2018 SEC Championship


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Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the 2019 Dawgs take the field against Vanderbilt in August, every starter on that team will have played in a championship atmosphere.

They’re the youngest team in the SEC and they’ve managed to add legitimate, championship-caliber experience to their youth. Every non-freshman on the roster next year will have faced the best team of the decade at least once. Many of them will have faced them twice, both times with a belt on the line. You can add that to this year’s burgeoning list of successes along with:

  • High snap counts for virtually all freshmen (and RS-freshmen) offensive linemen
  • The emergence of Jordan Davis as a bonafide space-eater on the defensive front
  • Important experience (including some knocks on the chin) for CB1-in-waiting Tyson Campbell
  • Eric Stokes stepping into the opportunity at CB2 and owning it
  • JJ Holloman developing on offense as a threatening weapon with size
  • Tyler Simmons putting his speed and hustle to great use as a receiver
  • High upside underclassmen — Anderson, Cox, Herring, Tindall — all playing meaningful snaps in the defensive front-seven
  • Kirby carving out a couple more plots in his backyard garden for CPJ and Gus
  • Notably few team violations and no off-the-field nonsense from players or coaches

That’s to say nothing of the Dawgs efficacy on the field.

I came into the year thinking this offense had a shot to be transcendentally good. They’re not quite Baker Mayfield/Oklahoma, or Kyler Murray/Oklahoma, or Tua/Alabama good, but they ain’t far off. The Dawgs ended the regular season 3rd in the country in offensive efficiency (behind the latter two guys above), 6th in rushing efficiency, 4th in passing efficiency, and 10th in explosiveness. They were the 3rd best offense in the country. You can win a championship with that.

You already know the knock on ’em though — they suck in short yardage situations.

The Dawgs are only converting on third-and-short 74% of the time. Same goes for success rate inside the 10-yard-line (40%) and on first-and-goal (41%). Despite that handicap, they still managed to finish 23rd in the country in average point scored per trip inside the 40. Like Alabama, this is an offense that is difficult to account for when they’re executing. If the last 5 weeks are any indication, they are executing indeed.

On defense, the Dawgs have largely been who we thought they were entering the season, with some notable surprises. With the departures of John Atkins and Roquan we figured the Dawgs run D would suffer, and it has. They rank 50th in rushing S&P+ against (actually, plenty of improvement there over the course of the season) and 110th in opportunity rate against (runs in which the opposing offense gained 5 or more yards).

But they’ve largely been able to break serve.

Even though the Dawgs rank 130th nationally in average third down distance, they’ve found a way to get off the field. They rank 20th in success rate against on third-and-medium situations and 15th on third-and-short. By and large, they are playing well with their backs against it. That’s in no small part due to the emergence of young players in the front-seven — Jordan Davis, especially.

The writing I did earlier in the year on past matchups was pretty stat-heavy, and for good reason. There was a lot to read into as the Dawgs developed this season and some of the matchups (Mizzou, LSU, Florida, etc.) posed cool angles worthy of unpacking.

Not so with this weekend if I’m being honest with you.

I mean, I’m more than happy to walk through every statistical category for both sides of the ball and try to make small inferences, but I think you’re already aware — Alabama is f***ing good at everything. I’d just be listing off a bunch of stats in which they have single digit rankings.

With what’s available in the advanced stat profiles, I thought BillC wrote a nice article earlier in the week pointing out the obvious: the Dawgs would be terrifying if they could put 7s up in the red zone. There’s maybe one small tidbit to add: Alabama ranks 110th in success rate allowed (they allow the necessary yardage 56% of the time) on first-and-goal, and they’re ranked 56th (48%) in success rate inside the 10. Not exactly dominant.

Stats aside, I’ve been noodling hard on strategy with this one, looking for ways to blind the cyclops.

Beginning with the end in mind is what I’ve landed on — if they want to win, the Dawgs have to find a way to remain in striking distance for all four quarters. Sounds obvious, but Alabama hasn’t had to play a four-quarter football game since January when the Dawgs hit them in mouth until the end of regulation. Making the opposition uncomfortable is the name of the game this weekend, and the ultimate discomfort for Bama would be to enter the fourth quarter with the game undecided.

Getting there is the challenge.

On Defense

By this point in the season, there’s very little hiding who the Dawgs are. On defense, we could certainly sit around hoping and praying that somehow the linebacker play gets an upgrade and the run defense all-of-a-sudden becomes elite.

That’s unlikely.

We’re better off acknowledging the likelihood of that happening is close to zero and dealing with reality as it is. Against an elite rushing attack like Alabama’s, the Dawgs are at a disadvantage.

It leaves a crucial point to ponder: if they play to win, what do the Dawgs take away from Alabama’s offense? Bama is brilliant in both facets — they are as efficient as they are explosive. They can run the ball down your throat or throw it over your head. On Bama’s explosiveness, Anthony Dasher from Rivals made a great point earlier in the week:

Fifty-five of Alabama’s 99 offensive drives directed by Tagovailoa this season have lasted five plays or less (55.6 percent). Thirty one of those 55 drives have resulted in touchdowns (56.4 percent) and two have ended in field goals for 33 total scoring drives of five or fewer plays (60 percent). Nineteen of those quick-strike drives have been 50 yards or longer.

