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Dining on Elephant at Cafe Malzahn

By on January 16th, 2013 in Football 14 Comments »

A statistical analysis of the last six seasons of BCS Championship teams, Alabama under Nick Saban and what Auburn needs to do.

What's for dinner

 How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

How good was Auburn in 2010 as a BCS Champion?  Outstanding in terms of offense, but the numbers show some interesting statistics when compared to other BCS (aka  SEC) Champions since 2007. A further look in to the last six Alabama teams shows Nick Saban’s strengths, and more importantly, his weaknesses, and the key to Auburn regaining the edge in future Iron Bowls.

Comparing the Offensive and Defensive statistics of the previous six BCS winners, some interesting facts emerge …

Statistics provided by:  http://www.cfbstats.com/blog/college-football-data/

Offensive statistics – BCS Championship teams

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

LSU ’07

43.6

5.84

46.6%

93.3%

Florida ’08 

38.6

7.13

51.6%

91.2%

Alabama ’09

32.1

5.96

39.2%

86.4%

Auburn ’10

41.2

7.37

53.1%

86.4%

Alabama ’11

34.8

6.46

46.4%

87.9%

Alabama ’12

38.7

6.95

47.9%

90.3%

Defensive statistics – BCS Championship teams 

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

LSU ’07

19.9

4.42

35.2%

86.8%

Florida ’08 

12.9

4.46

32.8%

69.2%

Alabama ’09

11.7

4.08

29.9%

66.7%

Auburn ’10

24.1

5.36

37.0%

84.4%

Alabama ’11

8.2

3.32

24.5%

58.8%

Alabama ’12

10.9

4.19

32.1%

65.5%

 1.  Offense – LSU in 2007 , Florida in 2008 and Auburn in 2010 could score a boatload of points. We knew this already, as the Tebow/Cam comparisons were often made, but in comparison to the other five BCS champions from 2008 to 2012 shows Auburn’s offensive production the best in nearly every capacity: Yards per play, 3rd Down Conversions, yards per rush and completion percentage. LSU had marginally higher scoring and passing yards in 2007, but with a much worse completion percentage. Of all the offensive statistics, the one that separates the two is that Auburn managed 7.37 yards per play. LSU was actually the lowest offense of all the champions in that regard, managing only 5.84 yards per play. As one of the highest scoring teams, this doesn’t seem to make much sense until you look at their Red Zone numbers. That’s where it becomes obvious – Both LSU in 2007 and Florida with Tim Tebow were touchdown machines inside the 20 yard line. Both Auburn in 2010 and Alabama in ’09 had the most difficulty scoring in the Red Zone.

2.  Defense – Nick Saban’s Alabama teams win by defense. The top defense of the last six years was the 2011 Alabama team, followed by their 2012 team and then the 2009 team. LSU ’07, Florida ”08 and Auburn ’10 are the other three in order, with Auburn dead last by almost a mile, defensively.  Auburn’s run defense was the worst of any champion in at least the last six years. So was our pass defense, by over 1000 yards compared to the other five. Auburn’s defense in 2010 allowed over twice as many yards as Alabama’s defense in 2011. That is nearly an extra 200 yards per game played.

3.  Red Zone scoring – In 2007 LSU punched the ball in for a score an incredible 93.3% of the time in the red zone. Auburn was the WORST championship team in this regard, getting it in only 86.4% of the time, meaning that a large number of our scores were from greater than 20 yards out, and we struggled relative to the others with a shortened field. Defensively, we surprisingly weren’t the worst team. Florida allowed more red zone scores in 2008 than Auburn did in 2010. Leading the category in defense?  You guessed it – Alabama, all three teams going 1-2-3 with 2011 the best in that regard.

What makes a champion team? The following are the averages for the BCS champions of the last six years:

Ideal BCS Championship team statistics

 

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

Offense

38.2

6.62

47.5%

89.3%

Defense

14.6

4.30

31.9%

71.9%

Some other per game statistics averaged from the last six BCS Champions:

Offense:

21 First downs (11 Rushing, 10 passing)

228 Rushing yards (41 attempts)

209 Passing yards (25 attempts – 16 completions)

Less than one interception for every two games

Fewer than 2 fumbles per game (lose less than 1)

Defense (fewer than):

16 First Downs (6 Rushing, 8 passing, 2 penalty)

91 Rushing yards (31 attempts)

178 Yards passing (31 Attempts, 17 completions)

1.5 interceptions

Of the six championship teams the three that are closest to these criteria are those of Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

So what are Alabama’s and Nick Saban’s weaknesses you ask? Admittedly there aren’t many, but take a look at the years when his teams fell short over that same six year span (2010, 2008 and 2007). 

