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Alabama is again the best, despite a crazy season in a new era

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We got visions of non-traditional powers making runs. Now it's looking like three of the four Playoff teams are going to be exactly who we predicted, with the best team the same as most of the previous five years.

Somewhere around October and November each year, we decide that this college football season is abnormally silly and ridiculous. That's because, outside of your top-tier elite teams, anybody can lose to anybody. And a couple of elite teams fall victim to what-the-hell-was-that performances.

Abnormal is actually normal. Such is the beautiful nature of college football: you can dot every "i" and cross every "t," and you're still going to be relying on 18- to 22-year-old males doing what they've been asked to do. As a retired five-year veteran of being an 18- to 22-year-old male, I can say that this is impossible.

The reason the 2014 season has felt sillier than most is because the top tier has been more infected than normal by the sport's random silliness. Or there just hasn't been a top tier. Last week, odds suggested that the only two remaining major-conference undefeateds, Mississippi State and Florida State, might both lose in Week 12*. If that had happened, it would have taken us to a level of win-loss parity that we hadn't seen since either 1990 or 1984.

* Of course, odds were more in favor of the two going 1-1. Alabama had a 68 percent chance of beating Mississippi State, and Miami had a 61 percent chance of beating Florida State, but that meant that there was only a 41 percent chance that both Alabama and Miami would win and a 50 percent chance that one would.

So yes, this season has actually been wild. Ohio State and Duke are 17-1 against teams not named Virginia Tech, but both lost at home to the Hokies, who lost at home to East Carolina, Miami, and Boston College. Georgia got stomped by Florida, which got stomped by Missouri, which got stomped by Georgia; Georgia also just stomped Auburn, which lost to Texas A&M, which lost to Missouri.

But amid the chaos, two things make this season seem downright redundant: Florida State is still undefeated, and Alabama might be the best team.

Sure, there are some non-traditional teams threatening to gum up the works. TCU survived an awful performance at Kansas, Baylor should be right next to TCU in Tuesday's Playoff rankings, Mississippi State isn't going to fall far after losing at Alabama, and some old-schoolers might call Oregon a non-traditional power. Still, while there may not be a truly dominant team, and while Alabama may not meet its 2011 and 2012 standards, the Tide are either at or near the top of the pack.

Why they are so good

Defense (of course)

Before Saturday, when asked about Dak Prescott as a Heisman contender, I would always say the biggest check against Prescott was Josh Robinson. (Well, the interceptions, too.) The sophomore bowling ball has made Prescott's job awfully easy at times; against LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, and Kentucky, Robinson rushed 75 times for 599 yards and seven touchdowns. If Prescott was the first reason why MSU was able to reach No. 1, Robinson was the second.

On Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Robinson rushed 12 times for 37 yards. On his first carry, he tried to reverse field and got caught by Trey DePriest and Dalvin Tomlinson for a safety, and it only got slightly better after that. His success rate for the day: 25 percent.

Alabama both shut down Robinson and became the new answer to "Why won't Prescott win the Heisman?" Prescott was able to do well after a slow start (first quarter: 3-for-7 for 12 yards; next three quarters: 24-for-41, 278 yards), but he still completed just 56 percent of his passes, and when the Bulldogs were able to craft scoring opportunities, Alabama baited him into mistakes. He threw interceptions from the Bama 15, 20, and 40.

For the season, the Bama defense has been ... the Bama defense. The Tide are second in Def. F/+, just decimal points behind Clemson (which has gotten an artificial bump because it shut down Florida State without Jameis Winston). They are first in Rushing S&P+, first in Standard Downs S&P+, and fourth in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of the successful plays you allow. The pass rush is still only average (70th in Adj. Sack Rate), but it's much better than last season, and the secondary is more solid as well.

Alabama fell to seventh in Def. F/+ in 2013 -- relatively speaking, a calamitous collapse after ranking first in the previous two seasons -- but has shored up weaknesses and is looking an awful lot like Alabama. Nobody had held Mississippi State below 5.9 yards per play; Alabama held the Bulldogs to 4.9.

The offense doesn't actually stink on the road

We hold Alabama to a different standard. The Tide must not only be better than other teams in the current season, they must also match the level of previous Alabama teams.

This is not entirely unfair. But the only way we can come up with an "Alabama stinks on the road" meme -- something CBS' Gary Danielson mentioned constantly Saturday, and something that has been brought up plenty of times by others -- is by comparing the Tide not to a normal offense, but to a perfect one.

