Alabama Scoring Defense, 2007 – 2015: Trends and Variations

The Notorious PAB is back with a more in-depth analysis of the Alabama defense since 2007.  We thought it would be an interesting topic, given all of the attention the statistical regression of the defense has garnered of late.  Enjoy!

Alabama Scoring Defense, 2007 – 2015: Trends and Variations

Introduction

In this post, we continue our examination of Bama’s scoring defense during Nick Saban’s tenure as head coach, an effort that started with the September 19 post, “Can Alabama Win Games Defensively, a la 2009?”  We look a) at how points scored and points allowed have changed from one season to the next, and b) at how figures from losses have varied from seasonal averages.

Two very reasonable questions can be asked about this approach. One, why emphasize scoring  defense and scoring?  Two, why focus on losses?

First, scoring defense encapsulates the overall defensive effort.  Yards allowed, three-and-outs, passes defended, and so on are important.  Similarly, points scored is the most fundamental metric for an offense.  At the end of the game, it’s those big numbers on the scoreboard, right next to the teams’ names, that signal a W or an L.

Second, we can often learn more from a loss than a win.  What does a 56 – 3 romp over an overmatched, non-conference opponent tell us?  (Yes, coaches can learn a lot from detailed film study, but for the rest of us…)  When engineers test products, one technique is to operate a unit until failure, closely examine the event and identify the cause(s).  We’re doing a little of the same here.

There is very little margin for error for teams that aspire to play for a national championship.   During the BCS era (1998 – 2013), 24 SEC teams competed in BCS bowl games.  The most losses any of those teams had was three: LSU, 9 – 3, in the 2001  Sugar Bowl.  Five SEC teams were undefeated.  Alabama was 12-1 when it represented the SEC in the first-ever College Football Playoff after the 2014 season.

While this is “apple and oranges” a bit, in the NFL, 10 wins in a 16 game season – .625 winning percentage – is almost always good enough to qualify for the playoffs.  How many head coaches at elite Power Conference college programs would remain employed with a similar winning percentage over time?  Losses have consequences.

In the future, we intend to narrow our focus to just SEC games, distinguishing East from West, and – if we can find reliable data – to look at the impact of turnovers.

Prelude – The Crimson Tide’s 2006 Season

The 2006 season was Mike Shula’s fourth and last as the Crimson Tide’s head coach.  The defensive coordinator was Joe Kines, who was also in his fourth season.  Breaking down the season record:

  • Non-conference: 4 – 0
  • SEC: 1 – 2 vs. East ;  1 – 4 vs. West
  • Regular season: 6 – 6
  • Postseason: 0 – 1
  • Overall: 6 – 7

Average scored:  22.9 PPG     Average allowed:  19.3 ppg     Average difference:  +3.6 ppg

Observations

Looking at defensive efforts, Bama was at or better than average points allowed against nonconference foes Hawaii (17), Lousiana Monroe (7), Duke (14) and Florida International (3).  Against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Independence Bowl, Bama gave up 34 points – 14.8 points worse than average – but lost by only three points, 31 – 34.  The offense stepped up.

The two SEC wins are interesting.  The Vanderbilt game was a low-scoring affair, 13 – 10, but the difference was very close to the season average of 3.7 ppg.  The Ole Miss contest, ending at 26 – 23,  was the most representative game of the season.  Points scored was +3.1 ppg above average, points allowed +4.8 above (+ here indicates “worse”), and the 3-point difference was, again, very close to the 3.7 ppg season average.

Most of the Tide’s six SEC losses were rather close.  The season average for points allowed was 19.3 ppg compared to Arkansas (24), Florida (28), Tennessee (16), Mississippi State (24) and Auburn (22).  Only Florida exceeded the season average for points allowed by more than a touchdown.

Notes

1) All six wins were subsequently vacated.

2) Lost the Iron Bowl, 15 – 22.

3) Lost to Oklahoma State (Big 12) in the Independence Bowl, 31 – 34.

