- is that both have a potential spoiler matchup that just might be an unfavorable one. Here's a look at games that could prevent both teams from making the playoff. (Note: Unless otherwise specified, all of the statistical totals below are in Power 5 games.)
Alabama Crimson Tide
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But sometimes, those options just aren't good enough. Sometimes you just don't like any of the names on the ballot. What do you then?
If you're in the South, it seems you just vote with your heart. And college football is truly the heartbeat of SEC country. It's why on Election Day 2012, Nick Saban received more than 300 votes across the state of Alabama as a write-in candidate for various offices. His Crimson Tide players also showed up on dozens of ballots, from President of the United States on down to local Board of Education races.
Well, it looks like Bama fans are it again -- along with fans from across the SEC and no doubt the country.
I did my part. pic.twitter.com/hlM55H3Qok— David Ikard (@davidikard) November 4, 2014
It appears the #FreeGurley movement also made its way to some ballots in Georgia.
I did write-in Todd Gurley for Athens Soil and Water Conservation General In Charge of Things, or something like that this morning. #gavotes— Logan Booker (@LoganBooker_BI) November 4, 2014
Had no republican on the ballot for House rep, wrote in Todd Gurley.— Josh Bush (@jbush_luke15) November 4, 2014
But no matter who you vote for on your ballot -- real candidate or your favorite college football player -- just be sure to vote before the polls close. Why?
Well, let's have LSU coach Les Miles explain, because that's usually the best course of action during these situations.
are you really going to defy the hat pic.twitter.com/FVoWq74M4s— Holly Anderson (@HollyAnderson) November 4, 2014
He served 76 days in jail and was ordered by a judge to pay restitution to Auburn University totaling $796,731, of which he's only paid $99 as of mid-September.
Well, that hasn't gone quite as planned. Updyke still pops up in the news every once in a while and is certainly not a shy man on social media, continually trolling Auburn fans and various SEC schools.
On Friday afternoon, he was at it again on Facebook.
Unfortunately there is no photo confirmation of this claim as of the time this article was published. But if he does indeed dress up as a dead tree, you can be sure he's going to post a pic of it.
Because remember kids, he "never wants to be heard from ever again."
On the first offensive play of the game for Alabama, the former one-and-done Vols coach -- hated throughout the state and making his first trip back to Knoxville since his exit in January 2010 -- drew up a beautiful play that led to an 80-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper, who piled up a remarkable 185 receiving yards in the first quarter.
As the play developed, Kiffin took off and followed Cooper down the sideline for awhile -- followed by the cameras catching a smirk by the Alabama offensive coordinator that was five years in the making. Watch it all here:
Even five years later, his one-and-done tenure with the Vols still irks UT fans, who have suffered through a horrific 7-28 SEC stretch since Kiffin's bravado and high hopes left for Los Angeles. And does it help that their hated former coach is now the offensive coordinator at UT's most ancient rival, Alabama? No. No, it doesn't.
So with Kiffin's Crimson Tide coming to Knoxville this weekend in his first appearance back at Neyland Stadium, you knew things were going to get a little zany. And so far, we have not been disappointed.
Let's start with the Tennessee State House race pitting incumbent Gloria Johnson against challenger Eddie Smith. Kiffin is so unpopular in this East Tennessee district that he's being used in a direct mail ad that compares him to Johnson.
Surely you didn't expect Rep. Johnson, a UT grad, to let such treachery go by without a response. So she did what any self-respecting politician in this Vol-crazy area would do -- got a much more popular former Tennessee coach to give her an endorsement. Enter Vols legend Johnny Majors, who finished runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy and was head coach of his alma mater from 1977-92.
Oh, but that's not all. As Kiffin gets set to return to Knoxville, he's also facing an accusation that he skipped town in January 2010 before paying a $14 haircut debt.
That's according to the owner of the Western Plaza Barber Shop, Rusty Manis, who isn't seriously seeking payment from Alabama's offensive coordinator -- but is nevertheless having some fun with it with this week. Check out this dramatized report from the local NBC affiliate.
The love the Alabama head coach has for Little Debbie's Oatmeal Creme Pies is evidently rubbing off on his players.
Injured tailback Kenyan Drake was spotted on the sidelines with a box of them in his injury scooter during the Crimson Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M on Saturday.
Saban reportedly eats two of the treats for breakfast every morning.
Drake is out for the season after fracturing his leg during Alabama's loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 4, but he's remained in high spirits by outfitting his scooter with a "KDx17" license plate.
After the game, Drake joked about the scene on Twitter.
Wish I could've gotten a slice of the pie on the field today even though its obvious that i had my fair share on the sidelines lol #RollTide— Kenyan Drake" (@KDx17) October 18, 2014
Her latest wrath descended upon Colin Cowherd, who claimed "Alabama's dynasty is over." And what an epic rant it was, even by Phyllis standards.
