CFB Playoff Favorites Preview: Alabama
With the college football playoff on the horizon, this two-part series will take a look at the two juggernauts heading into the tournament: Alabama and Clemson. This first installment will cover Alabama’s draft prospects, offensive scheme, defensive scheme, and more.
DRAFT PROSPECTS OF NOTE
- Damien Harris, RB, Senior
- Irv Smith Jr., TE, Junior
- Jonah Williams, OT, Junior
- Quinnen Williams, DT, rSoph
- Raekwon Davis, DL, Junior
- Isaiah Buggs, DL, Senior
- Mack Wilson, LB, Junior
- Deionte Thompson, S, Junior
Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is the star pupil in what appears to be another stacked Alabama draft class. Interior defensive linemen with Williams’ versatility, athleticism, and pass rush ability are as valuable as they have ever been. Assuming Williams decides to declare for the draft, a good draft process could end with him being the first overall pick.
Left tackle Jonah Williams, running back Damien Harris, and safety Deionte Thompson may all be the best players in the class at their respective positions as well. Each of them has a good chance at being selected in the first round.
The Alabama offensive coordinator position has been a revolving door over the past three years not for lack of success, but for an abundance of it. Lane Kiffin left following the 2016 season after three great years with the program. Kiffin was followed by Brian Daboll who was hired by the Buffalo Bills after one year as the OC in Tuscaloosa. Now, Mike Locksley, a co-coordinator alongside Daboll in 2017, has the reigns and has kept the offense producing among the nation’s best.
Continuing the trends of his predecessors, Locksley’s offense is called primarily out of pistol and shotgun formations that feature an H-back. Rollouts and RPOs are still at the core of the offense just the same as last season, but the quarterback change this year has opened up the deep passing game. 2017 starting quarterback Jalen Hurts was a fine game manager and a miraculous runner, but he did not show the arm or consistency to allow Alabama to throw down the field with great success. Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa has flipped that idea on its head and turned Alabama into one of the most explosive downfield passing teams in the country as a first-year starter.
Tagovailoa sports a booming arm and masterful touch all over the field, which serves to accentuate the talent of the three or four future NFL wide receivers he is throwing to. Pass catchers such as Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are especially effective when working on intermediate to deep routes, and Tagovailoa has quite the knack for hitting them (and the rest of Alabama’s receiving corps) right in stride for six.
Every one of Tagovailoa’s performances this season features a handful of these throws. Tagovailoa is the best pure passer to come through Tuscaloosa during the Saban era and the full depth of his skill set has transformed how Alabama is allowed to — and wants to — play offense.
That being said, Alabama is still a punishing team on the ground, even if the rushing attack is now more complementary than vital to the team’s identity and success. Gap schemes and various pull concepts are the backbones of the run game, with a few quarterback run concepts or options sprinkled in to keep defenses on their toes. If backup quarterback Jalen Hurts enters the game for whatever reason, the run game transitions to a more quarterback focused approach.
This “counter” wrinkle has become popular in Locksley’s offense. A typical “counter” play would feature the two pulling players bending around the rest of the offensive line, who are all down blocking the defense to one side. However, Locksley tweaks this “counter” concept to abuse Georgia’s 3-tech/4i alignments. Rather than down block that player with the offensive tackle like one normally would, the offensive tackle turns outside to block the edge player and the two pull players bend tighter inside to hit the 3-tech/4i. It is still a “counter” concept, but it hits tighter to the midline of the formation in order to take advantage of Georgia’s alignment. Seemingly minor, yet effective tweaks such as this are what keeps Alabama at the top.
Hardly anyone would argue against the idea that Alabama currently has its worst defense in years. That same defense is still eighth in S&P+ this year. Though Alabama’s defense is, in fact, worse than usual, Alabama set such an absurd standard for itself, a standard that includes three straight first-place rankings in S&P+ (2015-2017), that anything short of incomprehensible dominance is seen as underwhelming.
Schematically, much of what the Crimson Tide do is the same as always: pattern match out of Cover 3 shells and adjust to blitz or be conservative when absolutely necessary. Saban has perfected the craft of pattern matching out of one-high shells. He will make tweaks to mesh with the personnel at hand, but generally, Saban does what Saban does.
The difference this year has been less refined communication and pre-snap movement in the back end. Last year’s secondary was chalked full of seniors and/or top-75 picks, which made it easier for Saban to rotate players up and down to give quarterbacks false reads about the coverage shell. To the same token, there is no do-it-all player like Minkah Fitzpatrick on this squad. Sure, there are versatile players, but Fitzpatrick was unique in such a way that Saban could mix-and-match personnel any way he pleased because Fitzpatrick was an elite player no matter where he lined up. That just is not possible with this team, and the players he is forced to play in more rigid sets are not as experienced as the players who preceded them. The young defensive backs playing now are immensely talented, namely Patrick Surtain Jr. (man, we are old), but they will need another year under their belt to replicate the schematic perfection of last year’s group.
X Factor — Limit Explosive Plays on Defense
And so, that leads into Alabama’s primary goal heading into the playoff: do not let the young secondary become overwhelmed and allow big plays. As mentioned before, this is not as sound or experienced a group as Saban has coached in the past. Last year’s defense featured a slew of multiple-year starters and seniors in the secondary, while this year’s squad is fielding plenty of new faces. The 2017 secondary had little issue in keeping track of every minor detail, communicating the information, and executing on it. The same can not be said of this year’s more inexperienced group.
Explosive plays have become a problem for the Crimson Tide in the absence of experienced on-field leaders. According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system, Alabama’s defense 72nd in IsoPPP, which is effectively a measure of explosive plays gained/allowed separate from measures of efficiency. Alabama ended the past three seasons with a top-3 ranking in defensive IsoPPP, including first-place finishes in 2015 and 2016. A relatively undisciplined defense that gives up chunk plays on a regular basis is not something we are used to seeing from a Nick Saban defense.
Alabama’s propensity to give up explosive plays is troubling in isolation, but when contrasted with Oklahoma’s high-flying offense, Alabama looks that much more beatable in the first round of the playoff. Led by Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray, the Sooners’ offense ranks 1st in IsoPPP, making them the perfect arrow to pierce Alabama’s Achilles heel. Luckily for the Tide, Alabama’s offense trails just behind Oklahoma in IsoPPP and should be able to keep up in a shootout, but if any offense can pull out too far in front to be caught, it is Oklahoma.