The fun thing about a lot of sports debates is that we never have to worry about being proven wrong. We can compare teams or players from one era to another, for instance, and scream at the top of our lungs about who is/was better, and we can come away satisfied that there’s at least a chance we’re right.
We can also compare teams from different levels of a given sport, confident in the same thing. A few years ago, when the Jacksonville Jaguars were the dregs of the National Football League, the Internet had some fun debating a fanciful Jags vs. Alabama matchup. The worse the Jaguars got, the more reasonable the wrong side of the argument became.
And let’s be clear: if you thought the Crimson Tide would have a chance at anything more than a miracle upset, you were on the wrong side of the argument.
Alabama loses and it is not really close. Each of the four winless NFL teams would be more than 90% likely to win and, on average, defeat Alabama by more than three touchdowns.
For context, the most likely straight-up victory of the NFL season thus far came in the Jacksonville @ Seattle game, where the Seahawks were 95.0% likely to win over the Jaguars. Jacksonville @ Denver will likely top that number in two weeks. So Alabama, or any college team, against even the worst NFL teams is like watching the Jaguars play the Seahawks or Broncos.
The worst NFL team is still made up of former All-American and all-conference college football players who have benefited from X years of pro weight training and pro coaching. This is a world in which 1-in-100 upsets happen one in 100 times, so anything’s possible on a given Saturday (or would we play this game on a Sunday?), but the pro team wins almost every time, usually by a significant margin.
I know this. I really do. But ... I can’t help wondering if Alabama’s offense this year is better than the Buffalo Bills’.
Seriously. And this only has so much to do with Alabama.
Buffalo’s offense is absurdly, historically bad at the moment.
Because of the offensive boom happening elsewhere in the league, you could say that the Bills are currently further behind the offensive curve than almost any NFL team that has ever existed.
The Bills are in another galaxy compared to the rest of the offense-fortified NFL of 2018. Right now, the average team is gaining 5.7 yards per play. Arizona is 31st at 4.4 yards per play. Buffalo is way down at 3.7 yards per play. It’s even worse if we look at net yards per pass attempt. The NFL average is 6.6, and Arizona is 31st at 5.1. Buffalo is way down with 3.8 net yards per pass attempt. ... Put it all together and normalize for the overall offensive environment of the 2018 season, and Buffalo now has the second-worst offense we’ve ever tracked through six games.
This past spring, the Bills selected Josh Allen, one of the most “raw and needs so much work” quarterbacks in the history of first-round quarterbacks. He probably would have been well-served to basically redshirt for a year. But expected starter AJ McCarron got hurt, then got traded, and for the second straight year, backup Nathan Peterman, who must be great in practice, imploded the moment he set foot on the field in a real game.
So that left Allen to bomb in real time. And bomb, he has. He has averaged 3.0 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A), and if he is to one day prove that you actually can exceed your college production in the pros ... well ... let’s say that it’s going to take a while.
Allen, by the way, is out indefinitely with an elbow injury. Instead of starting Peterman again, Buffalo will go with veteran journeyman Derek Anderson, who has started four games in the last seven years.
You could make the case that things might actually stabilize with a more experienced hand. At least, you could until you looked at the supporting cast, which didn’t help Allen even one tiny iota.
Alabama, meanwhile, is currently attempting to answer the most masochistic question a college football fan could have come up with over the last decade or so: What would happen if Nick Saban had the best offense in college football?
It’s been mortifying. The Crimson Tide are destroying opponents at a more fierce level than normal, outscoring them by an average of 54-15. And while they haven’t played any elite teams yet, they’ve played three teams in the S&P+ top 40, at least. Tua Tagovailoa is completing 72 percent of his passes, and that’s actually down from last week — he completed only 12 of 22 passes against Missouri while dealing with a sprained knee.
By the way, those 12 completions still gained 265 damn yards. And he still has yet to take a fourth-quarter snap. Alabama is second in Off. S&P+ at the moment, first among the 129 teams that aren’t Oklahoma.