Alabama has played eight power-conference teams. The Tide have averaged 6.5 yards per play against defenses that otherwise allow about 5.1. In four road games, they have averaged 5.3 yards per play against defenses that otherwise allow about 5.0. That's not nearly as stark a difference as their home splits, but playing better at home is not the same thing as playing badly on the road. Most teams play better at home.

Against Arkansas, the Tide averaged 4.3 yards per play against a team that has otherwise allowed 5.6. That was the one stink-bomb performance of the year. The offense was average against LSU, above average against a great Ole Miss defense, and spectacular against a Tennessee defense that ranks 19th in Def. F/+.

Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency

Despite the Arkansas performance, and despite decent performances in each of the last two weeks, Alabama ranks fourth in Off. F/+. Part of that is because the great offensive games have been incendiary (Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee) and part is because of the emphasis on efficiency in the formulas.

The Tide avoid passing downs as well as any team in the country (first in Standard Downs S&P+) and remain efficient in the red zone (eighth in red zone success rate). Field goal kicking remains an issue -- the Tide are just 8-for-11 on field goals under 40 yards and rank 88th in Field Goal Efficiency -- but that's a product of awful special teams and isn't necessarily the fault of the offense, other than the fact that they're settling for field goals at all.

Why they aren't as good as other Bama teams

Special teams

It's been all or nothing for Alabama in the special teams department. In Special Teams F/+, the Tide ranked first in 2013, fifth in 2010, and 28th in 2012. They also ranked 72nd in 2011 and hold the No. 95 spot in 2014. They are 77th in kickoff efficiency, 88th in field goal efficiency, 100th in kick return efficiency, and 119th in punt return efficiency. That's horrendous. Place-kicking is again an issue, and Christion Jones hasn't been the same dynamic force in the return game.

They still do the punting thing well, but despite extreme efficiency on offense and defense, they rank 38th in field position margin and 44th in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40), and a lot of that has to do with special teams. It is an anchor.

A lack of big plays

I think Blake Sims has been too maligned. As Sims proved on Saturday, he not only has a pretty accurate arm, he has the ability to scramble for first downs when the situation requires it. He did it in key moments against LSU and Mississippi State, and it gives the Tide another efficiency tool.

The problem is that while efficiency is the most important thing, it's not the only thing. Big plays are shortcuts, ways to score points without executing for 10 straight plays, and Alabama has been bereft of big plays. I mentioned this in last week's Alabama-MSU preview.

Still, Alabama runs the ball a lot. And the Tide do it well, too. But if they want a big play, they have to take to the air. Yeldon and Henry are good at gaining five yards, but they don't gain 20 very often. That means longer drives, and that means eventually having to ask Blake Sims to make passes.

Outside of Amari Cooper, the passing game hasn't been an explosiveness wellspring. Cooper is averaging 15 yards per catch, but the only three others with at least 11 catches (DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, T.J. Yeldon) combine to average just 11.7 per catch. Cooper is an incredible player, but LSU, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State proved that elite defenses can hinder his explosiveness and that Alabama doesn't have a Plan B in the big-play department.

Again, saying "elite defenses can slow this offense down" isn't a crippling indictment. But we do hold Bama to a different standard.

Third-and-long leaks

While Alabama is easily the best team in the country on standard downs -- first down, second-and-medium, third-and-short -- the Tide do spring leaks on passing downs. They are first in Standard Downs S&P+ on both offense and defense, but they're 14th in Passing Downs S&P+ on offense and 17th on defense. That's very good, but it's not best-in-the-country good.

I always think of passing downs as play-maker downs, and if you think about who Alabama might be playing in the playoff, this weakness could mean something. Ohio State's offense is No. 1 in Passing Downs S&P+, Oregon is fourth, and Florida State is ninth. J.T. Barrett, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston are three of the best QBs in the country, and if any of them can extend drives because of Bama's iffy pass rush, they can put pressure on the Tide to score points in key situations.

(Of course, none of those three teams has an elite defense, so Alabama will probably be able to score points in key situations.)

The path ahead

The title race has a bye week in Week 13, and Alabama plays its role by hosting Western Carolina.

The Tide then host a suddenly reeling Auburn. Assuming a win, the Tide will get either Georgia or Missouri in the SEC title. Georgia has proven itself capable of top-five-caliber performances and won't automatically be an easy out, but as with Florida State and Oregon, it will take a big upset to keep Alabama from the Playoff.

And if computer rankings are any indication, the Tide will be the most likely winners of said Playoff.