Offensive statistics – Alabama

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

Alabama ’07

27.1

5.05

37.9%

81.1%

Alabama ’08      

30.1

5.52

41.5%

85.2%

Alabama ’09

32.1

5.96

39.2%

86.4%

Alabama ’10

35.7

6.96

44.4%

84.2%

Alabama ’11

34.8

6.46

46.4%

87.9%

Alabama ’12

38.7

6.95

47.9%

90.3%

Defensive statistics – Alabama

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

Alabama ’07

22.0

5.00

40.4%

89.5%

Alabama ’08      

14.3

4.30

28.1%

81.5%

Alabama ’09

11.7

4.08

29.9%

66.7%

Alabama ’10

13.5

4.64

34.0%

64.5%

Alabama ’11

8.2

3.32

24.5%

58.8%

Alabama ’12

10.9

4.19

32.1%

65.5%

However ugly it is to Auburn fans, the evidence is clear: Nick Saban’s teams have improved consistently every year, and except for some key issues, seem to be at or near that ideal Championship level of play. Part of this is coaching continuity and recruiting.  This was true during Auburn’s Iron Bowl dominance of the Tuberville and Dye eras. But to give credit where credit is due, Alabama has shown the most dramatic improvements in how well they defend on 3rd down and in the Red Zone each and every year. Ever wonder why Nick Saban seems to go berserk when his team makes even the simplest of mistakes or miscues on the field? This is the reason why. Miscues and mistakes are measured in opponents’ first downs. In the Red Zone, it is measured by touchdowns.

The other thing to notice is with the exception of 2007, Nick Saban’s offenses changed less than the defense. They favor power running backed by short, high percentage and efficient passing with relatively few mistakes (penalties, fumbles, interceptions). They win games on the strength of both lines, supplemented rather than relying on a purely pass-oriented offense and pass defense. When Alabama can run and their pass defenses are good, Saban’s teams are incredibly difficult to stop.

Look closely at what happens when Nick Saban’s teams win, and most importantly, when they lose.

Offensive statistics per game – wins

Team                    

Rush yards

Pass Yards

Total Yards

Yards/play

Alabama ’07

177

254

431

5.6

Alabama ’08      

201

169

370

5.7

Alabama ’09

215

188

403

6.0

Alabama ’10

217

248

465

7.3

Alabama ’11

224

216

441

6.6

Alabama ’12

235

211

446

7.0

Offensive statistics per game – losses

Team                    

Rush yards

Pass Yards

Total Yards

Yards/play

Alabama ’07

116.8

190

306

4.4

Alabama ’08      

84

182

266

4.4

Alabama ’09

 undefeated

 

 

 

Alabama ’10

69

305

374

5.6

Alabama ’11

96

199

295

4.9

Alabama ’12

122

309

431

6.6

Therein is the key to beating a Saban coached team – upsetting his balanced attack. When opponents can slow or stop his run game, Alabama teams under Saban struggle mightily.   His usual brand of quarterback (it doesn’t matter which, let’s call him John-Parker-McElCarrron for short) starts to lose that brutal efficiency when forced to throw medium to long distances for 1st downs, and his teams are clearly out of their depth when attempting to come from behind with a big play.

It is unlikely that Saban will have any other type of quarterback.  You won’t see a Cam Newton, an RGIII or even a Johnny Football at Tuscaloosa, as Saban doesn’t recruit them.  He wants what he wants, and gets what he wants – a “Yes Sir, No Sir’ 6-1 200 lb Boy Scout who can hand off the ball or throw a tight spiral 20 yards to a given target every time.  He is about as personable as lamp post and will do what he’s told without any questions or feedback.  John Parker McElCarrons are churned out a dozen at a time, and Saban picks them up with spare change from a vending machine in the Athletic Complex.

Moving on,…

In the case of the 2010 Iron Bowl, the entire game is this same story in two halves – a microcosm of the macrocosm, if you will. Alabama was brutally efficient in the first quarter, scoring more points and faster than the even latest BCS blowout over Notre Dame. But when forced to abandon the run in the face of Auburn’s defensive adjustments starting in the second quarter, Alabama began to rely almost solely on their passing game which clearly limited their effectiveness.  All of the subsequent ‘big plays’ were made by Auburn.  Alabama simply couldn’t manage the same once their running attack was silenced.

Alabama play selection, 2010 Iron Bowl

First Quarter: 8 run plays, 11 pass plays – 21 points

Second Quarter: 6 run plays, 14 pass plays – 3 points

Third Quarter: 4 run plays, 13 pass plays – 0 points

Fourth Quarter: 7 run plays, 8 pass plays – 3 points

What does all this have to do with Auburn?  The same six years of Auburn football show two dramatic trends. 