================================================

2007 Season /  Overall Record 7 – 6 ( 5 wins later vacated )

Defensive Coordinator:  Kevin Steele (1st season)

Average scored:  27.1 ppg     Average allowed: 22.0 ppg     Average difference:  +5.1 ppg

2007 compared to 2006

  • Average scored: 1 ppg vs. 22.9 ppg ;  4.2 ppg improvement  (+18.3%)
  • Average allowed: 0 ppg vs. 19.3 ppg ;  2.7 ppg decline  (-14.0%)
  • Average difference: 1 ppg vs.  3.6 ppg ;  1.5 ppg improvement  (+41.7%)

2007 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 8 out of 8
  • Average difference: 8 out of 8

Georgia (SEC East):  23 – 26

  • Difference: -3
  • Variation from average points scored: -4.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: -4.0
  • Total variation: -8.1

Florida State (ACC):  14 – 21

  • Difference: -7
  • Variation from average points scored: -13.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: +1.0
  • Total variation: -12.1

LSU (SEC West):  34 – 41

  • Difference: -7
  • Variation from average points scored: +6.9
  • Variation from average points allowed: -19.0
  • Total variation: – 12.1

Mississippi State (SEC West):  12 – 17

  • Difference: -5
  • Variation from average points scored: -15.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: +5.0
  • Total variation: -10.1

LA – Monroe (Sun Belt):  14 – 21

  • Difference: -7
  • Variation from average points scored: -13.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: +1.0
  • Total variation: -12.1

Auburn (SEC West ; Iron Bowl):  10 – 17

  • Difference: -7
  • Variation from average points scored: -17.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: +5.0
  • Total variation: -12.1

Observations

Two things really jump out about the 2007 season.  First, the improvement in average difference – stated in percentage terms – was big: 41.7%.  Second, in losses to Florida State (ACC), LSU (SEC West), Louisiana-Monroe (Sun Belt) and Auburn (SEC West) the total variation from season averages was exactly the same: -12.1 ppg.

In the Florida State game, points scored was -13.1 vs. season average.  Against LSU, points scored was +6.9 while points allowed was -19.0.  Versus Louisiana-Monroe, points scored was -13.1.  Finally, in the Iron Bowl, the variation from average points scored was -17.1, while points allowed was +5.0.  In summary, the defense played well in three of the four losses that produced a -12.1 total variation.

Notes

1) Nick Saban’s first season as Crimson Tide head coach.

===============================

2008 Season /  Overall Record 12 – 2

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (1st season, had coached defensive secondary)

Average scored:  30.1 ppg     Average allowed:  14.3 ppg     Average difference:  +15.8 ppg

2008 compared to 2007

  • Average scored: 1 ppg vs. 27.1 ppg ;   3.0 ppg improvement  (+11.1%)
  • Average allowed: 14.3 pps vs. 22.0 ppg ; 7 ppg improvement  (+35.0%)
  • Average difference: 15.8. vs. 5.1 ppg (+209.8%)

2008 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 6 out of 8
  • Average difference: 7 out of 8

Florida (SEC East ; SEC Championship Game):  20 – 31

  • Difference: -1
  • Variation from average points scored: -10.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: -16.7
  • Total variation: -26.8

Utah (Mountain West ; Sugar Bowl):  17 – 31

  • Difference: -14
  • Variation from average points scored: -13.1
  • Variation from average points allowed: -16.7
  • Total variation: -29.8

Observations

The numbers clearly show that the Tide offense was more prolific and the defense stingier, season over season.  But the story is much more than that.  2008 was a pretty remarkable achievement.  In the second year of Coach Saban’s tenure, Bama went from 7- 6 in 2007 (including loss to LA-Monroe, for heaven’s sake) to shutting out Auburn in the Iron Bowl, playing for the SEC Championship, and appearing in the Sugar Bowl, ending with a final record of 12 – 2.  Can you say “major uptrend?”

Credit the defense for that uptrend.  Points scored improved 11.1% over the previous season.  Not shabby.  Points allowed, on the other hand, was better by an eye-popping 35.0%.  The defense got better more quickly, providing the offense with some breathing room.

Notes

1) Won the Iron Bowl, 36 – 0.

