Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. Playing a different game
Over the last eight seasons, 961 teams have played FBS football. If you ranked all of them according to their F/+ rankings, Alabama's last four teams have ranked sixth, 13th, first, and second, respectively. Only seven teams have finished with an F/+ rating better than plus-40.0 percent. Alabama has three of them. Only two have finished with an F/+ rating better than plus-50.0 percent: Alabama in each of the last two years.
Or, to put that in chart form, here's what Alabama's F/+ progression chart looks like using a scale that works for every other team in the country:
Alabama's Def. F/+ rating improved to seventh in 2008 to sixth in 2009 and fifth in 2010, and it has been a distant first in both 2011 and 2012. In fact, the 2011 defense was much, much better than any other defense in the F/+ era:
Best Def .F/+ Ratings
1. 2011 Alabama (+37.1%)
2. 2012 Alabama (+27.8%)
3. 2011 LSU (+27.8%)
4. 2010 Boise State (+25.9%)
5. 2008 USC (+25.9%)
Plus, get this: The offense has been in the Off. F/+ top five for each of the last four years.
Indeed, Nick Saban has gamed the system. To win in college football, it takes talent acquisition, talent development, and tactical prowess, probably in that order. Saban is not only college football's best recruiter, but he might also be its best developer of the talent he acquires, and while not incredibly innovative, his strategies and tactics perfectly fit the talent on hand. He is indeed playing a different game than the rest of the coaches in college football.
And despite living in an era of scholarship limitations and attempted parity, he has a chance to do something never before achieved in college football: win four AP national titles in five years.
Nebraska won three in four years from 1994-97. Miami won four in nine years from 1983-91. Alabama won three in five from 1961-65 (and will always somewhat justifiably claim to have been screwed out of a fourth in six in 1966). Notre Dame won three in four from 1946-49. But four in five? Never happened. As we prepare for a new era in college football -- the College Football Playoff that begins in 2014 might take the "mythical" out of "Mythical National Champion" -- the old era might close with an unprecedented accomplishment.
Alabama enters 2013 just as it entered (and left) 2012, as the team most well-positioned for a national title run. But here's the deal: The Tide will still need help.
2. You still need luck
I still think Quinn Sharp's field goal was good. The Oklahoma State junior lined up for a 37-yard field goal in Ames, Iowa, with 1:21 left in a tie game on the evening of November 18, 2011, and if he did miss it, it was by about a centimeter. It was ruled no good, and Oklahoma State eventually lost to Iowa State in overtime. Sure, if he made it, Iowa State would have still had about 75 seconds to tie or win the game in regulation. And sure, we could have seen some crazy butterfly effect in which, if OSU beats Iowa State, suddenly the Cowboys don't completely and totally destroy Oklahoma in Stillwater a week later. But the odds are pretty good that, if Sharp's kick is ruled good, then Alabama, which lost to LSU via its own missed field goals, doesn't go to the 2011 BCS title game.
And if Oregon's Alejandro Maldanado doesn't miss two field goals against Stanford on November 17, 2012, Alabama, with its home loss to Texas A&M, potentially doesn't go to the 2012 BCS title game either.
And hell, if Colt McCoy doesn't get hurt on Texas' opening series in the 2009 BCS title game, we've got an entirely different ballgame there, too. (Remember, Alabama-Texas was a three-point game late in the fourth quarter before the Tide erupted and put the game away.)
Alabama has been by far the best team in college football over the last four years. By far. But each of its three national titles still required luck. Titles always do; separating yourself from a field of 120 teams in just 12 to 14 games in a sport played with a pointy, moody ball demands a dose of good fortune. What was potentially the best team of all time didn't win a national title. Hell, two of the five best teams in the F/+ era (2008 USC, 2011 LSU) didn't win titles -- USC didn't even play for the title in 2008. There's a reason the four-titles-in-five-years trick hasn't been done before.
The presence of luck means that, even with Alabama possessing the most ridiculously talented team in the country, one with a lot of experience to boot, it's still smarter to bet on the field than on one team. Teams not named Alabama still have a better chance of raising the final BCS crystal ball than teams named Alabama.
