Alabama Vs. Auburn: Crimson Tide Needs Another New Weapon Or Two

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: Marquis Maze #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide pulls in this reception against Prentiss Waggner #23 and Brian Randolph #37 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Alabama will continue to be handcuffed offensively against both Auburn and, potentially, LSU in the BCS Championship game, if A.J. McCarron cannot grow to trust a few more weapons on passing downs.

For the last two years, the winner of the national title has held off a tough upset bid on the road in the Iron Bowl before going on to take home the crystal football. Alabama looks to make it three straight years as they take on Auburn this afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Tide have lucked into a great situation: since they lost to LSU, they don't have to beat Georgia next week in the SEC Championship to make the national title game -- all they have to do is beat Auburn. But the Tigers gave them all they could handle two years ago, and with the twists and turns this rivalry has taken in recent years, an Auburn upset would fit the script nicely. Still, Alabama is by far the superior team.

The numbers confirm what Alabama fans probably already know: Alabama has not been quite as sharp in recent weeks as they were through the first couple of months of the season. And the culprit for much of the fade (this past week aside) is the offense.

(For more on Adj. Pts, start here.)

To be sure, the 'Bama offense has still been better than average throughout the year, but it certainly isn't clicking at the same level as it did early. This is odd: with quarterback A.J. McCarron getting sea legs, one would figure the offense would improve as the year progressed.

For the most part, the dropoff has come in the area of explosiveness. Alabama's efficiency numbers have held steady, but they have been forced to grind out more scoring drives in the absence of big plays. They haven't sprung Trent Richardson for many long runs as of late, and they have been getting away with the bare minimum on passing downs.

Fortunately for the Tide, Auburn still probably cannot match up well with a faded 'Bama offense. They have not shown that they can slow down an efficient attack (Auburn ranks 110th in Standard Downs Success Rate+), and they are more than happy to give up some big plays on passing downs (83rd in Passing Downs PPP+). Auburn ranks 79th in overall Def. F/+, 76th against the run and 75th against the pass, and they earned most of those ratings before cornerback T'Sharvan Bell went down with a season-ending knee injury. (He has been replaced in the starting lineup by a freshman, Jonathon Mincy.)

This game should offer Alabama a nice opportunity to spread its wings a bit on passing downs, or at least get a bit more creative. It has been pretty obvious where McCarron has wanted to go with the ball in must-pass situations.

Alabama Receiving Corps On Passing Downs
Offense Player Targets Catches Yards Catch
Yds Per
Alabama Marquis Maze 35 19 283 54.3% 8.1 34.0%
Alabama Darius Hanks 13 7 94 53.8% 7.2 12.6%
Alabama Trent Richardson 12 10 82 83.3% 6.8 11.7%
Alabama Brad Smelley 11 7 97 63.6% 8.8 10.7%
Alabama Kenny Bell 9 6 66 66.7% 7.3 8.7%
Alabama DeAndrew White 8 4 67 50.0% 8.4 7.8%
Alabama Brandon Gibson 4 3 38 75.0% 9.5 3.9%
Alabama Eddie Lacy 4 3 62 75.0% 15.5 3.9%
Alabama Michael Williams 3 1 24 33.3% 8.0 2.9%
Alabama Kevin Norwood 2 1 7 50.0% 3.5 1.9%
Alabama Blake Sims 1 1 10 100.0% 10.0 1.0%
Alabama Christion Jones 1 1 8 100.0% 8.0 1.0%

McCarron has targeted Marquis Maze on passing downs almost as frequently as his next three targets combined. For 'Bama to succeed against both Auburn and, in theory, LSU in January, different targets must emerge. It's not too late for McCarron to develop trust in other weapons ... but it's getting close.

Maze has been far and away the No. 1 option for McCarron in both standard and passing downs, and while he hasn't been bad by any means, he has merely produced at the rate of an average No. 1. The same goes for most of Alabama's wideouts. Trent Richardson has provided solid value in the passing games (more on standard downs than passing downs), and tight end Brad Smelley has been a quality, if underused, option, but Maze, Hanks, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Brandon Gibson have failed to earn many opportunities. Overall, only Richardson and Bell have averaged over nine yards per target; a unit full of one-time blue chippers has failed to produce any serious deep threats.

Alabama might get by with this against a young, banged-up Auburn secondary, but it isn't a guarantee; if this game is closer than anticipated (and recent history shows that it very well might be), the lack of diversity in the passing game could be the major reason why. Auburn still has interesting talent in the front seven -- linebackers Eltoro Freeman and Daren Bates have combined for 15.5 tackles for loss, and sophomore end Corey Lemonier has racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries -- and if Alabama can't provide enough distraction through the air, Auburn could slow down Richardson a lot better than the numbers might suggest. Granted, Auburn will still need to move the ball to win (and to say the least, they have their own issues at receiver), but they could at the very least turn this into a battle of field position and special teams.

And if Alabama were fantastic in those situations, the Tide might have beaten LSU.

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