The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers are generally considered one of the best teams in college football's history. Whether the numbers entirely back that up or not doesn't matter. The Cornhuskers were memorable and amazing because of how they made you feel: helpless. You can gameplan against them, you can plan for what they're going to do, and you may even hang with them for a little while. But then your passes fall incomplete, and their four-yard runs become nine-yard runs, and then they return a fumble or interception for a touchdown. You spent a quarter or two feeling like you were doing pretty well, then you looked at the scoreboard and you were down 52-7.
Recent opponents of the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide can relate. There is a long way to go, and there are a lot of games to win, before the Tide can consider themselves in the class of the '95 Huskers, but to date, no one has been able to escape, or even seriously challenge, the Tide's eventual bear hug. Every game this season has played out like The Warlord Vs. Koko B. Ware. You try to land some blows, you try to rally the troops, and you end up suffocating.
Not counting Georgia Southern (sorry, Eagles fans), Alabama has four regular season games remaining: Tennessee on October 22, LSU on November 5, at Mississippi State on November 12 and at Auburn on November 26. If they get past LSU (a big 'if,' to be sure -- the Bayou Bengals will probably need their own "How To Beat LSU" column in the coming days or weeks), then they will probably face either Georgia or a banged up South Carolina squad in the SEC title game. What can these teams do, if anything, to send Alabama into the loss column? Let's take a look.
Below are five steps to beating Alabama. Conceptually, they are rather obvious. But there are a million ways to win a football game, and Alabama eliminates about 999,995 of them from consideration.
Sell Out Against The Run
If Alabama is lucky enough to win the SEC West and play a full, 14-game schedule this season, Trent Richardson is on pace for 1,800 yards rushing, 350 yards receiving and over 30 combined touchdowns. Depending on how some star quarterbacks do down the stretch, Richardson could be the Heisman favorite come December, and for good reason: he's on pace for a better season than the one Mark Ingram had in 2009 when he won the Heisman.
Alabama has the second-best standard downs offense in the country through seven games, and this is primarily because they have the best run game. They rank first in Adj. Line Yards, first in overall Rushing S&P+ and first in Standard Downs Rushing S&P+. However, they are not 1995 Nebraska. They pass on standard downs, and fairly frequently, if only to further set up the run. The Tide run the ball 60.5 percent of the time on standard downs, good for 50th in the country. They rank only ("only") 28th in Standard Downs Passing S&P+, meaning you are much more likely to stop the passing attack.
Selling out against the run -- keeping as many players in the box as possible -- leaves a team vulnerable to getting burned deep. But it is a risk you must take against Alabama because, in the end, the downside of doing it (quick death) is no different than the downside of not doing it (fast death).
In general, Alabama's standard downs passing attack is rather conservative. The top three targets -- Marquis Maze, tight end Brad Smelley and Darius Hanks -- have combined to catch 41 of 63 standard downs passes thrown to them, but they are averaging just 9.0 yards per catch and 5.9 yards per target. With Richardson in the backfield, they don't have to do anything too creative in the passing game, and they don't. Make them try. They will quite possibly make you pay, of course, but you are damned if you don't.
Remaining Opponents (Def. Rushing S&P+ Rank, Off. Rushing S&P+ Rank): Tennessee (34th, 47th), LSU (third, third), Mississippi State (46th, 41st), Auburn (51st, 66th).
It may not make sense intuitively, but despite Richardson and their killer line, Alabama does not have the best red zone offense in the country. They rank only ("only") 11th in overall red zone offense, 44th in red zone passing. They score touchdowns only 62 percent of the time in the red zone, good for 56th in the country. Even if they continuously work their way down the field, holding them to a field goal will allow you to live to fight another possession.
Remaining Opponents (Def. Red Zone S&P+ Rank): Tennessee (40th), LSU (18th), Mississippi State (32nd), Auburn (47th).
