2011 Season Preview: Wins, Losses And The Alabama Crimson Tide

With a strong track record and even stronger recruiting, Alabama gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Football Outsiders' projections. Will the No. 1 Crimson Tide see as seamless a transition at skill positions as we assume? Will the pass rush improve? Will 'Bama avoid the momentary glitches that made their 2010 season more successful on paper than on the field?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. The following preview was found, in altered form, in this year's Maple Street Press Crimson Tide Kickoff.

In sports, wins matter. Obviously. But it easy to say that wins matter more in college football than in any other sport. In baseball, the best teams ever win 68 to 70 percent of their games. The '96-'97 Chicago Bulls won just 88 percent. It's been 35 years since the last undefeated college basketball team won the title, 38 since the 1972 Miami Dolphins did the same. But in college football, teams go undefeated almost every year. Sure, you occasionally get downright silly seasons like 2007, when a two-loss LSU team won the national title, but in a given year, wins -- pure, unadulterated wins of any form -- win trophies, get coaches ridiculous contract extensions, and, of course, get coaches fired.

Needless to say, then, Football Outsiders got quite a bit of negative feedback when, heading into bowl season, we had 9-3, 16th-ranked Alabama fourth in our F/+ rankings ... and undefeated, second-ranked Oregon 11th.

When evaluating the true quality of a football team, how much should wins matter? Your answer to this question completely impacts your view of the 2010 Alabama Crimson Tide. From the perspective of advanced stats, 'Bama was sensational, posting a +29.2% F/+ rating that really wasn't that far below their +36.2% rating of the previous season. Did they take a step backwards in 2010? Of course. This past fall, they fielded only the 13th-best team of the last six seasons; their 2009 team was third-best. But they did lose three times -- at home to F/+ No. 1 Auburn and on the road against No. 11 South Carolina and No. 13 LSU.

Just about any team would have lost at least three times against the schedule Alabama faced ... but they did, in fact, lose. Three times. Therefore something must have been wrong, right? It's hard for some to get past that, and it's perhaps especially hard for 'Bama fans who a) have seen their team win bigger than any other program in this win-based sport, and b) had to watch their bitter rivals walking off with the national title. For them, 2010 was a frustrating experience. But with the bones of this program built as sturdy as any in the country, this type of "frustration" is both unlikely to continue and yearned for by most of the country.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk**: 3
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep San Jose State 48-3 W 42.1 - 2.4 W
11-Sep Penn State 24-3 W 39.2 - 20.2 W
18-Sep Duke 62-13 W 54.1 - 15.8 W
25-Sep Arkansas 24-20 W 40.4 - 25.3 W
2-Oct Florida 31-6 W 36.8 - 19.8 W
9-Oct South Carolina 21-35 L 32.6 - 33.2 L
16-Oct Ole Miss 23-10 W 22.6 - 2.7 W
23-Oct Tennessee 41-10 W 44.1 - 19.3 W
6-Nov LSU 21-24 L 33.1 - 26.1 W
13-Nov Mississippi State 30-10 W 38.6 - 14.3 W
18-Nov Georgia State 63-7 W 36.5 - 9.8 W
26-Nov Auburn 27-28 L 29.4 - 18.8 W
1-Jan Michigan State 49-7 W 55.6 - (-4.8) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 35.7 18 13.5 3
Adj. Points Per Game 38.8 5 15.6 4

I don't make a habit out of quoting Lou Holtz. In fact, I go out of my way not to listen to a word Holtz is saying. But, credit where it's due: one of his go-to truisms is dead-on; you really do coach a different team every single week in college football. A measure like Adj. Score backs this up quite a bit. Technically, if you played at the exact same level every single week, your Adj. Score would be virtually the same. But that clearly doesn't happen, at least not for most teams.

Whereas Alabama's bowl performance against Michigan State was the second-best performance of any team all season in terms of Adj. Score (the only one better: TCU's pantsing of Utah), and while their shellackings of Duke and San Jose State were not far behind, they did have their moments of inconsistency. Their great individual-game performances were good enough to lead them to third place in the season's final F/+ rankings, but their lapses did indeed hold them back. In 2009, Alabama never allowed more than 24.0 Adj. Points in any single game; in 2010, they did so three times, twice in losses.

In all, however, Nick Saban proved in 2010 that over the course of a season, turnover in personnel may not matter much when the coaching is strong and the talent is ridiculous. And as would be expected from a young team, the Tide improved as the season unfolded.

