The last seven years of Alabama teams have looked a lot alike. They’ve had a dominant defense, a dominant running attack, the occasional dominant wideout and a quarterback who doesn’t screw things up. ’Bama has finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll in each of those seven seasons and on Monday will play for its fourth national title in that period. It’s been a nice little run. But this Alabama team has one major weakness that its predecessors didn’t: It sucks at converting on third down.
If you watched Alabama thrash Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, this may be about the only weakness that showed through the beating, a small consideration within the more global Brute Squad performance. Look a little closer, though, and one small crack can tell you quite a bit about this year’s Crimson Tide.
Last year, Alabama converted 51.3 percent of its third downs, good for fifth among FBS schools. This year’s team converts 36.2 percent, good for 96th. There are only 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, so this is not an encouraging figure. Meanwhile, Clemson is 13th, converting 47.7 percent of its third downs. The average conversion rate for FBS teams is just less than 40 percent. Alabama faces, on average, 14 third downs each game. Last year’s team would have converted seven of them; this year’s converts only five. Considering that this year’s team is also far worse at converting on fourth down (12 of 24 compared with 10 of 13 last year), that means ’Bama’s offense is losing at least two drives a game because of this regression in third-down efficiency.
As you might expect, this isn’t Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s fault. When the running back’s number is called on third down, he converts more than 50 percent of the time. He rushes mainly on short third downs, which helps keep that number high, but on all third-down carries with fewer than 10 yards to go, he converts 61.1 percent of the time. The other ’Bama running backs aren’t as impressive, converting their carries at 41.9 percent from all distances. Still, that’s higher than the national average of 40 percent — and not too far off from ’Bama rushing attacks of the past. (Clemson, meanwhile, is really, really good at running on third down, converting 49.5 percent of the time.)
Predictably, the Crimson Tide’s trouble comes with the pass — just not in the way you might think.
Like most schools, Alabama passes more often than it runs on third down. (The national average is 59.1 percent; ’Bama throws it 56.3 percent of the time.) It’s not that quarterback Jake Coker panics in these situations. He completes 58.8 percent of his third-down throws, better than celebrated Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, who completes only 52.9 percent of his throws in the same situation. But when Watson throws, he gets a first down 42.3 percent of the time. Coker gets a first down only 30.9 percent of the time. The split is even more pronounced in third-and-long situations. Coker gets more accurate; completing 59.6 percent of his throws. Watson falls to 43.8 percent. But Watson still gets more first downs from his throws in those situations: 31.3 percent to 22.8 percent.
Cautious play-calling. Without the protective blanket of Amari Cooper, the all-world receiver who bettered Alabama’s single-season receiving yards record by more than 50 percent last year, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has resorted to the conservative play-calling that defined his ill-fated tenure at USC. (Seriously, Google “Kiffin bubble screen” to get a taste of how the Trojan fan base felt about his play-calling when he was the head coach there.) With relatively untested Coker under center, Kiffin will all too often call for quick throws out near the sideline to receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, who then proceed to get tackled before crossing the sticks.
I call these wasted completions, though of course that’s oversimplifying things. By moving the ball down the field even a little bit, ’Bama sets itself up for a better punt, field-goal attempt or even fourth-down try. (Although as noted above, the latter doesn’t really help.) Most of the time, the receivers stay inbounds, so it also wastes time. That’s generally OK, too, because most ’Bama games turn into a slow march to drain the clock. But still, a first down is always better than a fourth down, and Alabama would be extending its drives significantly more often if the team simply ran plays that allowed receivers to catch the ball beyond the yellow line. That’s a play-calling problem, exacerbated by a personnel problem, and one that could come back to haunt the Tide in the national championship game.
Of course, with Alabama’s incredibly efficient defense picking up the slack, it may not. Did you notice the team going 1-12 on third down while it was dismantling Georgia 38-10 earlier this season? Or 4-12 while squeezing the life out of Michigan State in the semifinals? If you’re a spoiled ’Bama fan (like me), you probably did. Otherwise you simply watched the Tide roll.