===============================

2009 Season /  Overall Record 14 – 0

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (2nd season)

Average scored:  32.1 ppg     Average allowed:  11.7 ppg     Average difference:  +20.4 ppg

2009 compared to 2008

  • Average scored: 1 ppg vs. 30.1 ppg ;  2.0 ppg improvement  (+6.6%)
  • Average allowed: 11.7 ppg vs. 14.3 ppg ; 2.6 ppg improvement (+18.2%)
  • Average difference: 4 ppg vs. 15.8 ppg ; 4.6 ppg improvement  (+29.1%)

2009 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 3 out of 8
  • Average difference: 5 out of 8

Observations

One feature of a perfect season: no losses to analyze.  Scoring defense and offensive production both got better.  Once again, the Bama D led the way.  Improvement in points allowed (+18.2%) was almost three times the improvement in points scored (+6.6%).  The 2009 effort was well-balanced: ranking third for points allowed and fifth for points scored among Coach Saban’s eight completed seasons.

Notes

1) Opened season by winning Chik-fil-a Kickoff Game vs. Virginia Tech (ACC), 34 – 24.

2) Won the Iron Bowl, 36 – 21.

3) Won the SEC Championship vs. Florida, 32 – 13.

4) Won the BCS National Championship over Texas (Big 12), 37 – 21.

==============================

2010 Season / Overall record 10 – 3

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (3rd season)

Average scored:  35.7 ppg     Average allowed:  13.5 ppg     Average difference:  +22.2 ppg

2010 compared to 2009

  • Average scored: 7 ppg vs. 32.1 ppg ;  3.6 ppg improvement  (+11.2%)
  • Average allowed: 5 ppg vs. 11.7 ppg ; 1.8 ppg decline  (-15.4%)
  • Average difference: 2 ppg vs. 20.4 ppg ;  1.8 ppg improvement  (+8.8%)

2010 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 4 out of 8
  • Average difference: 4 out of 8

South Carolina (SEC East):  21  – 35

  • Difference: -14
  • Variation from average points scored: -14.7
  • Variation from average points allowed: -21.5
  • Total variation: -36.2

LSU (SEC West):  21 – 24

  • Difference: -3
  • Variation from average points scored: -14.7
  • Variation from average points allowed: -10.5
  • Total variation: – 25.2

Auburn (SEC) West: 27 – 28

  • Difference: -1
  • Variation from average points scored: -8.7
  • Variation from average points allowed: -14.5
  • Total variation: -23.2

Observations

The 2010 record of 10-3 was definitely a step backward from the perfect 2009 season.  Both the South Carolina and LSU defeats were marked by two touchdown (-14.7 point) negative variations from the season average for points scored.  Unfortunately, these games were not defensive struggles.  Bama gave up three touchdowns (-21.5) more than usual to the Gamecocks and 10.5 points more than its season average to LSU.

The Tide’s scoring defense improved by almost touchdown (to only -8.7 points) against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but scoring was off by just over two touchdowns (-14.5 points).

In terms of total variation, the LSU and Auburn games were similar (-25.2 points and -23.2 points, respectively), but South Carolina was a definite outlier with a total variation of -36.2 points.

Both average points scored and average points allowed for 2010 rank fourth among Coach Saban’s eight completed seasons.  The balance that was achieved in 2009 continued.

Notes

1) Won the Citrus Bowl vs. Michigan State (Big 10), 49 – 7.

===============================

2011 Season / Overall Record: 12 – 1

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (4th season)

Average scored:  34.8 ppg     Average allowed:  8.2 ppg     Average difference:  +26.6 ppg

2011 compared to 2010

  • Average scored: 8 ppg vs. 35.7 ppg ;  0.9 ppg decline  (-2.5%)
  • Average allowed: 2 ppg vs. 13.5 ppg ; 5.3 ppg improvement  (+39.3%)
  • Average difference: 6 ppg vs. 22.2 ppg ;  4.4 ppg improvement (+19.8%)

2011 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 1 out of 8
  • Average difference: 2 out of 8

LSU (SEC West):  6 – 9

  • Difference: -3
  • Variation from average points scored: -28.8
  • Variation from average points allowed: -0.7
  • Total variation: -29.5

Observations

The Bama vs. LSU contest, which ended 6-9 in the Tiger’s favor and was the Tide’s ony loss in a BCS championship season, is certainly one of the more hard-fought defensive contest between elite opponents  that college football has ever seen.  It ranks right up there with the 1966 Notre Dame / Michigan State game, in which the #1 Fighting Irish (8-0) and the #2 Spartans (9-0) fought to a 10 – 10 tie.

Four facts stand out.