Said another way, Bama has scored a touchdown in five plays or less on a third of the drives that Tua has led this season.

I don’t think there’s really a way to truly make them play “left-handed,” but the Dawgs can at least make them play in a different manner than they’ve grown accustomed to.

Leave the safeties back to limit big plays and let them take whatever they want on the ground. It will be terribly stressful and painful to watch as a fan, but forcing Alabama to execute on long drives of 10 or more plays multiple times throughout the entire game would be unlike any game they’ve played this season.

One of the only places Alabama’s offense looks mortal is in their average third-down distance. They rank 71st in that category, requiring an average of 7.4 yards. Truthfully they don’t really find themselves in third-down situations too often, and even when they do they are amazingly efficient. Check these success rates on third down for the Tide:

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Courtesy of Alabama’s Advanced Stats Profile from StatsGawd Bill Connelly

Utterly gross.

But the Dawgs have been at their best defending third down all season, no matter the distance:

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From the Dawgs Advanced Stats Profile

This isn’t a game for the Dawgs to pretend they’re something they’re not, it’s a game to call reality what it is, leverage strengths where they’re available, and play the odds. The odds look the best for the Dawgs taking away the big play and getting to third downs where they can. That will involve yielding a lot on the ground, but they’ll/we’ll have to live with it.

It worked against Missouri.


On Offense

In January’s National Championship the Dawgs offense gained zero or negative yardage on 15 of their first down attempts. It was painful for me to go back and watch each one of them. It’s obvious that’s a massive disadvantage for the offense, but against this year’s Alabama team it also sacrifices potential opportunities.

Bama’s defense is pretty freaking amazing this year (6th in total S&P+), but they’ve been susceptible to giving up explosive plays. They rank 76th in isolated points per play against (a measure of explosiveness allowed) and 42nd in marginal explosiveness (meaning they gave up a fair number of explosive plays in situations when they shouldn’t have). If the Dawgs want to capitalize here, they can’t lose on first down. By Coach Chaney’s book, you don’t take shots downfield on 2nd-and-14.

It’s unlikely that the Dawgs will be able to run inside or outside zone at the outset of this game against Bama’s defensive front. In past matchups we’ve had (like Auburn in last year’s SEC Champ) against Saban cover-3 match schemes, attacking the edge is one of the first orders of priority. Involving the corners on every play and forcing them to play a more physical brand of ball bodes well in a four-quarter game. Attacking the edge also has the added benefit of requiring the interior players to run in pursuit over and over again.

A tired Quinnen Williams is a good thing for Georgia.

Bama runs so well in pursuit though that attacking the edge alone won’t be enough.

Terry Godwin and the backs are my keys to the offensive gameplan tomorrow. Saban will play press-man on any slot receivers that are on the ball as well as the receiver on the boundary closest to the formation. The receiver to the field and any slot receiver off the ball are the only ones allowed a free release.

This is a run-pass option where Jake is reading the linebacker to the field. Terry (on the ball in this case,  but still allowed a free release) runs a shallow four-yard in route and takes 10 yards.

This next ball didn’t go to Terry but illustrates the same point. Slot receivers off the ball can’t get jammed at the line — especially a guy like Terry who is an instinctual route-runner and is at his best playing in small spaces and getting separation.

“Extended handoffs” to Terry as a means of getting positive yardage on early downs would be a strong play against an Alabama defense looking to take virtually everything else away.

Same goes for the backs.

By nature of being in the backfield, they will always be able to release without needing to beat much of a jam. Sony nearly had a walk-in touchdown on this play in January.

The Dawgs have the luxury of a lot of talented players that can line up in the backfield and act as capable receivers. Swift, Herrien, James Cook, Holyfield (to a lesser extent), and even Mecole and Akhil Crumpton. Placing any of those guys in the backfield at the snap guarantees them a free release and potentially a favorable matchup on a linebacker or safety. Wheels, arrow routes, seams, drags, etc. would give Jake a safe option and notch important yards on early downs.

I mentioned in the season preview article I wrote that I’ve long-dreamed of a tempo passing game to complement the running game on first and second downs. I’ve dreamed of that for a game like this where Coach Smart and Coach Chaney know they are facing an elite defense capable of taking away the run from our run-first-oriented offensive scheme.

The Dawgs have the personnel to get those early down yards in different ways than running standard iso, inside zone, and outset zone like we’ve grown accustomed to. It would be a huge ace up our sleeve if Chaney could toggle to it at will tomorrow.

If you can win on early downs, you can afford to take shots on later downs and capitalize where Alabama is weakest.