If you surveyed 1,000 college fans about who they would choose to quarterback their team — Tagovailoa or the 2017 version of Josh Allen — about 975 of them would choose Tua, and the other 25 would just be bitter Auburn, LSU, or Ohio State fans. Granted, Allen has received the benefit of a few months of pro-level coaching, but it’s a fair assumption that Tagovailoa is still a better quarterback at the moment. But let’s go to the tale of the tape to see if the Tide as a whole have the better offense.
Let me reiterate: this is only an offense vs. offense comparison.
Buffalo’s defense is excellent — the primary reason why the Bills are 2-4 instead of 0-6 — and would likely assure that Buffalo would win a best-of-seven series against Nick Saban’s Tide in five games at most, six with something fluky.
Quarterback: Josh Allen vs. Tua Tagovailoa
Advantage: Alabama, for all the reasons listed above.
Running back: LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory vs. Najee Harris and Damien Harris
McCoy has, without doubt, been one of the the best backs of the last decade. But he’s 30 years old, and while he’s averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry for his career, he’s only topped that average once since 2013. Ivory, meanwhile, is averaging 2.5 per carry. Ghastly.
Harris and Harris (no relation), meanwhile, are each former blue-chippers with size almost identical to Ivory and McCoy (Najee, a sophomore, is 6’2, 230, and Damien, a senior, is 5’11, 215). They have powered a run game that ranks No. 1 in rushing marginal efficiency at the moment. While Alabama backs haven’t always dominated when taking the step up to the pros, McCoy and Ivory aren’t exactly dominating either.
Advantage: Buffalo, if only because of McCoy’s aura. This is very nearly a push.
Wide receiver: Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes vs. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and DeVonta Smith
Benjamin is the size of a college tight end and remains an imposing specimen. He averaged 11.6 yards per target while catching passes from Jameis Winston back in Florida State’s national title winning campaign in 2013.
He has also checked out.
#Bills Josh Allen just asked Kelvin Benjamin if he wanted to work on routes pregame during warm ups.— Jenna Cottrell (@JennaCottrell) October 14, 2018
Kelvin’s answer: No
Benjamin has caught 10 of 32 passes for 146 yards as Buffalo’s fourth-most well-paid player. Jones, a prolific possession man in college, has a better catch rate (16-for-29) but is still averaging just 6.9 yards per target.
Benjamin was indeed awesome in college. But Alabama’s top four wideouts are all averaging better than 13 yards per target at the moment, which is positively insane. Jeudy has caught 26 of 35 balls for 705 yards, Smith — who has as many last-minute, national-title winning catches in his career as Benjamin to boot — has caught 21 of 31 for 409.
Alabama has the best receiving corps in the country, and I’m not sure it’s close. Granted, they’re catching passes from Tagovailoa (against college DBs) and not Allen (against NFL DBs), but I know where my vote goes here.
Tight end: Charles Clay vs. Irv Smith Jr.
Clay is almost certainly the better tight end here, as ineffective as he may be (6.0 yards per target as the team’s second-most well-paid player). Bama’s passing game is better, straight up, but I’ll give Buffalo another edge in this matchup.
Here’s where things get dicey for Alabama. The Tide have maybe the best offensive lineman in college football in Jonah Williams, and Buffalo has one of the two or three worst lines in the NFL. Still, without going into too much depth, I’m willing to believe that this is one of the places where the jump from college to pro makes an enormous difference.
No matter how ineffective it’s been against professional defensive lines, the Bills’ current starting five of Dion Dawkins, Vladimir Ducasse, Russell Bodine, John Miller, and Jordan Mills is probably quite a bit better than Bama’s Williams, Lester Cotton Sr., Ross Pierschbacher, Alex Leatherwood, and Jedrick Willis Jr., even if the latter have pro size and better recruiting rankings. We’ll grant this.
So the Bills undoubtedly have the better run game, but football is a passer’s game at the moment, and Alabama almost undoubtedly has the better passing game.
If you want to believe that there’s just too big a leap, or that, with its manhood challenged by having to play against a college team, the pro team would dial in and whoop ass or whatever, I can’t prove you wrong. Again, that’s the built-in glory of a debate like this.