First Six Games: Alabama 40.9 Adj. PPG, Opponents 19.5 (+21.4)
First Seven Games: Alabama 37.1, Opponents 12.3 (+24.8)

Instead, turnover and youth only randomly backfire on you, likely at an inopportune time. And when you are playing in the SEC, you will face plenty of inopportune times, even the slightest step backwards can cost you positioning on the totem pole. Inexperience can matter in random series of moments, but as whole you can survive changes in on-field personnel when your recruiting and development are this good.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 3 5 4
RUSHING 3 5 4 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 4 5 6 9
Standard Downs 4 4 5 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 6 18 4 93
Redzone 41 31 51
Q1 Rk 5 1st Down Rk 1
Q2 Rk 2 2nd Down Rk 7
Q3 Rk 2 3rd Down Rk 8
Q4 Rk 74

The Alabama offense has steadily improved in each season that Nick Saban has been aboard. The Tide ranked just 58th in Off. S&P+ in 2007 but improved to eighth in 2008, seventh in 2009 and third in 2010. Obviously this coincides rather perfectly with the upgrade in talent (amazing how that works). To the extent that Alabama had issues in 2010, it certainly didn't come on the offensive side of the ball.

In terms of general play-calling, Alabama played things rather straight. They ran as frequently as the national average on standard downs, though they were comfortable enough with their receivers that they passed a bit more than the national average on passing downs. They played at an extremely slow, bruising pace, perhaps to do favors to an inexperienced defense. When you have a significant per-play advantage like Alabama did in 2010, however, higher pace can be used to maximize that advantage.

Stats suggest that, with low(ish) efficiency and high explosiveness, Alabama took a lot of chances on passing downs. And really, with their personnel, that would make sense. But eyeballs disagree.

It seemed the Tide were more than happy to throw to a particular weapon well shy of the first down mark, hoping that they would be able to create a big play on their own. And it worked just enough to keep doing it. They had no trouble dumping off to backs (of their 72 passing downs completions while the game was "close," 16 went to either Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram), but they did take shots with their receivers too. Julio Jones caught 21 passes for an average of 14.1 yards on passing downs while the game was "close," Marquis Maze caught 15 for an average of 11.4, and Darius Hanks caught nine for an average of 16.3. It often worked, but it was still rather inefficient, and that slight inefficiency was just about the only thing resembling a weakness for this offense (along with the puzzling lack of success in the red zone; the Tide certainly passed quite a bit near the goal line considering the abundance of backfield talent).

The skill position lineup will experience a decent amount of turnover next year without quarterback Greg McElroy (2,987 yards, 9.5 per pass, 71% completion rate, 20 TD, 5 INT), Jones (1,133 yards, 14.5 per catch, 72% catch rate, 7 TD), 2009 Heisman winner Ingram (875 rushing yards, 282 receiving yards, +8.3 Adj. POE, 14 TD) and H-Back Preston Dial (264 receiving yards, three touchdowns). It will be interesting to see if that results in the same supposed conservatism, or if Alabama actually ends up taking more chances. Lord knows there is still plenty of talent in the receiving corps. Maze (557 yards, 14.7 per catch, 73% catch rate) has been an awesome complement to Jones for a while now, Hanks (443 yards, 13.8 per catch, 64% catch rate) is a solid possession receiver, and by my count, Alabama has signed five or six blue-chip receivers in the last two recruiting classes. The weapons may be unproven, but there are options aplenty if the staff (including everybody's favorite strength and conditioning coach) can push the right buttons.

Other tidbits:

  • Passing downs might be uncertain, but Alabama certainly has the pieces with which they can continue to succeed on standard downs. It is difficult to expect much of a dropoff at the running back position when Richardson (700 rushing yards, 266 receiving yards, +6.7 Adj. POE, 10 TD) takes some of Ingram's carries and Eddie Lacey (406 rushing yards, 7.2/carry, +7.2 Adj. POE) and former blue-chipper Jalston Fowler takes some of Richardson's. Ingram's footwork was fabulous, and he was as efficient a runner as one could imagine, but Richardson is explosive, dangerous, and brutally strong. Entering his third season, he should be ready to put up some semi-ridiculous numbers unless too many other back are stealing his touches the way he stole Ingram's. And he will be running behind a line that returns six players with starting experience (80 career starts); guard Barrett Jones is an All-American candidate, and center William Vlachos is a third-year starter.
  • Who's starting at quarterback? Your guess is as good as anybody else's. Nick Saban is keeping things incredibly quiet, but it appears that both candidates -- sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims -- have loads of potential. I was particularly impressed with the maturity Sims showed in 'Bama's spring game, but I go out of my way not to draw conclusions from spring games. Still, this battle appears oddly quiet considering we're talking about the quarterback position on one of the two best teams in the country.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 7 8 8
RUSHING 11 17 9 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 7 8 10 22
Standard Downs 4 4 10 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 3 18 2 64
Redzone 1 1 1
Q1 Rk 8 1st Down Rk 4
Q2 Rk 8 2nd Down Rk 4
Q3 Rk 13 3rd Down Rk 6
Q4 Rk 4

