The engine powering college football’s pre-eminent outfit over the past decade has typically been a blue chip-laden, pressure-oriented, versatile defense. In Tuscaloosa, where Nick Saban has helmed the Alabama Crimson Tide since 2007, that engine has only gained steam in recent years. The winner of 87.2 percent of its games and five national titles since the diminutive kingpin’s arrival, Alabama is the only program to qualify for the College Football Playoff in each of the first four years.
Much of that sovereignty is attributable to the historically great fortresses that Alabama closes off its end zone with. There have been six instances since 2007 of a team holding opponents to five or fewer rushing touchdowns over an entire season. Alabama accounts for four. Some have even claimed the team’s stockpile of 18- to 22-year-olds could be competitive on Sundays. Baseless claims notwithstanding, the Tide have sent more talent to the NFL than any other team over the past decade. Since Saban’s arrival, 41 members of the Crimson Tide have been selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. More than 60 percent of that pool came from the defensive side of the ball. All 11 defensive starters in Alabama’s 2016 season opener were selected in the past two drafts.
However, four games into the 2018 season, all anyone can talk about is the Crimson Tide offense — and for good reason. Saban, it would appear, finally has an offense as ostentatious and dynamic as his defense, a horrifying development for the rest of the country.
Spearheaded by starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, the Tide offense is crashing down on its competition like a tsunami. Alabama has outscored its four opponents by an average margin of 41 points. The Tide have played 16 quarters of football and failed in just two to put more points on the scoreboard than their opponent, and in both cases it was the fourth quarter of a blowout.1
Locksley’s offense has been so devastatingly effective that Saban, a well-established curmudgeon who cares not for style points, beseeched the press to “look at some of the things we didn’t do so well” following Saturday’s 22-point win over then-No. 22 Texas A&M. One can only be so sated by a unit averaging 53.8 points and 539.5 yards, after all.
Alabama’s offensive efficiency — a metric graded 0 to 100 that controls for quality of opponent and “garbage time” — scores a 98.02. That’s the top mark of any team measured by ESPN Stats & Information since Saban’s arrival. Its defensive efficiency of 94.24 ranks a lusterless fourth since 2007, behind the current Georgia team and two other versions of Bama. According to College Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, Alabama is 49.71 points better than the average Football Bowl Subdivision team this season. However, in Saban parlance, “our team needs to do a lot of things to improve.”
Tagovailoa vaulted into Alabama lore last season when, as a freshman, he was inserted into the national championship game after halftime and led the Tide to a come-from-behind win over Georgia in overtime. Now the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Tagovailoa has performed like a video game character in his sophomore campaign, accounting for 1,033 passing yards, 14 total touchdowns and zero interceptions. He can feather a ball onto the chest of a full-sprint receiver 40 yards downfield and Houdini his way around would-be tacklers bearing down on him in the pocket — execute and improvise. ESPN has been calculating Total Quarterback Rating, which seeks to value quarterback play on a 0-to-100 scale while adjusting for the strength of opposing defenses faced, since 2004. The left-handed Hawaiian is in line to produce the top single-season figure ever — by nearly four points.
|5||2018||Dwayne Haskins||Ohio State||93.7|
|2012||Johnny Manziel||Texas A&M||91.3|
For years, Alabama’s offensive blueprint seemed like a relic from the 1980s: Run the ball on the first few downs, attempt a short- to moderate-length pass, and move the chains or punt to play the field-position game. It was a Ritz Cracker offense that, at times, appeared premeditated to suck the entertainment out of the sport entirely. It worked: Alabama has had 11 running backs/fullbacks and 13 offensive linemen drafted over the past 12 years.
However, that bland cadence hasn’t manifested under Locksley. Considering the second half of Alabama games have largely been a formality — the Tide have outscored opponents 148-20 in the opening 30 minutes — let’s assess first-half play calling. Alabama is taking to the air on 53.9 percent of plays, which ranks 38th nationally. That mark is 13.9 percentage points higher than last season’s average, which ranked 110th nationally. On first and second downs, Alabama’s pass percentage is 40.5 percent, up from 34.5 percent a season ago. Compared with previous seasons under Saban, this year is a clear aberration, like the Indiana Pacers suddenly learning the value of the three-point shot.
“(Locksley) really is doing a good job of mixing up the run, the pass, the play-action screens,” tight end Hale Hentges said. “And he’s making a very natural flow to all of our plays and that’s what has made us have success. … He’s an offensive genius.”
What once were almost always Mark Ingram carries on second down have been replaced by deranged sequences of Tagovailoa evading a pass rush to heave a cross-body rocket to the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
Alabama has already attempted 17 passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, in line to finish the regular season with 51, according to data provided by TruMedia. Last season, the team accounted for 50 in 14 games. Only Hawaii (with 27) has accounted for more passing plays of 20-plus yards this season than Alabama’s 25. In turn, the Tide rank third in expected points added on passes (79.34) and second in adjusted offensive expected points added (98.2), according to data provided by TruMedia.
“We feel like as a group, collectively, when we go out, we’re unstoppable,” wide receiver Henry Ruggs III said.
Unstoppable isn’t far off. Alabama has scored a touchdown on 48.1 percent of its drives, the top mark of any SEC team. Locksley’s unit has only gone three-and-out eight times, in line to produce the lowest three-and-out percentage (15.4 percent) by an Alabama offense since Saban’s arrival by nearly three percentage points, according to data provided by ESPN Stats & Information.
The onslaught of points hasn’t gone unnoticed by pundits like Kirk Herbstreit and Tim Tebow, who knows a thing or three about leading an explosive offense in the SEC. Both have posited that this year’s Alabama offense has the makings of the best in program history. Alabama no longer just suffocates its opponent with defense; in 2018, its offense brings the reckoning.