  • In surrendering those 9 points, Bama was less than one point (-0.7) off its season average for points allowed (8.5 ppg).  The Tide D, on average over 13 games, allowed less than one touchdown plus one field goal. 
  • Scoring defense was much improved over 2011, by +5.3 ppg, a stellar +39.3%.
  • Compared to all of Coach Saban’s other seasons, 2011 is the gold (crimson?) standard, ranking first in average points allowed and second in average points scored.
  • Whatever film study, game planning and adjustments were carried out by the Tide coaches, it paid off in the BCS Championship game when Bama shut out LSU, 21-0. Comparing the two games against LSU, the Tide was +9 points for scoring defense and +15 points for points scored in most important game on the biggest stage.  That +24 overall variance was huge compared to the 5.5 ppg overall improvement from 2011 to 2012.  Tigers were tamed!

Notes

1) Won BCS National Championship vs. LSU, 21 – 0

==============================

2012 Season / Overall Record 13 – 1

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (5th season)

Average scored:  38.7 ppg     Average allowed:  10.9 ppg     Average difference: +27.8 ppg

2012 compared to 2011

  • Average scored: 7 ppg vs. 34.8 ppg ;  3.9 ppg improvement  (+11.2%)
  • Average allowed: 9 ppg vs. 8.2 ppg ; 2.7 ppg decline  (-32.9%)
  • Average difference: 8 ppg vs. 26.6 ppg ; 1.2 ppg improvement  (+4.5%)

2012 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 2 out of 8
  • Average difference: 1 out of 8

Texas A&M (SEC West):  24 – 29

  • Difference: -5
  • Variation from average points scored: -14.7
  • Variation from average points allowed: -19.1
  • Total variation: -33.8

Observations

Notes

1) Opened the season by winning the Cowboys Classic vs. Michigan (Big 10), 41 – 14.

2) Won Iron Bowl, 49 – 0.

3) Won SEC Championship vs. Georgia, 32 – 28.

4) Won BCS Championship vs. Notre Dame (Independent, sort of), 42 – 14.

==============================

2013 Season / Overall Record 11 – 2

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (6th season)

Average scored:  38.2 ppg     Average allowed:  13.9 ppg     Average difference:  +24.3 ppg

2013 compared to 2012

  • Average scored: 2 ppg vs. 38.7 ppg ; 0.5 ppg decline  (-1.3%)
  • Average allowed: 13.9 ppg compared to 10.9 ppg ; 3.0 ppg decline (-27.5%)
  • Average difference: 2 ppg vs. 27.8 ppg ; 3.5 ppg decline  (-12.6%)

2013 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 5 out of 8
  • Average difference: 3 out of 8

Auburn (SEC West ;  Iron Bowl):  28 – 34

  • Difference: -6
  • Variation from average points scored: -10.2
  • Variation from average points allowed: -20.1
  • Total variation: -30.3

Oklahoma (Big 12 ; Sugar Bowl):  31 – 45

  • Difference: -14
  • Variation from average points scored: -7.2
  • Variation from average points allowed: -31.1
  • Total variation: -38.3

Observations

The Tide D did not perform well in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.   Surrendering 34 and 45 points, respectively.  Looking at points allowed, this constituted the absolute worst two-game sequence of Coach Saban’s time at The Cornerstone.  The timing was unfortunate as well, with these lapses coming in the Iron Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

Average points scored, average points allowed and average difference all declined compared to the previous season.  The change in average points scored was minimal (-1.3%).   Average points allowed was off only 3 points, but that works out to a -27.5%.  Surely disturbing to a program that had continued to improve over the years despite “spotlight” season openers, nonconference games against Power Conference teams and consistently brutal SEC schedules.

Comparing 2013 to all eight seasons in the Saban era, average points allowed came in at 5, while average difference had the pretty good rank of 3.  The Bama offense was able to compensate, in most cases, for a less-stingy defense.

Notes

1) Opened the season by winning the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game vs. Virginia Tech (ACC), 35 – 10.

