Nick Saban’s Alabama team has areas of vulnerability Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes can attack.If Ohio State is looking for a weakness in its Sugar Bowl opponent, it might have trouble finding one.
Alabama can win games with its defense. It has three wins in which it scored 25 or fewer points; only Missouri (four) has more this season. The Crimson Tide can also win with their offense. They have an SEC-high seven wins in which they scored more than 40 points, including a 55-44 win against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Alabama FBS Ranks, This Season
Under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama is on pace to finish with its highest offensive efficiency in the eight years under coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide rank 10th in the FBS in yards per play and points per drive, even though they have played seven of the top 20 teams in defensive efficiency.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have led the way on the ground. Yeldon and Henry have both rushed for more than 800 yards, averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry and scored at least 10 rushing touchdowns. The only other FBS school with two such running backs this season is Arkansas with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
Blake Sims has been the facilitator for the passing game. He has posted an 88.4 Total QBR this season, second-best in the FBS behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Since 2004, two SEC players have had a higher Total QBR in a season than Sims (Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel). Both won the Heisman in those seasons.
As good as Sims has been, Amari Cooper has been better. Cooper leads the FBS in receiving yards (1,656) and receptions (115) and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns (14).
Yet, if the Buckeyes are able to take away Cooper, Alabama might be in trouble. Cooper has 100 more targets and 1,217 more receiving yards than any other player on the team. DeAndrew White is second on the team in receiving, and on one play – his 58-yard touchdown against Missouri – he gained more yards than he had in all but two games this season entering the SEC Championship.
When Sims is throwing to Cooper this season, he is completing 71.0 percent of his passes, averaging 10.2 yards per attempt and has 14 touchdowns and one interception. To put that into perspective, Mariota is the only other FBS quarterback averaging more than 10 yards per attempt this season. When Sims is not passing to Cooper, he completes 60.5 percent of his passes and averages 7.9 yards per attempt. The FBS averages are 60.0 percent and 7.3 yards per attempt.
Defense is where Alabama has always hung its hat under Saban. For instance, the Crimson Tide are allowing 16.6 points per game this season, fourth-fewest in the FBS. Yet, that is on pace to be the most they have allowed since 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa.
Led by defensive tackle Johnathan Allen and linebacker Reggie Ragland, Alabama is as good as it gets against the run. The Crimson Tide have allowed three rushing touchdowns, five fewer than any other FBS school. They really buckle down around the goal line. On goal-to-go rushes, their opponents have run for minus 16 yards and have scored a touchdown on two of 24 carries (8%). That is on pace to be the second-best percentage in the last 10 seasons, behind Notre Dame in 2012.
Alabama Rushing Defense, This Season
If there is one area in which Alabama has not been as strong on defense this season, it is against the pass, especially the last few games. The Crimson Tide are allowing 223.7 passing yards per game, on pace to be their most since they allowed 227.8 in 2003. Big plays have been a big issue. Opponents have 39 completions of 20 yards or more, the most Alabama has allowed in at least the last 10 seasons.
Downfield passes have been the main culprit of late. On passes thrown 25 yards or longer downfield, the Crimson Tide have allowed an SEC-high 16 completions. In their last three games, opponents were 12-of-21 on such throws, compared with 4-of-30 to start the season.
Even though Alabama has 2014 first-team all-SEC punter JK Scott and 2013 SEC special teams player of the year Christion Jones on its roster, the Crimson Tide have been below average on special teams this season, ranking 101st in efficiency. How has special teams play affected Alabama this season? Look no further than its 23-17 loss to Ole Miss. In that game, Jones had a fumble in the fourth quarter on a kickoff, which set up the game-winning score, and kicker Adam Griffith missed 46-yard and 51-yard attempts. This season, Alabama has made 64 percent of its field goal tries this season, 93rd in the FBS. Dating to the start of the 2011 season, Alabama has lost five games. In those five games, its kickers are 5-of-16 on field goals, including 2-of-11 from 40 yards or longer.
Combining offense, defense and special teams efficiency, Alabama ranks second behind Oregon in overall efficiency. There are holes, as noted above, that Ohio State can exploit. The Buckeyes, with Cardale Jones at quarterback, scored three touchdowns on passes thrown 25 yards or longer in the Big Ten Championship Game, their most in a game this season. On special teams, they rank second in average starting field position and lead the nation in opponents’ average starting field position. If Ohio State can continue to play well in these areas during the Sugar Bowl, it may well be the difference in the Buckeyes pulling off the upset of No. 1 Alabama.