For reasons related to the pace of life, I haven’t been able to write much since the LSU preview. In fact I remembered today that probably the longest Dawgs-related writing I’d done since then was in the car (my girlfriend was driving) on the way back from New Orleans, in a hyper-pragmatic and slightly sad mindset. Trading texts with the Chapel Bell Curve guys I wrote:

I don’t know if y’all have plans to do a recap but had an echo chamber in my head after reading Dawg tweets so figured I’d reach out.

The offense doesn’t work if they miss on the deep ball.

So in that way Jake is somewhat to blame after the miss to Mecole on the first drive and the missed read that should’ve gone to Terry in the end zone. But after that really not much left to be analyzed.

Crowd gets involved and the LSU D can sell out on the run. O got off schedule and had trouble getting back on. Thought the D did a pretty great job winning first down and causing havoc. But missed assignments, poor ILB gap fits, and poor tackling in the secondary undid the good. All things we’ve been anticipating hurting at some point.

We both wrote and podcasted that this would be a team whose O would have to pick up its D in order to win against good opponents. Didn’t happen yesterday. In terms of adjustments, I’ve dreamed of a tempo passing game that can pick up the running game if it isn’t there. We saw a little magic from it in the second half yesterday. More of that sooner would be welcome. Fields basically running the same shit he did yesterday periodically flips the numbers balance as well. There is a nice balance to be struck between him and Fromm. It can work and doesn’t require that 1 gets multiple full drives a game.

The real tragedy here is that the media and silly fans will invent a controversy that isn’t there. Jake can play, just had a bad day. I’ve never known a college Q who started his freshman year and then had a linear growth curve for the remainder of it. It looks that way if zoomed out, but if you zoom in, you basically see a periodized, saw-tooth curve with failures and successes – each failure precipitating a greater success. His greatest issue now is that he’s smart and knows more than he did last season. He’s seeing it all, just needs to speed his decisions back up.

I write about the Dawgs for the people taking to Twitter now, but in all reality I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to effect them much. I’d be better off suggesting they just get another hobby so that the fate of their entire happiness isn’t balancing precariously on 12 games a year. This may not be *the* team that wins a title, but they are a good team. Maybe great. Great teams get tested. They got popped in the mouth. To Dawgnation would say CTFO and lets see how they respond.

Bear in mind that Twitter was basically a crypt for a week following the game so forgive my angst. But the points remain — this offense works really nicely if they can manage to hit the big play. As soon as they hit one, defenses creep back, removing any extra players they may have had cheating up to defend the run.

Just like LSU, Alabama will try to take the run game away all day tomorrow until Jake demonstrates that they have to contend with him. He’ll have his opportunities — both because the Dawgs have the athletes to force the issue downfield and because the stats say Alabama is going to serve a few of them up.

If he can hit one or a few and if they can manage to stay ahead of the chains on early downs, the Dawgs can score on this defense.

In the Got Dang Redzone

I am in a very lonely, one-person camp that doesn’t think the Dawgs have actual issues in the redzone. They have an enormous (and terrifyingly athletic) set of linemen, at least one size-advantaged receiver in Holloman, two more that have elite ball skills in Godwin and Ridley, they have a battering ram in Holyfield, a chimera in Swift, and both Justin Fields and Jake Fromm.

I promise this an issue of scheme and I’m glad that they ran into trouble with it several times this season so that they are prepared tomorrow afternoon.

Jake isn’t a great “sneak” quarterback. It seems simple, but there’s a small skill set there he could afford to practice in the offseason. Running the inside-the-three offense out of the spread with Fields and any of the backs would be my go-to. Any zone read look with an RPO swing pass, slant, or hitch tacked on. Auburn is so good at this crap it hurts:

I also had some fun with this on sticky notes a couple weeks ago. Imagine for a moment the Dawgs were to have the ball inside the opponent’s three-yard-line. They’d line up in their traditional goal-line “heavy” look with a couple exceptions. Fields would be in at QB, Justin Shaffer or another one of the “heavy” package tight ends would be in at full back, and Isaiah Wilson would sit back as the third tight end:

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At Fields’ signal the formation shifts to unbalanced left…with Wilson as the lone back:

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At the snap of the ball Holyfield takes out the backside pursuit and everyone blocks toward an apex point in the end zone – ye ole wedge play from Pop Warner with Big Nasty on the carry:

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I tweeted it out and the man himself thought it was a good idea:

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I’m just sayin’, he’s got experience:

It’s kind of a joke, but also I’m kind of serious.

A Prediction From S&P+

S&P+ has this game at a three-point spread with Alabama favored. BillC has stated multiple times this year how he’s been thinking S&P+ has Bama underrated. Someplace between that and the 13-point spread Vegas has is probably about right.

If the Dawgs find themselves within ten points of Bama entering the fourth quarter, you have reason to believe.

After all, you got Rod:

If they don’t and Bama walks away with it, you can bet they won’t walk away comfortably. Whatever team gets them in the playoff will have a debt to pay the Dawgs. Whatever the outcome, Bama leaves this game beaten and bloody.

Go freaking Dawgs, to hell with Alabama!

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