Offensive statistics – Auburn

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

Auburn ’07

24.2

4.85

36.41%

83.7%

Auburn ’08         

17.3

4.48

35.52%

57.1%

Auburn ’09

33.3

6.14

40.11%

95.1%

Auburn ’10

41.2

7.37

53.1%

86.4%

Auburn ’11

25.7

5.3

35.7%

83.8%

Auburn ’12

18.7

5.27

30.8%

82.14%

Ideal BCS Offense

38.2

6.62

47.5%

89.3%

It’s no secret that Gus Malzahn’s offense converts third downs and consistently scores, or that it can switch from run to pass on the fly as needed. Auburn teams were clearly better with him than without him on offense, even if his win totals in 2009 and 2011 were less than Tommy Tuberville’s 2007 squad. That portion of Auburn’s game will likely return with great effect next year under Coach Lashlee, and with some talented players recruited this year and next, can likely achieve  that ideal championship level in a short time.

But the troubling aspect of Auburn’s last six years is recorded in the following gruesome table.

Defensive statistics – Auburn

Team                    

Points/Game

Yards/Play

3rd Down

Red Zone

Auburn ’07

16.9

4.53

36.6%

74.4%

Auburn ’08         

18.0

4.91

28.5%

71.9%

Auburn ’09

27.5

5.15

32.8%

86.0%

Auburn ’10

24.1

5.36

37.0%

84.5%

Auburn ’11

28.9

5.73

48.4%

88.0%

Auburn ’12

28.3

5.99

40.8%

83.7%

Ideal BCS Defense

14.6

4.30

31.9%

71.9%

The surprise here is that Tommy Tuberville’s last defense in 2008 was at or near championship quality in nearly every category. Matched with even  modest improvement in offensive numbers that Gus Malzhan was able to accomplish with nearly the same key personnel the very next year, the 2008 season might have seen Auburn challenge for the SEC championship two years prior to Cam Newton’s arrival. This is clearly what Coach Tuberville was thinking and expected when he let Al Borges go and tried to adopt a spread style offense to improve offensive output under Tony Franklin.   That the experiment didn’t work doesn’t diminish the fact that Coach Tuberville was aware of what improvements were needed and how best to achieve them.

What is also clear is that 2009 is the year Auburn’s defensive troubles began. It is most evident in the following tables:

Rush Defensive statistics – Auburn

Team                    

Yards

Yards/carry

Touchdowns

Fumbles caused

Auburn ’07

1621

3.59

13

23

Auburn ’08         

1667

4.09

7

20

Auburn ’09

2033

4.12

25

15

Auburn ’10

1527

3.41

16

21

Auburn ’11

2460

4.63

19

26

Auburn ’12

2371

4.9

23

15

Pass Defensive statistics – Auburn

Team                    

Yards

Yards/completion

Touchdowns

Interceptions

Auburn ’07

2252

10.1

11

14

Auburn ’08         

2146

10.8

19

11

Auburn ’09

2834

11.2

19

17

Auburn ’10

3630

11.2

25

12

Auburn ’11

2844

11.4

23

11

Auburn ’12

2675

11.4

20

2

             

Auburn’s defense worsened over the last five years.  While this slide could be overcome somewhat by increased offensive production as was seen in 2009-2011 under Malzahn, even with exceptional offensive production in 2010 with Cam Newton, it continued to be a growing problem.   If these issues were solely due to the pressure of the hurry-up-no-huddle offense, you would anticipate that the defensive production would worsen but be consistent throughout those three years.  But the reality is that the deterioration was progressive and at an alarming rate of decline.

Last year Auburn made every SEC team it played look like the ideal BCS Championship team.

The Tiger defense must improve dramatically if Auburn is to compete in the SEC West . With power teams like Alabama, LSU and now Texas A&M, it will take a return to a 2008 defense and a 2009-2011 offense before Auburn can start claiming Iron Bowl victories on a consistent basis.

This is clearly the rationale behind the hiring of Ellis Johnson and his supporting staff. If you look at his defensive effort in South Carolina’s 2010 victory over Alabama, the result is eerily close to the ideal recipe – South Carolina only allowed 36 rushing yards and forced Alabama to pass.  Then Spurrier’s offense won the subsequent aerial shooting match.  This has been Johnson’s trademark style of defensive play everywhere he has coached – a stingy run defense with a shut-down short pass blanket that forces teams to convert long passes in the teeth of a robber defensive backfield.

His hiring looks like the key missing ingredient in Chef Malzahn’s famous Pachyderm Stew.

Just exactly what we need to feed our inner Tiger.

Om Nom Nom

Om Nom Nom Nom

14 Comments

  1. KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

    Excellent work. This piece took a lot of time to compile statistics and a broad vision to put those numbers into a format to support your main idea. Very impressive.