But damn, are the Tide going to be good again this year.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 13-1 | Adj. Record: 14-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 1|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||vs. Michigan||41-14||W||47.7 - 16.2||W|
|8-Sep||Western Kentucky||35-0||W||36.6 - 9.0||W|
|15-Sep||at Arkansas||52-0||W||39.2 - 4.1||W|
|22-Sep||Florida Atlantic||40-7||W||38.4 - 5.3||W|
|29-Sep||Ole Miss||33-14||W||23.8 - 16.2||W|
|13-Oct||at Missouri||42-10||W||46.3 - 2.8||W|
|20-Oct||at Tennessee||44-13||W||40.0 - 15.2||W|
|27-Oct||Mississippi State||38-7||W||40.4 - 20.1||W|
|3-Nov||at LSU||21-17||W||45.8 - 21.9||W|
|10-Nov||Texas A&M||24-29||L||37.7 - 21.7||W|
|17-Nov||Western Carolina||49-0||W||38.6 - 19.9||W|
|24-Nov||Auburn||49-0||W||39.3 - 7.6||W|
|1-Dec||vs. Georgia||32-28||W||43.8 - 22.9||W|
|7-Jan||vs. Notre Dame||42-14||W||53.6 - 22.2||W|
|Points Per Game||38.7||13||10.9||1|
|Adj. Points Per Game||40.8||1||14.6||1|
3. Amazing, then only excellent
The Alabama of the first seven games of 2012 might have been Peak Alabama. Despite a young defense that had to replace quite a few stars from the untouchable 2011 unit, the Tide defense seemed as good as ever through most of October. It allowed a damn strong Michigan offense (16th in Off. F/+) just 269 yards. It allowed 137 to Arkansas, 110 to Florida Atlantic, 218 to Ole Miss, and 129 to Missouri. Yes, quarterback injuries helped -- both Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and Missouri's James Franklin were out when their teams played Alabama -- but those yardage totals are just ridiculous.
The Alabama of the second half of the season was a bit of a different team, however.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Alabama 38.9, Opponent 9.8 (plus-29.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): Alabama 42.7, Opponent 19.5 (plus-23.2)
The national scoring average was around 28 points per game in 2012, so we can see that the Alabama defense of the second half of the year was still almost nine points better than average, but it was worse. Key players got a bit banged up, and slowly but surely, opponents began to figure out how to move the ball a little bit, mostly through the air. LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and Georgia's Aaron Murray combined to complete 68 of 101 passes for 830 yards, four touchdowns and a pick; the glitches cost the Tide the A&M game and damn near cost them against LSU and Georgia, too.
Alabama's offense, improving every week, was able to overcome these lapses; and again, this was still, on average, a wonderful defense. But while greatness is hard enough, perfection is impossible to maintain.
(And yes, you can probably expect a "What were opponents doing differently late in the year?" post at some point soon at Football Study Hall.)
|Q1 Rk||6||1st Down Rk||6|
|Q2 Rk||5||2nd Down Rk||3|
|Q3 Rk||27||3rd Down Rk||6|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|A.J. McCarron||6'4, 214||Sr.||**** (5.9)||211||314||2,933||67.2%||30||3||22||6.5%||8.3|
|Blake Sims||6'0, 202||Jr.||**** (5.8)||5||10||77||50.0%||0||0||1||9.1%||5.5|
|Cooper Bateman||6'3, 215||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|T.J. Yeldon||RB||6'2, 218||So.||***** (6.1)||175||1,108||6.3||4.4||12||+20.3|
|Kenyan Drake||RB||6'1, 201||So.||**** (5.8)||42||281||6.7||5.8||5||+7.6|
|Blake Sims||QB||6'0, 202||Jr.||**** (5.8)||29||203||7.0||6.0||2||+4.7|
|AJ McCarron||QB||6'4, 214||Sr.||**** (5.9)||27||158||5.9||5.5||1||+2.6|
|Dee Hart||RB||5'9, 187||So.||***** (6.1)||21||88||4.2||1.9||0||-0.7|
|Jalston Fowler||RB||6'1, 250||Jr.||**** (5.8)||11||85||7.7||3.7||0||+2.4|
|Altee Tenpenny||RB||6'0, 212||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Tyren Jones||RB||5'9, 215||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Alvin Kamara||RB||5'10, 197||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
4. Sell out against the run, pray against the pass
It's not a coincidence that in two of Alabama's three close calls (LSU, A&M, Georgia), the Crimson Tide posted two of their three lowest rushing totals of the year. They gained just 122 yards on the ground against Texas A&M and 166 against LSU, and they underwent lengthy (for them) offensive droughts in each game. With last year's top three receivers returning, including the ridiculous Amari Cooper, the Alabama passing attack is terrifying. But in 2012, at least, the running game was even scarier.
