This might be the scariest-looking Nick Saban team we’ve seen yet. The Tide’s schedule isn’t exactly a gauntlet, but regardless, they’re the only team in FBS yet to be challenged.
The Tide have yet to face a team that could come within even 20 points or force QB Tua Tagovailoa to remain on the field for the duration. Alabama is lighting teams up with an average margin of victory of 38 points.
Saban’s pivot to a spread offense happened quite a few years ago now. The 2014 team was coordinated by Lane Kiffin and started to include shotgun spread formations, aggressive RPOs, QB option, and all your typical spread flavors with Blake Sims at QB. From then, their offense has been a different animal than the past under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, but consistent in production. At least until so far this season ...
Alabama offense in the 2010s
|Year||Offensive S&P+||PPG||Quarterback||Passing production|
|Year||Offensive S&P+||PPG||Quarterback||Passing production|
|2010||4th||35.7||Greg McElroy||2987 yards, 20-5 TD/INT|
|2011||3rd||34.8||A.J. McCarron||2634 yards, 16-5 TD/INT|
|2012||4th||38.7||A.J. McCarron||2933 yards, 30-3 TD/INT|
|2013||10th||38.2||A.J. McCarron||3063 yards, 28-7 TD/INT|
|2014||7th||36.9||Blake Sims||3487 yards, 28-10 TD/INT|
|2015||24th||35.1||Jake Coker||3110 yards, 21-8 TD/INT|
|2016||9th||38.8||Jalen Hurts||2780 yards, 23-9 TD/INT|
|2017||23rd||37.1||Jalen Hurts||2081 yards, 17-1 TD/INT|
|2018||2nd||54.1||Tua Tagovailoa||2066 yards, 25-0 TD/INT|
This is something new, an extra big can of whoop ass, with a margin of victory approximating their PPG totals in previous seasons.
Now we’re about to see this offense under a microscope as the schedule toughens.
The obvious difference is the massive production of the QB.
Tagovailoa is far and away the best spread QB that Alabama has had, with the ability to hit both the quick game and the vertical spread concepts, attacking the entire field with precision. That’s led to the Tide making the most of their usual absurd cast of talent at WR and RB.
This Alabama has a few main personnel packages that they like, and perhaps their two-TE set is the most lethal. Hale Hentges is a useful blocker who can run credible routes and has reliable hands, while Irv Smith Jr. is an explosive target that teams need to account for whenever possible:
What makes this particularly rough is that Alabama is still a good running team, particularly on stretch plays that make the most of a dominant center (Ross Pierschbacher) and exceptionally athletic unit.
The Tide have a diverse run game with most of the modern spread staples like tight zone, iso, and GT counter and they’ll also add fun window dressing like WR sweeps, but when they get their big boys moving laterally on reach blocks or pulls, they really become a nightmare.
In recent years, the Tide would often lock in on one primary receiver. This year’s absurdly athletic WR corps has four players with 20 or more catches and 400 or more receiving yards, with Smith nearly in that club as well. They include Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III, and Jaylen Waddle. Jeudy is the both the top target and the biggest at 6’1, 192. They’re all smaller, faster guys at their best in the play-action game, running double moves and vertical route combos down the field.
There’s a lot going on in this play. Alabama has soft play action to help hold the LBs, a sucker screen at the bottom with Hentges showing a block before racing down the sideline on a wheel route, and short motion before Ruggs runs a switch dig-post combo with Jeudy. Tagovailoa has a lot of time and a clean pocket from which to scan through all of this. Their OL’s athleticism tends to show in pass protection as often as it does in their run game.
So there’s speed everywhere, size and athleticism up front, a potent run game, spread spacing, targets who can score from anywhere on the field, and play-action and RPOs to make defenses try to account for all of it at the same time. Beyond all that, when they get into a pinch, Tagovailoa can scramble for time or yardage and even execute a QB run game.
For almost any defense, it’s simply all too much, too overpowering, with Tagovailoa the maestro in the middle.
How would you even try to stop this?
You can’t devote numbers to stop both this run game AND this pass game. If you play the run short-manned, you’re going to get run over, and perhaps not even methodically, as you’ll note in the big Damien Harris run clipped above. If you load up to stop the run, you have to deal with Tua throwing strikes all over the field, which is arguably even worse.
If you can’t play something honestly, mano a mano, then you don’t have a chance. You need to out-talent the Tide somewhere so you can have some resources and options somewhere else.
One area with some potential is at wide receiver, where the Tide are supremely talented but might lack some versatility. In particular, they don’t have a lot of size. It’s obvious that the Tide are aware of the potential pitfalls, because they have lots of formations and motions designed to help their receivers avoid being jammed up by big, physical DBs. If they have space to play with, they’re deadly, as you can see on this Smith sluggo route:
Incidentally, Smith came up a bit lame after this catch and is now somewhat questionable against LSU. In any event, teams with big corners that can play press coverage could prove challenging to a young Tide WR corps that is accustomed to running around in space.
There are some opportunities to be had from attacking Tua, who’s very used to having time and reads that he might not have against better defenses. For instance, Alabama’s RPO game has an interesting wrinkle in the way Tua executes pre-snap reads:
You can see Tua read the boundary coverage and check it before the snap, then look to the field while executing the mesh with the RB, only to fire it back to the boundary. He does this regularly, relying on the pre-snap read and then looking elsewhere during the snap before going back. It’s a dangerous game, because if you turn and find something different than you were expecting, you’re risking a turnover, a sack, or an ineligible man downfield penalty on your OL.
Finally, there’s some hope, at least, that Tua might be overly accustomed to having clean pockets.
The nature of Alabama’s offense is such that if you can’t hold up, they will really make you look bad. But if a team can match up against at least part of this offense and confuse and harass Tua, then Alabama’s offense can fall all the way to merely ... very good.