In football, as in life, it's all relative. Most fanbases -- approximately 115 of them -- would have loved to have Alabama's defense in 2010. They both attacked ferociously and prevented big plays. They were the best in the country in the red zone. They were fabulous on first, second and third downs. They got better (for the most part) in the fourth quarter. Despite a heavy amount of inexperience, they were great. And they also potentially cost Alabama a shot at a second straight national title.

In the end, to the extent that the Alabama defense had issues, it came in the form of their inability to stem bad momentum. Arkansas scored 17 points and averaged 8.9 yards per play in the first half against the Tide before the well dried up. South Carolina started their game by scoring three touchdowns in three drives and averaging 9.9 yards per play. After a woefully ineffective first half, LSU caught fire, scoring 18 points and averaging 9.9 yards per play in their first four drives of the second half. And in the third quarter, Auburn scored 21 points in four drives, averaging 9.0 yards per play. Even the best defenses allow successful drives. Alabama's problem, inasmuch as they had one, was that they allowed momentum to carry over into multiple drives in key moments. The good news: they can pin a lot of this on youth. They have plenty of reason to believe they won't have the same trouble next fall.

Gone are defensive ends Marcell Dareus (27.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) and Luther Davis (16.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU), linebacker Chavis Williams (7.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks) ... aaaaaaand that's about it. Everybody else who mattered, returns, including the entire secondary. You will struggle to find a more intimidating set of cornerbacks in the country than Dre Kirkpatrick (46.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 7 PBU) and Dee Milliner (48.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU as a freshman). With a quintessential strong safety in Mark Barron (64.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 6 PBU) and a linebacking corps that was great in pass coverage (C.J. Mosley had 10 PBU as a freshman), 'Bama was able to attack from every direction, including cornerback. Kirkpatrick and Milliner are fabulous athletes who get to utilize their entire skill set in this defense.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker Courtney Upshaw (42.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 2 PBU) was the primary attacker in Alabama's 3-4, and he was outstanding. Along with weakside assassin Dont'a Hightower (49.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and middle linebacker Mosley (48.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 10 PBU), the Tide will have one of the best sets of linebackers in the country.
  • If you've been paying attention, however, you've probably noticed something by now: the corners were great at attacking, and Upshaw was fabulous, and yet Alabama ranked only 64th in Adj. Sack Rate. That raises questions about the defensive line, especially with the departure of Dareus. Damion Square (23.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) is the only proven returnee on new line coach Chris Rumph's first unit, so I expect an interesting competition for playing time there. Giant junior college transfers Quinton Dial (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and Jesse Williams (6-foot-4, 320) are expected to make an immediate impact at end, alongside sophomore Ed Stinson (11.0 tackles). Meanwhile, the tackle unit likely needs to improve, too. Josh Chapman (24.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) was solid if unspectacular in the Mount Cody role; he'll get pushed by converted end Nick Gentry (9.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks).

Alabama's 2010 Season Set to Music

The entire Tupelo Honey album from Van Morrison. I mean, it was really, really good -- occasionally beautiful -- but it was no Moondance, if you get what I'm saying.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 4
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 1
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +11 / +16.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (6, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -8.7

Let's see ... top five in four-year F/+ ... check. Ridiculous recruiting ... check. A seemingly sustainable turnover margin (unless the winner of the quarterbacks derby does a nice Jarrett Lee impersonation) that wasn't bolstered by a ton of lucky bounces on fumbles ... check. A healthy number of overall starters returning ... check. Is it any wonder that Alabama is the No. 1 team according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections?

The Yards Per Point margin is a bit alarming -- thanks to great red zone defense, they were much more efficient on offense than their opponents were (even though they weren't as good as one would have expected in the red zone themselves) -- and the schedule, of course, is a doozy; but the vast majority of our projection factors point to good things in 2011. This despite losing a Heisman winner, an All-American receiver, a stud defensive end, and a quarterback who lost three starts in his combined high school and college career. These losses are just part of the "college cycle," of course, when you recruit like Nick Saban does. Hug your All-Americans on the way out of the door, and welcome the new set.

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! Download your copy now; paper copies are due later this week.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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