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Alabama Crimson Tide

Trying to explain just how much this Alabama offense changed

The reign of Nick Saban’s joyless murderball is either over or on pause.

There were hints to a new identity for this Crimson Tide offense before the season and it’s been clear from that first night in Orlando.

Through nine games, there’s solid data to show just how different the Tua Tagovailoa-led attack is from its predecessors. Nobody’s clamoring to just run the ball now.

Looking at the last five years of Alabama offenses, the passing numbers from 2018 dwarf the previous four — at times by multiples. The 33 passing touchdowns is already more than the last two seasons combined through the same nine-game span, for example.

Of course, no two seasons are identical and opposition-resistance levels can vary. The raw numbers from the same sample size are the best we have for quantifying the contrasts.

The 2018 Alabama offense leads almost every non-rushing statistical category outside of passing attempts and total plays.

A few quick observations:

— The 2017 season-high 332 passing yards Alabama had against Tennessee is still fewer than this season’s average of 341.6 passing yards a game.

— The 3,074 passing yards so far this year is 1,283 more than Alabama had after beating LSU last year.

— The offense from the 2015 national title team had more than 1,200 fewer total yards through nine games compared to this one. It also has 164 fewer points than the 2018 version that leads the nation averaging 51.3 a game.

Yardage distribution for the Alabama offense through nine games in each of the past five seasons.
Yardage distribution for the Alabama offense through nine games in each of the past five seasons.  Michael Casagrande

Before the season, Nick Saban hinted at the potential this offense might need to score a little more to cover for some inexperience on Alabama’s defense.

And while the 14.1 average point allowance this fall is up from 9.8 at this time last year, it hasn’t been a matter of winning shootouts. Nobody has come closer than Texas A&M’s 22-point loss.

New offensive coordinator Mike Locksley hasn’t left it to chance with his relatively young group of skill-position players. They’re using different words to describe the experience that probably mirror the viewing public.

A couple even used a three-letter word starting with F.

“I mean, it’s always fun scoring points and playing on offense,” said running back Damien Harris, a rare senior in the bunch. “But I think that what makes it the most fun for me is playing with so many guys that are so, so talented. We know that anybody that has the ball in their hands has an opportunity to make an explosive play whether it’s our quarterbacks, our running backs, receivers, tight ends.”

With the rise of the passing game came a dip in the rushing numbers.

The 2018 offense is down almost 500 yards on the ground from last year’s pace that included Jalen Hurts accounting for 616 yards last season.

Alabama rushing vs. passing stats over last five seasons.
Alabama rushing vs. passing stats over last five seasons.  Michael Casagrande

The pass/run ratio in terms of yardage is 60/40 this fall where it was 42/58 this time last year.

There has been progress at least narrowing the gap. The Tide rushed for a season-high 281 yards Saturday night at LSU while still throwing a season-most 42 passes.

“I think that we were able to run the ball a little bit better in the last couple of games, which I think is the balance that we wanted to try to create,” Saban said. “I think finishing the game like we did at LSU is something that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do early in the season. We continue to make a lot of explosive plays, but we’ve made a lot of explosive plays all year and I think it’s going to be important that we continue to do that.”

Those big plays also exemplify the difference in style this year

Alabama has 55 passes that covered 20-plus yards this season — almost twice as many as last year’s 28. The previous two seasons combined don’t hit the number of big passing plays recorded by the Tide this fall.

The 20-yard plays broken down by passes and runs over the past five seasons.
The 20-yard plays broken down by passes and runs over the past five seasons.  Michael Casagrande

The 15 runs of 20-plus yards are tied for a five-year low with the 2015 team that interestingly featured Heisman winner Derrick Henry. His production hit another level in the final month of that record-breaking season.

This fall, it was Tagovailoa’s 44-yard touchdown scramble at LSU that represents the longest run for Alabama. It had six carries that went longer through nine games last season led by a pair of 75-yard Damien Harris touchdown runs. At the same time, the Tide has five passes that went more than 75 yards this fall while only one went more than 60 through nine games in 2017.

A full rundown of the side-by-side numbers from the last few years of Alabama offense.

Year 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014
Points 462 368 361 298 312
Pts off TO 90 70 92 158 140
% pts off TO 19.4 19.0 25.5 53.0 44.9
1st down 232 216 199 206 214
1st D rush 99 120 177 97 93
1st D pass 120 85 77 93 111
Rush yards 2,016 2,506 2,334 1,758 1,855
Rush att. 369 413 405 388 373
Rush avg. 5.5 6.1 5.8 4.5 5.0
Rush TD 23 30 21 20 19
Pass yards 3,074 1,791 1,973 2,051 2,531
Pass att. 254 217 252 288 287
Avg. catch 17.8 13.4 12.4 10.7 14.3
Avg. pass yds 341.6 199.0 219.2 227.9 281.2
Pass TD 33 15 14 12 20
Total yards 5,090 4,297 4,307 3,809 4,386
Total plays 623 630 657 676 660
Total avg. play 8.2 6.8 6.6 5.6 6.6
Total avg. game 565.6 477.4 478.6 423.2 487.3
Total TDs 62 46 47 37 40
3rd down % 56 42 48 35 53
Red zone trips 51 46 40 41 37
Red zone TD % 69 70 60 59 65
Red zone score % 82 89 82 85 84
20-yard runs 15 21 25 15 17
20-yard pass 55 28 33 22 39
20-yard total 70 49 58 37 56

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