At least the passing game was occasionally inefficient; the run game was as strong as almost any in the country. To have any chance of beating Alabama, you had to either sell out to stop the run (and allow for the possibility of getting picked apart by the pass), or you needed to take the Georgia route: dominate in special teams and gain most of your offensive yardage in about three drives.
|Amari Cooper||WR-X||6'1, 202||So.||**** (6.0)||76||58||999||76.3%||13.1||24.2%||63.2%||13.1||193.6|
|Kevin Norwood||WR-Z||6'2, 195||Sr.||**** (5.9)||42||29||461||69.0%||11.0||13.4%||81.0%||10.0||89.3|
|Christion Jones||WR-H||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||40||27||368||67.5%||9.2||12.7%||57.5%||9.2||71.3|
|Kenny Bell||WR||6'1, 180||Sr.||**** (5.8)||26||17||431||65.4%||16.6||8.3%||53.8%||16.6||83.5|
|T.J. Yeldon||RB||6'2, 218||So.||***** (6.1)||15||11||131||73.3%||8.7||4.8%||60.0%||8.7||25.4|
|DeAndrew White||WR||6'0, 190||Jr.||**** (5.9)||12||8||105||66.7%||8.8||3.8%||66.7%||8.1||20.3|
|Cyrus Jones||WR-H||5'10, 196||So.||**** (5.9)||10||5||52||50.0%||5.2||3.2%||70.0%||4.7||10.1|
|Brian Vogler||TE||6'7, 260||Jr.||**** (5.8)||4||2||21||50.0%||5.3||1.3%||75.0%||5.2||4.1|
|Harrison Jones||TE||6'4, 241||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Malcolm Faciane||TE||6'5, 267||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Chris Black||WR||5'11, 182||RSFr.||**** (6.0)|
|O.J. Howard||TE||6'6, 237||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|ArDarius Stewart||WR||6'1, 190||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Robert Foster||WR||6'3, 187||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Raheem Falkins||WR||6'4, 195||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Amari Cooper is just unfair
Amari Cooper was the No. 6 wide receiver in the 2012 freshman class according to Rivals.com. Here are the stats produced by the five players above him in 2012:
- Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: 43 targets, 27 catches, 386 yards (9.0 per target)
- Stefon Diggs, Maryland: 80 targets, 54 catches, 848 yards (10.6 per target)
- Nelson Agholor, USC: 31 targets, 19 catches, 340 yards (11.0 per target)
- Thomas Johnson, Texas A&M: 38 targets, 30 catches, 339 yards (8.9 per target)
- Cayleb Jones, Texas: 5 targets, 2 catches, 35 yards (7.0 per target)
Jones was a non-factor, and Johnson pulled a strange disappearing act, then left A&M. But the top three players on the list were perfectly acceptable for true freshmen, and in Diggs' case, considering he was the only weapon on an offense that lost its starting quarterback seemingly every week of the season (it was so bad that a backup linebacker was starting at the end of the season, and the rumor was that Diggs himself would move to QB), he was just plain awesome. But unless you give Diggs quite a few degree-of-difficulty points (which would be justified), Amari Cooper was the most productive of the bunch. Because, you know, that's what Alabama needed: an overachiever.
Cooper is just awesome. His fundamentals are fantastic, especially for such a young player, and he's got all the high-end speed one needs. And he's got a lovely corps of receivers to complement him, including last year's No. 2-5 receivers and yet another incoming class of stud freshmen. SB Nation's research and analytics intern, Chris A. Brown, followed Alabama closely this spring and came away very impressed with true freshman tight end O.J. Howard, projecting him as a potential 500-yard receiver. Because, you know, that's what Alabama needs: a stud tight end to go with its stud receivers.
