Alabama Rises From the Dead Thanks to Dominant Defense

The Tide’s beatdown of LSU last Saturday suggests the Alabama defense may be even better than advertised.

Following Alabama’s 43-37 home loss to Ole Miss in mid-September, some national college football pundits declared the Crimson Tide dynasty dead.

One writer called the defeat the “clearest sign yet this unbelievable epoch in Alabama football history is much closer to the end than the beginning.”

Not surprisingly, Alabama coach Nick Saban fired back.

At a press conference just two days after the loss to the Rebels, Saban said bluntly to a reporter, “I hope our players respond the right way and it’s not going to be for you. The fans, yes. If it was up to you, we’re six foot under already. We’re dead and buried and gone. Gone.”

The Tide have been anything but dead since. Alabama has reeled off six straight victories, with only one closer than a 13-point margin.

Alabama’s definitive statement came last Saturday when the LSU Tigers -- then-second in the College Football Playoff standings -- came to Bryant-Denny Stadium in a pivotal game in the SEC West race.

As good as LSU’s running back, Leonard Fournette, had been this season, Alabama’s defense reminded us why Heisman Trophies aren’t handed out in October.

Fournette and the Tigers ran into a Tide defense -- now ranked as the most efficient in the nation by numberFire -- that played the role of both the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. In all, Fournette managed just 31 yards on 19 carries. Take away an 18-yard run in mop-up time and the Heisman hopeful averaged just 0.7 yards per carry.

But those figures barely illuminate Alabama’s dominant performance. According to The Advocate of Baton Rouge, on Fournette’s 19 rushing attempts, 6 times a Tide defender first contacted him behind the line of scrimmage and 7 times at the line of scrimmage. And on just one carry did Fournette make it three yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched.

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly determines his success rate as 50 percent of needed yards on first down, 70 percent of needed yards on second down, or 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down. In the Alabama game, LSU’s rushing game mustered only a 20 percent success rate, a miserable showing considering the national average is 42.5 percent.

Context here is important, because LSU’s offensive line rarely, if ever, gets manhandled. Prior to their game against Alabama, the Tigers had rolled up a whopping 6.7 yards per rushing attempt, good for third in the nation. According to numberFire’s efficiency statistics, the Tigers were second in the country at 6.26 adjusted yards per rush. In terms of sheer volume, LSU had the FBS’ fifth best rushing attack at 309 yards per game.

Fournette spearheaded the attack. He had no fewer than 150 yards and never averaged fewer than 5.7 yards per carry in any game this season.

Until his visit to Tuscaloosa.

Recipe for Success

So how’d they do it?

“I always get a really good feel on game when they run that first zone extra…and they don’t get anything,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in the post-game press conference. “The nose [guard] flatheads the center, the five-technique knocks the guy back and the linebacker fills. That’s [LSU’s] bread-and-butter, so to be able to control that with our front seven was really, really good.”

Saban could just as well have quoted Mike Tyson, who once famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

In a nice bit of research, SB Nation’s Bud Elliott highlighted that Alabama did not stop the LSU attack and Fournette by loading the box with extra defenders, as one might expect.

Ross Dellenger of The Advocate turned up similar findings in his analysis. On 6 his runs, Fournette faced an extra defender, most times a safety who moved toward the line of scrimmage just before the snap. But on his other 11 rushes -- excluding 2 goal-line carries -- Alabama had the same amount of defenders in the box as LSU had blockers.

“Alabama did not gamble or sell out to stop LSU's run,” Elliott concluded. “It did not invite LSU to throw. It did not outnumber LSU at the point of attack, but outmuscled a very good LSU line.”

No One-Hit Wonder

Alabama’s demolition of LSU’s offense may have been the exclamation point, but the Tide defense has controlled opponents in the trenches all season long. Our algorithms currently rank Alabama’s rush defense -- anchored by its front seven -- as the best in the nation, with its pass defense ranked second.

Other advanced metrics systems agree. The Alabama defense is ranked first by Brian Fremeau’s Efficiency Index. Connelly’s S&P+ rankings has the Tide second in overall defense and their rush defense ranked first.

Led by junior defensive end A’Shawn Robinson, junior nose guard Jonathan Allen, and senior “mike” linebacker Reggie Ragland, the Tide defense ranks second best in the nation at 2.5 yards per rushing attempt, behind only Boston College. For comparison sake, consider that last year’s defense, which led Alabama to the top seed in the first-ever College Football Playoff, yielded nearly a full yard more per carry at 3.3.

Road Ahead

Alabama is now second in the new College Football Playoff rankings and is the Vegas co-favorite, along with Ohio State, to win the national title. That’s due in large part to the Tide’s remaining schedule and what looks like a relatively easy path to the Final Four.

Alabama can wrap up the SEC West crown by winning at Mississippi State on Saturday and at Auburn in the Iron Bowl Thanksgiving weekend. Our efficiency rankings -- known as nERD -- indicate that Alabama should be up to the task. nERD ranks Alabama as the 7th best team in the country (21.83), easily ahead of Mississippi State at 22nd (15.83) and Auburn at 46th (6.77).

Assuming Alabama can handle the next two road tests, they will get a pesky Florida team in the SEC Championship. But the numbers once again give the Tide the clear advantage, with Florida ranking only 18th in nERD. Connelly’s S&P+ system is as optimistic, with Alabama at least 65 percent likely to win each of its final SEC games, including the conference championship.

Overall, the prognosis for this zombie Alabama team looks encouraging. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tide a 38.7 percent chance of winning the conference and a 26.9 percent chance of prevailing in their remaining four games. And Connelly’s win probability metrics estimate that Alabama has a 35 percent chance to win out before reaching the Final Four.

So perhaps Tide critics got their shovels out a little early. You don’t have to believe me or even the numbers. Just ask Les Miles or Leonard Fournette, who no doubt feel like a victims of the Walking Dead.