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Bama Football and the death of the field position battle

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Punting won’t save you!

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

The Nick Saban Crimson Tide Football Pulverizer and Deboner traditionally operates in two stages. In the first, Alabama’s defense smothers the opponent, forcing them into turnovers or very short outings that yield lovely field position for the Bama offense. (Mr. Rogers did say to look for the helpers, and in this case they’re blazing into the quarterback on third and long.)

In phase two, Alabama’s offense turns that good field position into points. Failing that, they advance the ball enough that the punt unit can back up the opponent even further, and Phase One begins anew.

The platonic ideal of this two-step recipe might have been the 2011 Crimson Tide, with a defense that allowed conversions on just under a quarter of opposing third down attempts. Against Power Five opponents (the filter I’m using for all stats in this post, in the interest of consistency), the 2011 Bama offense completed 34 touchdown drives. 13 of them started at the Alabama 40 or better, and 13 started at or inside the Bama 25.

Saban’s approach to offense has changed over time, but the basics of this 1-2 punch haven’t much, based on two other teams I examined.

Alabama Short/Long TD Drives

Year TD Drives Drives at/inside 25 Drives at/beyond 40
Year TD Drives Drives at/inside 25 Drives at/beyond 40
2011 34 13 (38%) 13 (38%)
2015 40 14 (35%) 17 (43%)
2018 67 27 (42%) 26 (39%)

But a funny thing has transpired this season: Bama hasn’t needed nearly as many short-field touchdowns to light up the scoreboard.

Alabama Short/Long TD Drives, 2020

TD Drives Drives at/inside 25 Drives at/beyond 40
TD Drives Drives at/inside 25 Drives at/beyond 40
72 33 (45.8%) 18 (25%)

In fact, the average distance of an Alabama touchdown drive is a good bit longer in 2020.

  • 2011: 62.4 yards
  • 2015: 61.7 yards
  • 2018: 62.7 yards
  • 2020: 68.1 yards

Did this propensity for long drives rear its head in Bama’s semifinal win over Notre Dame last Friday? Reader: It did.

Six Crimson Tide drives started at or inside their own 25, and three ended in touchdowns, including one drive that went 97 yards and another that traversed 84. Alabama’s best starting field position all game was its own 38 yard line. (That possession resulted in a Bama touchdown as well.)

We can’t judge Bama’s success on those drives without knowing how Notre Dame had fared defending long fields before the semifinal. So I went and checked: Across 76 opposing drives that started at least 75 yards from the end zone, ten resulted in touchdowns and eight ended with field goals. 56 were stopped with a punt, a turnover, or the offense failing to convert on fourth down.

To dig into this deeper, let’s compare the outcomes of all the drives the 2018 Bama team had that started at or inside their own 25 against the same set of drives for the 2020 squad.

2018 Bama vs. 2020 Bama, Long Fields

Team Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
Team Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
2018 Alabama 71 25 (35.2%) 4 (5.6%) 27 (38%) 18 (18.3%)
2020 Alabama 68 32 (47.1%) 5 (7.4%) 24 (35.3%) 7 (10.3%)

That’s a significant improvement in both touchdown percentage and overall scoring percentage. If you pinned 2018 Bama, there was an okay chance that you’d keep them from putting up points on that possession. But in 2020, backed-up Bama is more likely to score than not, and that score is almost certainly going to be a touchdown.

Consider the terror of this development! Trapping an opponent with poor starting position is supposed to fill you with hope and inspire your defense. Get a stop, flip the field, and see if you can grab a quick score of your own. It’s not a foolproof strategy against a team as good as Alabama, but it should give you a shot.

In 2020, it just delays the same outcome. I mean, look at what this Bama does when you put it at or inside its own 15 yard line:

2020 Bama, Drives starting at/inside the 15

Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
18 10 (55.5%) 1 (5.5%) 6 (33.3%) 1 (5.5%)

There is one team I found that compares favorably to this version of the Tide, though it’s not an Alabama team. It’s 2019 LSU.

2019 LSU vs. 2020 Bama, Long Fields

Team Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
Team Drives TDs Field Goals Punts Turnovers/Downs
2019 LSU 92 40 (43.5%) 13 (14.1%) 31 (33.7%) 6 (6.5%)
2020 Alabama 68 32 (47.1%) 5 (7.4%) 24 (35.3%) 7 (10.3%)

That championship Tigers team was slightly more likely to score on a long field, but slightly less likely to do so with a touchdown. Kind of feels like a push, albeit a scary one.

So what do you do when faced with an offense that turns the idea of winning the battle of field position completely on its head? You basically have two choices:

1. Believe your defense is the exception, and those who came before you were simply too weak or undisciplined to stop the Tide and reap the benefits.

2. Get way looser about going for it on fourth down, especially around midfield. There’s no point in punting near the logo if Bama’s just gonna get right back there in three plays. Notre Dame punted on 4th and 5 from their own 44 and 4th and 8 from their own 43. They got a stop after the latter, but the former developed into that 97-yard touchdown drive. Field position is a lie!

Good luck and remember, no refunds!