Here are Alabama's S&P+ rankings by quarter:
- First Quarter: 14th on offense, 44th on defense
- Second Quarter: 13th on offense, first on defense
- Third Quarter: first on offense, 14th on defense
- Fourth Quarter: first on offense, 18th on defense
As a whole, the Tide are bigger, stronger and more well-conditioned than their opponents. And aside from LSU, they are likely bigger, stronger and more well-conditioned than the rest of their opponents, too. It is a truth of college football that the first quarter is incredibly important; against Alabama, it is exponentially more important. They have allowed four plays of 20 or more yards in the first quarter, three in the second, three in the third and two in the fourth. If you are going to find an opening, if you uncover a hole in their defensive gameplan, it is going to be early, and then that hole will probably disappear. Score early, build a lead, then hold on for dear life.
Remaining Opponents (Q1 Off. S&P+ Rank, Q1 Def. S&P+ Rank): Tennessee (second, 65th), LSU (58th, second), Mississippi State (30th, 64th), Auburn (68th, 54th).
Alabama has allowed 40 plays of more than 10 yards this season, just under six per game. Of those 40, 35 have come through the air, five on the ground. Only one player has gained more than 15 yards in a carry this year: Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. Aside from perhaps LSU's Jordan Jefferson, no quarterback remaining on the schedule is likely to bust a long run, and even if one does, he probably won't do it twice.
I have talked up the Alabama cornerbacks as much as anybody; the combination of Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner and DeQuan Menzie has put together a combined stat line as good as anybody's: 46.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, three interceptions, 21 passes broken up. But you have no choice but to test them because you just aren't going to get anywhere versus the front seven alone. Opponents know this, of course -- they are rushing just 51.5 percent of the time on standard downs (the national average hovers around 60 percent) and 28.8 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 32 percent) -- and it doesn't necessarily do them a lot of good.
Alabama ranks first in Def. Rushing S&P+, first in standard downs rushing and fourth on standard downs. The Tide average six non-sack tackles for loss per game (linebacker Courtney Upshaw leads the way in this category with seven). However, they currently rank only 36th in Passing S&P+, 45th in Def. Passing PPP+ (an explosiveness measure) and 45th in Standard Downs Passing S&P+. They are going to keep free safety Mark Barron as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, meaning only strong safety Robert Lester is guaranteed to be hanging back in coverage. Opponents have seen some success in the longer passing game, and even though it is terrifying to think about hanging in the pocket long enough to send receivers downfield, you don't have a choice. Alabama swarms to the ball like the 1990 UNLV amoeba defense, and the simple fact that there are fewer bodies deeper downfield means it is probably your most likely path to success. Easier said than done, to say the least.
Remaining Opponents (Off. Passing S&P+ Rank, Off. Passing PPP+ Rank): Tennessee (third, third), LSU (sixth, ninth), Mississippi State (48th, 63rd), Auburn (41st, 58th).
Pray (For Luck)
Wouldn't hurt, right? Beating Alabama is probably going to take at least a little bit of luck. Recover your fumbles (and theirs), uncork some great punts to flip the field, pray that the risks you take don't backfire horrendously, etc.
No team is untouchable and invulnerable. Hell, if you believe numbers, then perhaps even the greatest college football team of all-time lost a game. Alabama was almost as good in 2010 as it is this year, and the Tide lost three games. But as expected, they have quite easily been the most statistically impressive team in the country this year -- their defense is as good as LSU's, and their offense has been quite a bit better thus far -- and defeating them will be an incredibly tall task, especially for the remaining opponents. With a healthy Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, Tennessee may have been brash and aggressive enough to give them a game this weekend (or at least go down swinging), but they probably won't now. And if 'Bama gets past LSU, then Mississippi State probably doesn't have the horses to compete, and Auburn's hole card will simply be the fact that their match-up is a rivalry game and in Auburn.
Alabama could quite easily lose a game this year, but if they do, it will likely be through the path defined above.
And it will almost certainly come against LSU. But you already knew that.