When the first quarter ended last Saturday during its rout of Arkansas, the numbers generally favored Alabama. The Crimson Tide led the Razorbacks in almost every category — yards and points, especially.
But Alabama faced a large deficit on one line of the stat box: time of possession. The Tide trailed by more than six minutes. As the nation’s No. 1 team sprinted out to a 21-7 lead in a game it would win by 34 points, the Tide’s first scoring drives, which took place on its opening three possessions, elapsed over four minutes, two seconds and consisted of 11 plays.
As Alabama’s offense has morphed from the football equivalent of a Mack truck into a machine more akin to a Formula 1 race car, head coach Nick Saban has had to consider questions he never had to before. On Monday, he faced one of them when a reporter asked how he has considered the effect Alabama’s short scoring drives has had on his own defense.
“I don’t think anybody wants to apologize for scoring, so we’re not going to do that,” he responded. “But you know time of possession is probably important in a game.”
It’s a particularly influential statistic to Saban, who has cultivated an identity within the program that centers on dictating the terms and giving his defense the best chance to succeed. It’s why Saban has long favored having a formidable rushing attack because it not only wears down the opponent but it also eats up clock and keeps the opposing offense pinned to the sideline.
During his first championship season at Alabama in 2009, the Tide was ranked fifth in time of possession, controlling the ball an average of 33 minutes, 31 seconds per game.
Nine years later, the Tide is ranked 62nd in in the same category and has been on defense at a rate of only 34 seconds less than its opponents.
“Our job is just to score,” said tight end Hale Hentges, “I know we sometimes probably don’t give the defense enough break as we should. Trust me, as an offensive player, sometimes it’s even frustrating how fast we can score. It’s like, ‘OK, let’s get in a rhythm, let’s get in a groove.’ You throw a block and you’re like, ‘OK, that was one play.’ The second play, I’m getting my feet wet and all of sudden we score and it’s like, ‘Well, off to the sideline again.'”
And it means the defense is back out on the field. Safety Denote Thompson likened it to a “sudden change situation,” which is the scenario that usually unfolds after the offense commits a turnover.
“We just have to be ready,” he said.
It’s the Alabama version of first-world problems. After all, the Tide leads the nation with 15 scoring drives that have transpired in less than a minute and has shown an uncanny ability to deliver huge knockout blows at the outset of its victories.
To mitigate the effect of an offense that can strike at any time and force its own defense to potentially play more than its ideal number of snaps, Saban has focused on managing the game flow.
Whereas only three of Alabama’s 48 first-half possessions have lasted more than four minutes, eight of its 33 second-half drives have exceeded that time threshold.
In essence, Saban has created his own running clock once the Tide has built a sizable lead in the opening two quarters — the segment of the game when Alabama has produced 238 of the 336 points it has scored this season.
“We’re not going to change our style of how we play offense to try to keep the ball and not make explosive plays,” Saban explained. “I think that’s counterproductive and we need to be aggressive on offense, do the things that we do well and feature the players that can make plays for us. And if we make big plays, I think that’s great. Explosive plays and turnovers have a huge impact on the outcome of games, and if can keep the ball away from the other team while we’re doing that, that would be a bonus.”
It’s a balance Saban would like to strike for the sake of preserving Alabama’s defensive character developed throughout his 12 seasons in Tuscaloosa.
But as Thompson said, “We don’t want our offense to stop scoring.”
Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin