There is a bit of a cottage industry devoted to telling the college football world how to beat Bama. Every time the Tide stubs their toe, we rush in to make sweeping generalizations based upon that game. See, this is the formula to beating Bama…
In the wake of the Clemson game, the key to beating Alabama is tempo. Clemson ran 99 plays, which is an absurdly high number, and Bama’s defense clearly wore down in the fourth quarter. When was the last time Bama blew a double digit lead?
However, it’s tough to make broad judgments based on just one game. So, instead of obsessing on the most recent loss, I looked at every Alabama loss in the past four years. Then, we can apply the popular theories on how to beat the Tide, and see if it played out in their actual losses.
There’s only six of them, so let’s list them before we get into the magic winning formula
2016/17 Clemson, 35-31
2015 Ole Miss, 43-37
2014/15 Ohio St, 42-35
2014 Ole Miss, 23-17
2013/14 Oklahoma, 45-31
2013 Auburn 34-28
I know this sound silly, but this one is clearly true just by looking at the final score. Only one team in the past four years has managed to beat Bama by scoring less than 30 points: Ole Miss in 2014. Bama has cleared 30 points in four of their six losses, and reached 28 in the fifth. Ole Miss is the only team to have beaten Alabama by keeping Bama off the scoreboard.
Right away, you see that LSU has been approaching this all wrong. LSU usually gives Bama a tough game, but it often ends like this year’s game: a 10-0 loss. You do not beat Alabama in a defensive struggle, even when you have one of the best defenses in the nation. You have to score points. Given LSU’s defense, they might get by on the low end of the score, but that still means clearing 21 points, and maybe 28. OK, genius, how do you do that?
It’s All About Tempo
Clemson ran 99 plays, Bama got tired and blew a lead, ergo, you have to run a lot of plays. The average SEC team runs just under 70 plays a game, so let’s use 70 plays as our benchmark. The opposing offense ran at least 70 plays in exactly half of the six losses. Only once did we see a deluge of plays like Clemson, as Oklahoma ran 74 plays and Ohio St ran 78.
By contrast, Ole Miss ran 63 and 65 plays in their two victories. There seems to be no correlation between running a lot of plays and beating Bama. Honestly, if you allow 99 plays on defense, something else has gone seriously wrong.
It’s Not About the Number of Plays, It’s About Efficiency
We’re big proponents of yards/play around these parts, and the value of YPP has reached a certain degree of orthodoxy among statistically-inclined fans. But I’m beginning to fall out of favor with simple YPP. You know what? Total yards DO matter. A good offense is efficient, yes, but it also gains a lot of total yards. One without the other is like an Oreo without the cream filling. LSU ranked first in YPP in the SEC this year and 9th in total yards. I’m not comfortable stating that LSU had the best offense in the SEC, despite leading the pack in YPP.
The SEC average for YPP is right around 6.0, so how many Bama-beating offense reached that modest benchmark? Again, just three of six. Only Clemson cleared 7.0, averaging 7.4 yards/play. So, Clemson is an example of a team that ran a lot of plays but also was efficient. You might as well say, “have a great offense.” That’s not helpful. More interesting, two teams failed to reach either benchmark: 2014 Ole Miss ran 63 plays at a 5.1 average and 2013 Auburn ran 68 plays for 5.8. There’s no magic here, either.
Have an Awesome Quarterback
Paul’s pet theory is that a team needs to have a great, or at least an explosive, quarterback to beat Alabama. Deshaun Watson certainly checks that box. So did Chad Kelly. Bo Wallace wasn’t a great quarterback, but he was a guy who could suddenly have a great game. He at least could explode, in either a good or a bad way. The last three quarterbacks to beat Alabama all threw for 3 touchdowns with no picks. Two of the three threw for at least 300 yards, and Watson topped out at 420.
The three previous are a bit more of a mixed bag. Cardale Jones is an outstanding athlete, but he’s not much of a passer. He managed 256 yards on 36 attempts, but he also completed just 50% of his passes and posted a 1/1 TD/INT ratio. Nick Marshall attempted just 16 passes for 97 yards. His goal was to simply not turn it over. Trevor Knight was a freshman with a mixed record of success. However, he did have a big game against Bama, throwing for 348 yards on 32/44. It seems OU fell bass ackwards into a great quarterback performance for one night.
So, a great quarterback certainly helps, but it’s not a requirement. However, what these guys all have in common (except for Knight) is that they could all beat you with their legs as well. Four of the six quarterbacks had at least ten rushing attempts, and Kelly managed 8. Watson had 74 yards rushing and Marshall had 99. All of these quarterbacks took care of the football (they combined for 16/2 TD/INT ratio), but they also kept the Bama defense honest by hurting them with their legs.
We can debate on the quality of Danny Etling’s arm, but we can all agree he’s not much of a runner. This seems like a clear area at which LSU can adjust its roster in order to better compete with Bama.
The six teams are a combined +8 in a turnover margin. So done deal, right? Get turnover lucky. Or at the very least, don’t turn the ball over yourself. And while the second part of that is true (turnovers are death against Bama), the +8 is fairly misleading. In two of the losses, Bama got killed by turnovers: 2014 Ole Miss and Oklahoma. Bama went -5 and -4, respectively, against those two teams.
However, in the other four losses, Bama’s turnover margin was actually +1. Bama won the turnover battle against both Clemson and Auburn, and only lost by one in the other two. So, while protecting the football is always a good idea, a team doesn’t need to get a lot of turnovers in order to beat Bama. But it doesn’t hurt.
Don’t Run the Ball
You can’t run on Bama. Not even the great Leonard Fournette could find space against that defense, so it’s foolish to even try. And most of the time, this is absolutely correct. In four of the games, Bama still held the opposing offense to under 100 yards total rushing and an average under 3.0 yards/carry. Even Clemson managed only 91 yards at a 2.2 clip.
Two teams break this rule, but they are instructive, considering LSU wants to use its rushing attack as well. Ohio St rushed for 281 yards on a 6.7 average. Auburn rushed for 296 yards and a 5.7 average. Both of these teams had something in common: an elite running back (Ezekiel Elliot and Tre Mason) coupled with a quarterback who could run at an elite level. Nick Marshall rushed for over 1000 yards and Cardale Jones was a legit running threat.
Again, this goes back to quarterback. LSU has the elite rusher part of the equation figured out, but Guice needs help. LSU’s offense needs a quarterback that can threaten a defense with his legs if it wants to figure out the Alabama puzzle.
So, it’s all very simple. Have an elite defense, don’t turn the ball over, have a great running back, and then have a quarterback who can beat you with both his arm and his legs. Even then, you probably need a healthy dose of good fortune.
No problem, right?