TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to offensive prowess, numbers seldom tell the whole story.
The 2018 Crimson Tide was a perfect example.
Alabama broke all kinds of records, especially for passing yards and scoring, leading to its quarterback being a Heisman Trophy finalist and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy winning the Biletnikoff Award as the game’s most outstanding receiver.
But how good was the offense, really?
Nick Saban always pulls his starters after getting a significant lead and, consequently, Tua Tagovailoa barely played in the fourth quarter. He attempted just 80 passes in the second half, which makes one wonder what he might have had done in different circumstances.
What’s tougher, getting one touchdown at LSU or say four against a Mountain West team?
One of the few criticisms about the Crimson Tide offense in 2018 was that it didn’t have the same success against the toughest defenses. The four opponents that Tagovailoa didn’t have a passer-efficiency rating above 150 were LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia and Clemson.
Granted, Alabama didn’t want the drop-off to be that extensive, but it’s otherwise normal.
So was Alabama’s offense as good as most people believe?
The answer is yes.
The reasoning is twofold, and we’ll use the same statistic to demonstrate why: Tagovailoa’s 43 touchdown passes.
1] National perspective
The 43 touchdowns tied him for 25th on the NCAA’s all-time single-season list.
Hawaii’s Colt Brennan set the record in 2006 with 58, four more than anyone else. For anyone who believes that football hasn’t had offensive surges before, consider that Houston’s David Klinger had 54 touchdown passes in 1990, and B.J. Symons threw 52 for Texas Tech in 2003.
However, none of those three played in a conference known for its defense, or had much of an NFL career.
The next three guys, all tied at 50, are more familiar names: Derek Carr, Sam Bradford and the newest quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Dwayne Haskins, previously of Ohio State.
A better way to put most offensive numbers into perspective is to compare them to what the rest of college football was doing at the time. Last season, Alabama led the nation in passing efficiency, was third in scoring and sixth in total yards.
It had never been better than 17th in total offense during the Saban era.
Alabama offensive national rankings
Year Total (yards),Scoring (points), Rushing (yards), Pass Eff. (rating)
2007 75 (373.8) 64 (27.1) 60 (149.2) 86 (115.21)
2008 63 (355.8) 35 (30.1) 30 (184.6) 65 (124.14)
2009 42 (403.0) 22 (32.1) 12 (215.1) 34 (138.50)
2010 22 (444.1) 18 (35.7) 29 (182.9) 5 (167.80)
2011 31 (429.6) 20 (34.9) 16 (214.5) 35 (142.52)
2012 31 (445.5) 12 (38.7) 16 (227.5) 1 (174.32)
2013 33 (454.1) 17 (38.2) 25 (205.6) 7 (164.47)
2014 17 (484.5) 15 (36.9) 35 (206.6) 10 (155.73)
2015 45 (427.1) 30 (35.1) 32 (199.9) 34 (143.45)
2016 34 (455.3) 16 (38.8) 12 (245.0) 34 (143.34)
2017 29 (444.1) 15 (37.1) 13 (250.6) 10 (155.99)
2018 6 (522.0) 3 (45.6) 42 (198.4) 1 (197.34)
On an individual basis, the key category is passer efficiency as it’s a rating that factors in a number of different aspects based off a quarterback’s number of attempts.
McCarron was able to lead the nation passer efficiency for one season, 2012, but Tagovailoa set the national record last season.
2] The Alabama standard
The Crimson Tide’s offense has evolved over the past few years, adding run-pass option elements and becoming more up-tempo to take advantage of the rules.
Alabama averaged approximately 80 more yards per game in 2018, than the previous year.
Tagovailoa’s 3,966 passing yards were nearly 500 more than anyone in Crimson Tide history. Between last season and the mop-up duty he did in 2017 Tagovailoa’s already 10th in Crimson Tide career passing yards.
Finally, again with the 43 touchdown passes: The previous Alabama record was 30 by McCarron.
In summary, your eyes did not deceive you, Alabama’s offense was that good last season with one important exception, rushing offense — which out of the four major offensive categories was the one that Alabama had been especially known for under Saban.
Despite having two running backs selected in the 209 NFL Draft, Alabama averaged 5.2 rushing yards per carry, which was significantly down from the previous years. (5.7 in 2017, and 5.8 in both 2016 and 2015). Where it really showed was in the red zone and short-yardage situations.
Improving in those areas has become a priority.
Saban explained how it’s going that:
“I think that the first thing you always do is we do quality control on yourself,” he said. “So, you self scout, and through these self-scout statistics, you sort of find out how efficient we were in an area. And then you go back and try to find what were the issues in that area. And then you go out and research. If you don’t have the answers, you go out and research to try to find the answers to what you can do to improve in those areas by meeting with people in some circumstances that have had more success or maybe have some new ideas. Or sort of philosophically figure out on your own that, ‘Hey, when we tried to do this, it wasn’t very successful.’
“So, then you come up with these ideas and plans and you implement them in practice and see how they work. And then maybe we’ll revisit it again because we quality control in the spring after spring ball and sort of see if we made the progress that we want to make. And if not, we’ll go research it again and try to get even more ideas. But there’s some fundamental things that you have to do, and when you don’t do those things well, that sometimes contributes to a lack of success. So, sometimes it’s pretty obvious what we need to improve on.”
This is the second story in the summer Stat Pack series: