Nick Saban isn’t ready to call this the best offense he’s ever coached.
Alabama’s 66-year-old coach just isn’t into making comparisons. Besides, he said, “We’ve had some really good offensive teams in the past.”
But with all due respect to those teams of the past, nothing compares to what we’re seeing today. Not when you have Tua Tagovailoa in the lead of the Heisman Trophy race and a wealth of productive players at receiver, running back and even tight end.
There might be no better representation of the sheer volume of playmakers on this offense than the fact that the backup quarterback, Jalen Hurts, is a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year with 66 career touchdowns under his belt.
At one point during Alabama’s blowout 65-31 win over Arkansas on Saturday, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley put both Hurts and Tagovailoa on the field at the same time.
“They showed a lot of confusion,” said running back Damien Harris of the reaction of the Arkansas defense. “They didn’t know what was going on. They were expecting double passes. They were trying to call out what we were going to do, and nobody really had any idea. It’s kind of good to have them on their toes. And it’s just another dimension of our offense.”
Said Saban: “We had a few more things that we were going to do out of it that we didn’t do, because that’s the way the game went.”
More things they’re going to do? Another dimension? Defenses already can’t handle what little they’re seeing right now.
“There’s so many times in the game where I just kind of shake my head,” said tight end Hale Hentges. “Obviously, we just run like a little RPO to (Jerry) Jeudy and he takes it 70, 80 yards to the house. And it’s like, ‘Welp.’ We have so many athletes on our team who make phenomenal plays, and we’ve just gotta figure out ways to keep getting them the ball.”
Harris said they’re setting a “new standard” every week.
This is a look at what that standard has become. The numbers, provided by ESPN Stats & Information, are nothing short of staggering.
It happens almost in a blur. You blink and Alabama’s already scored. And scored. And scored again.
Just ask Arkansas, which saw Tagovailoa find tight end Irv Smith Jr. for a touchdown 21 seconds into Saturday’s game. Four minutes later, Tagovailoa hit Smith again for another touchdown pass to extend the lead.
Alabama has scored 124 points in the first quarter alone this season, which is 30 more than any other team. Twenty-one FBS teams haven’t scored that many points all season.
Alabama’s 238 first-half points are 68 more than any other team. But as a matter of perspective, consider that if the Tide never scored a point in the second half, they would still rank 25th in points per game.
“Locksley always emphasizes about how we need to start fast,” Hentges said. “And that’s something we’ve been really trying to do. We’ve really been trying to put the pedal to the metal right off the bat and establish presence right from the beginning.”
Scoring so quickly and so frequently means Alabama has been ahead in 94 percent of its snaps so far this season. The 49 plays where the Tide have been trailing or tied are the fewest in FBS this season (Georgia is second at 62).
Efficiency and volume
It’s one thing that Alabama has scored 60 points in two conference games this season. That’s only happened twice in SEC history.
It’s another thing that Alabama is outscoring opponents by 240 points through six games. That’s the most in SEC history, period.
But don’t get hung up on the big totals. It’s the efficiency with which Saban’s squad is playing offense that’s truly remarkable.
Alabama leads the FBS with a 98.8 offensive efficiency, which would be the highest of any FBS team in the 14 seasons that the metric has been tracked.
The easiest job at Bama? That belongs to punter Skyler DeLong, as the Tide haven’t punted in the past two weeks.
Tagovailoa has been nothing short of a revelation this season. Winning the starting job from Hurts was one thing. But doing that and playing even better than he did when he was the hero of the national championship game last season is difficult to comprehend.
It’s why he’s the Heisman favorite today. His 98.3 QBR is the highest through six games of any quarterback in the 15 seasons the metric has been tracked. So far, he has more 20-yard pass plays (28) than incompletions (25).
Saban has hailed Tagovailoa’s instincts and even said that, in some respects, he “probably exceeded” expectations.
“He’s incredibly accurate,” Hentges said. “There will be times in practice where you’re running a route and if you don’t turn your head on time it will hit in the chest like a spear. He’s that accurate.”
If Tagovailoa keeps this up, he’ll rewrite every record at Alabama. He’s already well on his way to redefining what the position means. He’s thrown four touchdown passes in three games and counting. Entering this season, Alabama had played 1,248 games, and only 13 times had a quarterback thrown for four touchdowns.
Spreading the wealth
It’s not just Tagovailoa, though. It’s as if the entire offense has come alive this season, whether you’re talking about the running backs, wide receivers or tight ends. Everyone is involved, and there’s no telling who will be the star from week to week.
At running back, Damien Harris has led the team in rushing in four games and Najee Harris has led the team the other two. Each Harris has 50-plus carries, but Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson each have 30-plus carries themselves.
Jacobs may seem like the third option, but he’s not. He leads the team with six rushing touchdowns as Alabama’s top four backs average 5.9 yards per touch.
But the most noticeable change is how the tight end position has come alive. Irv Smith Jr., in particular, already has more catches (16) and more than twice as many yards (332) as he had all of last season. He and Hentges have combined for five touchdown catches.
Last season, Calvin Ridley dominated the receiver position, accounting for roughly 30 percent of all completions. Jerry Jeudy was next closest receiver at 6 percent.
Now, though, it’s far more balanced with Jeudy at 21.3 percent, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith each at 15.7 percent and Jaylen Waddle at 13.9 percent. The sophomore trio of Jeudy, Smith and Ruggs already has six more touchdown receptions (17) than they did all of last season.
“That’s how Tua rolls,” Hentges said following the Texas A&M win two weeks ago. “He’s a really good player. He understands the field extremely well and finds people if they’re open. And if you’re not open, he can make you open.”
He added: “I don’t think it’s any secret that we move the ball extremely well. We have an electric quarterback, really great wide receivers and some playmakers elsewhere, too. It’s to be seen how good this offense can really be.”
Alabama has had multiple 100-yard receivers in each of its past two games. Prior to this season, that had happened only once under Saban (2014 Sugar Bowl vs Oklahoma).
Armed with one of the best offenses and defenses in college football, Alabama seems like a foregone conclusion to reach the playoff. No other team in the past decade has had better odds to win the national championship than the -200 Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has the Tide pegged as.
ESPN’s Playoff Predictor says Alabama could lose any one of the six remaining games on its schedule and still have at least a 63 percent chance to make the playoff.
But remember that the real meat of Alabama’s schedule hasn’t even begun, and likely won’t until November when the Tide go on the road to No. 13 LSU and host No. 24 Mississippi State and No. 21 Auburn. Survive that and it’s on to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta where No. 2 Georgia is likely to be waiting.
Alabama hung 45 points on a Texas A&M defense that ranks 21st in the FBS in yards per game, but their other wins have come against defenses ranked 77th, 84th, 93rd, 117th and 124th. Meanwhile, Georgia and Mississippi State are both in the top 10, Auburn is 20th and LSU is 34th.
The numbers look good now. But the competition is only going to get more difficult from here on out.
Statistics were provided by ESPN’s Stats & Information. Additional reporting by Mitch Sherman.