You don't think coaches notice any of that stuff?
Think again. Here's what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had to say after the Razorbacks' 14-13 loss to Alabama on Saturday.
Bielema: "I have respect for what Alabama has been able to do. I don't want that Phyllis gal from Finebaum calling and yelling at me."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) October 12, 2014
Obviously Bielema doesn't care as much about what people think of him from a fashion standpoint.
Did you see what this man wore on national TV Saturday during "SEC Nation" on the SEC Network? On a cool, rainy morning in Fayetteville, he went with flip flops and a tracksuit.
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJonathan Williams helps lead one of the most effective running games in the nation.
A key matchup in the game with be Alabama’s run defense against Arkansas’ run offense.
The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in rush defense (64.0 YPG), and Arkansas leads the conference in rush offense (316.6 YPG).
Alabama rushing defense
Alabama's average of 64.0 rushing yards allowed per game is third-fewest in the FBS. They have allowed one rushing touchdown, tied for the fewest among FBS teams.
The Tide have held four of their five opponents to fewer than 75 yards rushing, tied with Louisville and Boise State for the most such games by an FBS defense.
Excluding sacks, opponents have not gained yards on 28 percent of their carries against Alabama, the third-best rate for a defense in the FBS and nine percentage points better than the FBS average.
The Tide rarely give up big plays in the running game. They have allowed an FBS-low nine runs of 10 yards or longer.
A key has been not allowing opponents to set the edge. The Tide have allowed a Power Five-low 2.5 yards per designed run outside the tackles and are one of four Power Five defenses that have not allowed a touchdown on such a run.
Arkansas rushing offense
Not only does Arkansas run more often (68 percent of plays) and for more yards (316.6 per game) than any other SEC team, but it also is efficient in doing so.
The Razorbacks are averaging 6.9 yards per rush and lead the nation in rushing efficiency, which measures an offense’s contribution to a team’s scoring margin on rushing plays. Arkansas is contributing an FBS-high 16 points per game to its scoring margin on rushes.
What makes the Razorbacks so efficient is their ability to gain ground on first and second down. The Razorbacks are averaging 6.9 yards per rush on first or second down and gaining a first down on an FBS-high 30 percent of those plays.
That leads to Arkansas avoiding third downs (sixth-fewest in the FBS), which is a factor that has been shown to correlate with winning by ESPN’s production analytics team.
Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have led the way for Arkansas. They have combined for 1,107 rush yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, which is the third-most rushing yards and most rushing touchdowns of any running back duo in the nation.
A lot of their success can be attributed to a line that has been able to open holes.
The Razorbacks are averaging an SEC-high 4.2 yards before contact per rush and have gained at least five yards on an FBS-best 54 percent of rushes.
As noted above, Alabama has been great at limiting opponents outside the tackles, but that area is a strength for the Razorbacks. They lead the SEC in yards per rush (8.1) and touchdowns (nine) on designed runs outside of the tackles.
Something has to give
Arkansas has gained at least 150 rushing yards and is averaging four yards per rush in each of its games this season. Alabama has not allowed any of its opponents to run for 150 yards or average four yards per rush in a game.
We may know how this game will play out after the first 15 minutes. Arkansas is averaging 8.4 yards per rush and 99.6 rushing yards in the first quarter. If Alabama can slow Arkansas’ ground attack early, it may go a long way toward determining this game.
When Ole Miss hosts Alabama on Saturday afternoon, the game will feature the Rebels' uptempo spread offense and the Crimson Tide's traditional power running game with a lot of play-action passing mixed in.
While a vast majority of teams in the SEC have been focused on defending the new and innovative uptempo offenses that have spread like a wildfire throughout the conference, Ole Miss has quietly been building its defense to stand up to the more physical teams of the SEC West. The transformation is working; the Rebels are No. 4 in the country in total defense, yielding just 248 yards per game.
In two full seasons of recruiting, Rebels coach Hugh Freeze has led Ole Miss to the No. 5 recruiting class and the No. 17 recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has the No. 24 class in the country. But with several ESPN 300 members remaining on the recruiting board that number is sure to increase.
Prior to Freeze’s arrival in Oxford, Mississippi, the Rebels didn’t have a top 20 recruiting class in any year since ESPN started doing recruiting rankings back in 2006.
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The Rebels are 4-0 for the first time since 1970 and have a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press poll for only the second time in the past 44 years. To top it off, ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew is headed to the Grove for the first time in the pregame show’s history, as the Rebels host Alabama in one of the most important games ever played in Oxford.
Since Alabama has won the past five meetings between these teams by a combined score of 155-34, many may be writing this game off as one of those early season tests the Tide tends to pass with ease.
Anyone with that mindset would do well to reconsider.
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