|Barrett Jones||C||50 career starts; 2012 1st All-American|
|Chance Warmack||LG||40 career starts; 2012 1st All-American|
|D.J. Fluker||RT||36 career starts; 2012 2nd All-American|
|Anthony Steen||RG||6'3, 309||Sr.||*** (5.7)||25 career starts|
|Cyrus Kouandjio||LT||6'6, 310||Jr.||***** (6.1)||14 career starts|
|Kellen Williams||LT||6'3, 302||Sr.||*** (5.7)|
|Austin Shepherd||RT||6'5, 315||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Chad Lindsay||C||6'2, 302||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Ryan Kelly||C||6'5, 290||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Arie Kouandjio||LG||6'5, 315||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Issac Luatua||RG||6'2, 313||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Brandon Greene||LT||6'5, 307||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Alphonse Taylor||LG||6'5, 335||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Leon Brown||RT||6'6, 313||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Grant Hill||OL||6'6, 301||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
6. We probably shouldn't just assume the line will be amazing again
There's a chance you might be able to follow the stop-the-run script a bit easier in 2013. (Not easy, mind you, but easier.) Leading rusher Eddie Lacy is gone, as are three All-American linemen.
Yes, the new starters are potentially going to be just fine -- especially sophomore back T.J. Yeldon (hold onto the ball, T.J.) -- but the line was historically strong last year, and there's no guarantee it will be as good. Alabama has a new offensive line coach (former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal), and as strange as it sounds, Alabama hasn't recruited at quite as high a level at OL as it has in other units. Yes, former all-world recruit Cyrus Kouandjio is still in the mix, and yes, All-American Chance Warmack was, like a few of this year's probable starters, only a three-star recruit.
Still, if you're looking for cracks in Alabama's armor, it is at least feasible that the offensive line will be a little bit glitchy after its near-perfection last year. Lacy and Yeldon were almost never touched in the backfield and didn't have to make their first move until past the line of scrimmage. Those are luxuries Yeldon and company won't always have this time around.
T.J. Yeldon. Matthew Emmons, USA Today.
|Q1 Rk||1||1st Down Rk||1|
|Q2 Rk||1||2nd Down Rk||12|
|Q3 Rk||6||3rd Down Rk||2|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ed Stinson||DE||6'4, 292||Sr.||**** (5.8)||14||25.0||3.7%||8.5||3||0||0||0||0|
|Jeoffrey Pagan||DE||6'4, 290||Jr.||**** (6.0)||14||16.5||2.5%||4||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Brandon Ivory||NG||6'4, 310||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||14.5||2.2%||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|LaMichael Fanning||DE||6'7, 270||So.||**** (5.8)||8||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darren Lake||NG||6'3, 324||So.||*** (5.6)||8||2.0||0.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wilson Love||NG||6'3, 286||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Dalvin Tomlinson||DE||6'2, 287||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Korren Kirven||DE||6'5, 281||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jonathan Allen||DE||6'3, 263||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|A'Shawn Robinson||NG||6'4, 320||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Dee Liner||DE||6'3, 281||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Tim Williams||DE||6'3, 235||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Darius Paige||NG||6'4, 314||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|C.J. Mosley||WILL||6'2, 232||Sr.||**** (5.9)||14||86.5||12.9%||8||4||2||2||1||1|
|Trey Depriest||MIKE||6'2, 245||So.||**** (5.8)||14||44.5||6.6%||4||0||0||2||0||0|
|Adrian Hubbard||SAM||6'6, 252||Jr.||**** (5.8)||14||32.5||4.8%||11||7||0||1||3||0|
|Xzavier Dickson||JACK||6'3, 265||Jr.||**** (5.9)||14||22.5||3.3%||5||3.5||0||1||0||1|
|Denzel Devall||JACK||6'2, 250||So.||**** (5.8)||14||12.5||1.9%||3||2||0||0||0||1|
|Tana Patrick||WILL||6'3, 238||Sr.||**** (6.0)||14||11.0||1.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Reggie Ragland||MIKE||6'2, 259||So.||**** (6.0)||11||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Dillon Lee||LB||6'4, 242||So.||**** (5.9)||8||1.0||0.1%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Ryan Anderson||SAM||6'2, 255||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Reuben Foster||LB||6'1, 244||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
7. I'll say it again:
When you need only a couple out of a large handful of star freshmen to thrive, odds are on your side. Alabama's defensive line got thinned out pretty well by graduation; the defense suffered a bit when nose guard Jesse Williams was banged up, and now he and three others among last year's top seven linemen are gone. When you throw in the loss of weakside linebacker Nico Johnson, you see a front seven in need of at least a little replenishing.
