Trying to construct a scouting report of the Alabama Crimson Tide quickly turns into an exercise in identifying degrees of awesomeness.
The Bama business model is superiority from end to end – total dominance. Head coach Nick Saban annually assembles a team capable of handling anything an opponent can throw at it. There are no glaring flaws or weaknesses to exploit.
However, the Tide’s upcoming game in the Orange Bowl versus the Oklahoma Sooners presents the rare case in which an opponent likely has an edge on one side of the ball. The Bama defense may be one of the best in the country, but the Sooners boast an all-time great offense led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray.
OU’s hopes for an upset on Dec. 29 rest in large measure on how coach Lincoln Riley deploys all those weapons against the stacked Tide D. Unfortunately for the Sooners, Bama’s previous opponents this season haven’t left many clues about how to move the ball against the Tide.
Don’t bother with ball control
Let’s start by disabusing anyone of the idea that Riley should build a game plan around limiting the possessions afforded to Bama’s explosive offense. OU has a fantastic attack of its own, but it’s not good enough to dictate those kinds of terms to the Bama D.
At 50.8 percent, the Tide rank No. 1 nationally in Brian Fremeau’s Defensive Ball Control Rate, which tracks the percentage of opponent offensive drives that last four plays or more. In other words, roughly half of opponents’ drives this season have gone three and out. The Tide are also No. 2 in Defensive First Down Rate, the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in a touchdown or at least one first down, at 56.3 percent. Opponents have converted 31 percent of the third-down conversion attempts versus Bama this season, the eighth-best rate in the nation.
A strategy built around sustained drives with double-digit plays will die a quick death at Joe Robbie Stadium (or whatever it’s called these days). Instead, OU has a far better shot at doing damage to the Tide via chunk plays. Bama ranks 72nd nationally in Defensive IsoPPP+, which measures explosiveness. The Tide gave up 40 plays this year of 20 or more yards, which ranked 58th nationally. (In fairness, Bama did play one more game this season than the vast majority of teams in the country.)
If you look at how the Georgia Bulldogs attacked the Tide in the SEC title game, they put together one touchdown drive that covered 74 yards in 13 plays, with the longest play of that drive going for 11 yards. Their other three TD drives involved at least one play of 20 yards or more.
UGA QB Jake Fromm wasn’t bombing away indiscriminately, but the Bulldogs took enough intermediate and deep shots in unexpected situations to loosen up the Tide D.
OU has zero shot at winning the Orange Bowl if the offense just plans on grinding away with methodical drives. That means stretching the field in the passing game early and often is likely the move here.
Let Murray loose
Over time, some pundits have latched on to the idea that mobile QBs are Nick Saban’s kryptonite. This strikes me as selective memory when you consider the Nicktator’s total body of work.
It is hard, however, to ignore the fact that the best running QB on Bama’s schedule, Kellen Mond of Texas A&M, ran for 129 yards on 11 carries (excluding sacks) when the Tide and Aggies squared off earlier this season.
Mond gashed the Bama D with a mix of called runs and scrambles. Among them, he accounted for A&M’s longest gain of the day, slithering through the heart of the defense for a 54-yard on a well-designed QB draw in the first half. Later in the game, Mond rumbled for 34 yards on a drop back when a chasm opened up in front of him.
Schematically, I don’t see a ton to glean from Mond’s success on the ground. Primarily, it would appear that the threat of Mond running didn’t scare the Tide enough to dedicate a spy to tracking him. Will Murray get the same treatment?
However Saban decides to defend Murray, Riley needs to come up with ways to get his QB on the move. Murray is arguably OU’s most dangerous runner. Mond isn’t close to being in that stratosphere, so if can make those kinds of plays, Murray can as well.
Go after the LBs
The closest thing I see to an obvious hole in the Bama D is the coverage ability of the linebackers.
When the UGA passing game was rolling versus the Tide, Georgia QB Jake Fromm was targeting the middle of the field. It appeared as though all four LBs were having a hard time handling seam routes and shorter crossers.
UGA tight end Isaac Nauta became the primary beneficiary of Fromm’s focus on short and intermediate throws in the middle of the field.
Once Georgia got the Bama D preoccupied with the middle of the field, Fromm found success throwing swing routes to the edge.
It should be noted that Georgia’s offensive line controlled Bama’s defensive front for much of the game, opening holes for the running backs consistently. That helped the Bulldogs create opportunities off play action. The good news for OU is that like UGA, the Sooners possess one of the few OLs in the country capable of going toe-to-toe with the Tide defensive line in the trenches.
A smorgasbord of ugly offenses
Frankly, my biggest takeaway about the Bama defense after going through the Tide’s games this year had nothing to do with their schemes or personnel. It struck me how few teams really even showed the capacity to test them.
On the one hand, that speaks to just how good this unit is. It is littered with big, fast, physical athletes who play disciplined ball.
Yet, the offenses of Bama’s opponents still look archaic. Even though the SEC is overflowing with individual studs, the wholes are generally less than the sum of their parts. It starts with a lack of imagination in the design – it often seems as though you’re watching teams execute collections of plays, as opposed to demonstrating cohesive offensive identities. Beyond that, it would be an understatement to call the QB development across the league subpar.
The Sooners are simply playing a different game than anything the Tide have seen this year. In addition to the players executing at an absurdly efficient level, Riley has built in counters on top of counters to address different defensive looks and adjustments.
Between now and Dec. 29, the Sooners will come up with a myriad of new plays and concepts to throw at the Bama defense on top of all their classics. That might not be enough to pull off an upset, but OU’s offense will present a challenge unlike anything the Tide have seen all year.