  2. tigertracker says:

    Wow. That was some impressive research. I still contend that no matter what kind of offense AU (or any team) runs the objective for the D is to get off the field in the first 3 plays. It won’t always be possible, but until we start lining up 11 men across the line like ’92 bama and forcing the issue we’ll continue to get shredded. What do you expect when the defensed lines up a minimum of 3-5 yards off the ball…often times DBs at 7 yards off on 3rd and 3! Too much cushion. We have to take the fight to the enemy and just know that sometimes we will give up big plays, but we will create some too and that has been lacking.

  3. Tigerstripe Tigerstripe says:

    Ladies and genlemen, Sullivan013…

  4. tigermac says:

    I don’t mean to rain on your impressive research, but I’m curious why you omitted the 2008 Florida team from your averages? For that matter, you identified UF ’07 and LSU ’08 as BCS champions, but they won for the 2006 and 2007 seasons respectively. I know that often we will refer to the date the game is played, so for example Auburn was the “2011” BCS Championship Game winner so I thought that might have been what you meant, but you then changed to the season years for ’09 UA and beyond.

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      Good catch, Tigermac. Despite multiple re-edits, I missed that gaffe entirely. The numbers for the years were correct, but when I created the tables, I transposed the names of the two teams. I’ve now fixed the error. Hopefully, there are few others. Thanks for the correction

  5. War Eagle Girl War Eagle Girl says:

    Wow. Took a while to digest for a novice to statistics. Thanks for making it a clear picture. But WOW at the 2008 numbers! If we could have just gotten that offense under control ~ Tubby was headed in the right direction. I knew that 2010 defense was soft but all that fun scoring usually put it out of my mind. The last two years ~ what can you say….disaster. Hope Ellis is able to get it under control as quickly as humanly possible as we know that the offense is GOING TO SCORE!

    I am starting to come to read the TET first thing before other sites ~ Thanks!!

  6. Tiger on the mountain Tiger on the mountain says:

    This made my morning so VERY happy. So much hard work and really excellent analysis.

    –and I’m totally NOT surprised about Tubbs’ 2008 defense stats. It was the Franklin O that was mucking everything up. Plus, I always liked Tubby-even if he does bizarre things like take the Cincy job when he was ‘perfectly happy’ with the Red Raiders. What is striking is how Chizik seemed immune from being able to figure out how to fix slides…if he even noticed them. Oh thank goodness this dreadful season is in our rear view!!!

    War Eagle!!

  7. domaucan1 domaucan1 says:

    Thanks for a great article with a “tiger” of hard work. If our boys can work this hard, we’re heading in the right direction. I ALWAYS read TET as my first taste of Auburn daily! It makes me feel a lot closer to Auburn! Keep up the good work !

    WAR EAGLE !!!

    GO BIG BLUE !!!

  8. wde1988 wde1988 says:

    Awesome work Pat. *I have always wanted to say that. No offense, but Pat Sullivan was my childhood hero.

    I think you have the statisical ingredients to what makes a champion.

    The question that Gus Malzahn will have to ask himself every day until he builds his own dynasty is… “Did I do everything within my power to make AU’s football team better?”

    As long as he can continue to look himself in the eye and answer yes… AU moves forward.

    So far so good. He has the dream team staff… now he has to complete the picture and get a dream team team. Coach’em up Gus and crew!

    WDE

  9. autgr4life says:

    Great job putting that together. I know it could not have been easy but it was rewarding.

    As much as I like knowing what our issues were under Chizik I am so glad that Gus and this new staff have embraced the term “It’s a new day”. I am as ready as everyone else to get the 2012 season behind us, get this recruiting season behind us, and get into spring ball where these coaches can go about the hard job of developing the kids we have on campus. I think we will see dramatic improvement each of the next two years. With Gus’s second or at the very least third year being the one that takes us back to the top of the SEC west and gets us in the conversation for more.

    War Damn Eagle!

  10. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    Impressive work! I don’t think I have the vocabulary to adequately applaud your effort here.

    You nailed it with your description of the problems, and backed them up with the statistics. I’ll be using this as a measuring stick for our Tigers going forward.

    Well done!

  11. AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

    Great stuff Pat.

    Very informative. I appreciate the great work you put into this.

  12. WarEagleEngr says:

    I had observed that one absolutely certain way to beat Saban was to build a big lead. Period. I don’t believe that Alabama has overcome more than a 17 point deficit, ever, under Saban. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

    08: Utah led 17-0, won 31-17
    10: SC led 21-3, won 35-21
    12: TexA&M led 20-0, won 29-24

    Your analysis explains why this is so. Very perceptive, revealing work.