You also see a front seven that welcomes nine four- and five-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen into the potential mix. The depth at tackle is still a little bit questionable, but I can't even pretend to worry about this front seven, especially not with Ed Stinson, C.J. Mosley, Trey Depriest, Adrian Hubbard, and Xzavier Dickson returning.
(Side note: It really feels like Mosley's been there about 11 years, doesn't it?)
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Vinnie Sunseri||S||6'0, 210||Jr.||*** (5.6)||14||44.5||6.6%||6||1.5||2||3||0||2|
|Deion Belue||CB||5'11, 183||Sr.||*** (5.6)||14||34.0||5.1%||6.5||0||2||7||1||1|
|Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix||S||6'1, 208||Jr.||***** (6.1)||14||30.0||4.5%||0.5||0||5||4||1||0|
|Nick Perry||S||6'1, 212||Sr.||**** (5.8)||14||28.0||4.2%||2||1||0||2||0||1|
|John Fulton||CB||6'0, 186||Sr.||**** (5.9)||12||13.5||2.0%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Landon Collins||S||6'0, 215||So.||***** (6.1)||14||12.5||1.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Geno Smith||CB||6'0, 186||So.||**** (5.9)||13||6.5||1.0%||0.5||0||0||2||0||0|
|Bradley Sylve||DB||5'11, 180||So.||**** (5.8)||12||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jabriel Washington||DB||5'11, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||8||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Maurice Smith||DB||6'0, 180||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
8. One pressure point
I will say this, however: Cornerback is a bit of a concern. The front seven is so consistently strong at leveraging plays toward the middle of the field and gang-tackling. It is ridiculously difficult to run the ball on the Tide, and with the speed of their linebackers, they swallow whole most short passes, too.
But this system puts a lot of trust in its corners and isolates them downfield quite often. Plus, while Kirby Smart's blitzes are consistently well-timed, the standard four-man pass rush is typically only good, not great. (As Chris A. Brown put it, there isn't a "passionate pass-rusher" up front this year, just as there really hasn't been in previous years. That's not really how the system is designed.) So there's a chance that, at times, quarterbacks will have some time to look downfield.
And when they do, will a corner unit of Deion Belue (the new No. 1, taking over for Dee Milliner, one of the best play-making corners in the country last year) and either Geno Smith, John Fulton, or a newbie be able to handle what are some pretty strong No. 2 receivers in the SEC (LSU's Odell Beckham, et al)? And against more spread-out attacks like A&M's or Ole Miss', will the defensive backfield be deep enough with strong cover men?
|Cody Mandell||6'4, 213||Sr.||50||44.3||6||13||19||64.0%|
|Cade Foster||6'1, 224||Sr.||99||63.5||46||46.5%|
|Cade Foster||6'1, 224||Sr.||0-0||0-0||N/a||4-9||44.4%|
|Cyrus Jones||KR||5'10, 196||So.||10||25.0||0|
|Christion Jones||KR||5'11, 185||Jr.||8||26.6||1|
|Christion Jones||PR||5'11, 185||Jr.||21||10.1||0|
|Cyrus Jones||PR||5'10, 196||So.||8||7.6||0|
|Special Teams F/+||28|
|Field Goal Pct||45|
|Kick Returns Avg||23|
|Punt Returns Avg||46|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|31-Aug||vs. Virginia Tech||23|
|14-Sep||at Texas A&M||13|
|16-Nov||at Mississippi State||51|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||1|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||1|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+14 / +13.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (6, 6)|
9. I mean … are you going to pick against them?
Alabama will need some luck again, I'm sure, to reel in a fourth title in five years. And the Tide will certainly have to prove themselves all over again at offensive line and cornerback. And at kicker, too, for that matter. And yes, if you're betting on Alabama versus the field, the smarter bet is probably on the field.
That said, are you really going to pick against the Tide? If they make the BCS title game again (and really, that's the toughest part), do you really think that, as things stand on paper in early June, Ohio State is a good bet to take down the Tide? Oregon with its new head coach? Stanford? Notre Dame? Louisville?
Our contrarian urges make us want to pick somebody different. But at this stage, before random injuries and bounces of a pointy-ball effect, Alabama is an easy No. 1, one of the easiest No. 1s I can remember.
10. SEC balance of power
This marks the end of our SEC previews. As has been done for each conference, let's wrap things up with a look at how I perceive the conference's balance of power at this point in the offseason:
3. Texas A&M
5. South Carolina
7. Ole Miss
10. Mississippi State