As we enter mid-October, it appears Alabama has a — how to put this? — decent football team. The Crimson Tide has played six games and won them all. There are 125 writers and coaches who vote weekly in the two college football polls. One hundred twenty of them this week ranked the Tide as the No. 1 team in the country.
Which raises the question: What in the name of Paul Bryant are the other five voters thinking?
Midway through the regular season, the average score of an Alabama football game is 50.3-9 after three quarters.
Now, that can be skewed by lackluster competition, right? The Tide did host Arkansas State and Louisiana Lafayette in Tuscaloosa. So let’s not over-dramatize things for the sake of statistical embellishment. The proper way to look at this is to count only Power Five opponents. Alabama has played four: Louisville, Mississippi, Texas A&M and Arkansas. The average score of those games: 49-11.8 — again, after three quarters.
Put another way: Alabama averages the equivalent of seven touchdowns in the first three quarters of every game. In preparing for the Tide last week, Arkansas Coach Chad Morris said the following: “I haven’t found any deficiencies.”
Now, Nick Saban, the man who actually coaches Alabama, he’s the person to turn to for deficiencies. “I don’t think we’ve played very well together as a team,” he said on this week’s SEC conference call with reporters.
He was talking, specifically, about Alabama’s run defense. And he was dead serious.
The question, then, isn’t, “Will Alabama beat Missouri this Saturday?” or “How about Tennessee a week later?” The question is: “This is a program that has won five of the past nine national championships, but will this go down as Saban’s best team?”
“They’re as good as they’ve ever been,” Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Fisher is in a pretty good spot to evaluate. He was the coach at Florida State last year, when the Tide began a run to the national title with a 24-7 thumping of the Seminoles in the season opener. Plus, he is the only coach who has competed against both Alabama and one of the other teams receiving first-place votes in the polls, Clemson. Fisher’s Aggies lost a tight game to unbeaten Clemson, 28-26, on Sept. 8 in College Station. Texas A&M’s result against the Tide: a 45-23 loss in Tuscaloosa, where the Aggies scored the only touchdown of the fourth quarter.
“Nick does as good a job on defense as anybody in the country,” Fisher said of Saban. “There’s no doubt — tremendous defensive football coach. He’s always going to have his emphasis on that side. You sit there and say, ‘Can we do this?’ ‘Well, yeah, I got it here.’ ‘Well, no, they take it away right there.’ ”
Except the thing is that’s what’s pushing this Alabama team to areas few have gone before. The Tide has produced eight NFL first-round draft picks in the past two years. (Think about that a second.) Of those, six have been on defense, including current Washington defensive linemen Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.
So the reason Alabama is allowing 332.2 yards per game, which ranks 25th in the nation, is inexperience.
“We’re still not very satisfied with where we are as a defensive team,” Saban said.
Fine. He can’t make that claim on offense. Quick quiz: What team has the highest pass efficiency in the nation? Oklahoma, with quarterback Kyler Murray, would be a good guess. Ohio State, where Dwayne Haskins is putting up ridiculous statistics, is another reasonable assessment. As is Georgia, which Jake Fromm quarterbacked to the national title game (where it lost to, ahem, Alabama) as a freshman and is back, just more seasoned.
But the answer is: Alabama. Alabama, coached by defensive whiz Saban. But also Alabama, the only school in the country where a quarterback could appear in 29 games (27 of them wins) in his first two seasons, get benched — and have it make sense because the other guy is clearly better.
Tua Tagovailoa relieved Jalen Hurts at halftime of the national title game as a true freshman last year, led the Tide’s comeback and is the best quarterback in the country. That’s as assessed by the NCAA’s pass efficiency rating. That’s as assessed by Pro Football Focus, which ranks every position every week. And that’s as assessed by that old standby, the eye.
Look at it this way: Tagovailoa has 18 touchdown passes this season, which trails Haskins, Murray and three other players nationally. But he also has just 25 incompletions.
Tagovailoa leads the nation not only in completion percentage (75.2) but in yards per attempt (14.8) and yards per completion (19.7). That’s a remarkable combination, and it might seem like it’s because Tagovailoa has such speedy targets in sophomores Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and freshman Jaylen Waddle that they simply catch 10-yard passes and turn them into 70-yard scores.
That can happen, for sure. But Pro Football Focus’s data shows that not only is Tagovailoa incredibly precise on his short throws (43 for 46 on passes of nine yards or fewer, and that includes a drop), but he is the highest-rated passer in the nation on balls of 20 yards or more (among quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 such throws).
So the SEC, entering the meat of its conference schedule, is learning: This Tide team is different, and it’s different because of Tua.
“The speed of the wide receivers, it’s very evident in the vertical passing game and them stretching the field,” Ole Miss Coach Matt Luke said. “It definitely puts a lot of pressure on you because you know you have to stop the run, but with that added dimension, it makes it very, very tough. And then the fact that the quarterback is making good decisions and, when the play breaks down, he’s able to extend it with his feet.”
Luke’s squad managed to hold Alabama to 62 points, an improvement over last year’s 66-point yield to the Tide. Throw in the 65 points Alabama hung on Arkansas last week, and that’s three times in its past 10 SEC games that the Tide has surpassed 60 points. Might not seem like a big deal — until you consider the next-most recent time Alabama scored 60 against a conference opponent was 231 games earlier — in 1989.
For all of Saban’s insane success in Tuscaloosa, he hasn’t had an undefeated team since 2009. His current version has to play at LSU on Nov. 3 and against Auburn in the Iron Bowl three weeks after that and quite possibly Georgia in the SEC championship game.
But right now, any assessment of Alabama amounts to some version of “Fun with Numbers,” and any look at the national landscape makes it feel as if everyone else is playing for second place.