==============================

2014 Season / Overall Record 12 – 2

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (7th season)

Average scored:  36.9 ppg     Average allowed:  18.4 ppg     Average difference:  +18.5 ppg

2014 compared to 2013

  • Average scored: 9 ppg vs. 38.2 ppg ;  1.3 ppg decline   (-3.4%)
  • Average allowed: 4 ppg vs. 13.9 ppg ;  4.5 ppg decline  (-32.4%)
  • Average difference: 5 ppg vs. 24.3 ppg ;  5.8 ppg decline  (-23.9%)

2014 rank among all completed seasons

  • Average points allowed: 7 out of 8
  • Average difference: 6 out of 8

Ole Miss (SEC West):  17 – 23

  • Difference: -6
  • Variation from average points scored: -19.9
  • Variation from average points allowed: -4.6
  • Total difference: -24.5

Ohio State (Big 10):  35 – 42

  • Difference: -7
  • Variation from average points scored: -1.9
  • Variation from average points allowed: -23.6
  • Total variation: -25.5

Observations

The losses to Ole Miss and Ohio State are almost polar opposites.  Against the Rebels, the average points allowed variance was a just a little more than a field goal (-4.6 points), but the offense scored 19.9 points less than its season average.   Ole Miss’s D was superior that day.  In the CFP semifinal game versus the Buckeyes, the situation was reversed: the offense was right at the season average, scoring 35 points, but gave up 42 to the decal-covered denizens of the Olentangy River.  The Buckeyes continued the prolific scoring that had generated 59 points against Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game, aka “The Beatdown of Bucky Badger.”

The season-over-season trend was definitely negative. The “downslope” that started in 2013 continued.  2014 ranked 7 out of 8 for average points allowed and 6 out of 8 with respect to average difference.  In percentage terms, average points allowed declined by 32.4%, while average difference declined by 23.9%.    Scoring average was only slightly down at -3.4%, which pretty much points the finger at the defensive side of the ball.

Notes

1) Opened the season by winning the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game vs. West Virginia (Big 12), 35 – 10.

2) Won the Iron Bowl, 55 – 44.

3)  Won the SEC Championship vs. Missouri, 42 – 13.

4) The loss to Ohio State was in College Football Playoff semifinal game.

==============================================

2015 Season (through 20 Sep 15) / Overall Record 2 – 1

Defensive Coordinator:  Kirby Smart (8th season)

Figures are based on the first three games in the 2015 season:

Bama 35 ….. Wisconsin 17 (W)

Bama 37 ….. Middle Tennessee State 10 (W)

Bama 37 ….. Ole Miss 43 (L)

Average scored:  36.3 ppg    Average allowed:  23.2 ppg     Average difference: +13.1 ppg

2015 (3 games) compared to 2014

  • Average scored: 3 ppg vs. 36.9 ppg ;  0.6 ppg decline  (-1.6%)
  • Average allowed: 2 ppg vs. 18.4 ppg ; -4.8 ppg decline  (-26.1%)
  • Average difference: 1 ppg vs. 18.5 ppg ;  5.4 ppg decline  (-29.2%)

Ole Miss (SEC West):  37 – 43

  • Difference: -6
  • Variation from average points scored (first two games): +1.0
  • Variation from average points allowed (first two games): -29.5
  • Total variation: -28.5

Observations

Going into the Ole Miss game, Bama was averaging 36.0 ppg on offense and 13.5 ppg on defense.  The offense had been very consistent, scoring 35 against Wisconsin and 37 versus Middle Tennessee State.  As one might expect, the defense gave up a few more points against a Big 10 opponent (17) than against a competitor from Conference USA (10).

For its first two games, the Ole Miss Rebels generated big scores against UT – Martin (Ohio Valley Conference), 76 – 3, and Fresno State (Big West), 73 – 24.

In its contest with Ole Miss, the Bama offense scored right at its season average, despite contending with an SEC West defense featuring some exceptional athletes.  I refer you to #5, one Robert Nkemdiche.

In the game – sorry, facts are facts – Bama lost five fumbles that led to all of Ole Miss’s 17 points in the first half (halftime score 10 – 17) and 24 overall.

Notes

1) Opened the season by winning the Cowboys Classic vs. Wisconsin (Big 10), 35 – 17.

Conclusion

As you can see, Alabama’s defensive statistics and, as a result, their margins of victory have been shrinking over the last three years.  Yes, the game has changed entirely since 2008 but the expectation should be for Alabama to continue to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, even if their defensive stats pale in comparison to the former Bama teams of 2009 and 2011.

In 2008, Alabama ranked 3rd in the country in defensive third down percentage.  In 2014, they ranked 41st.  In 2015, Bama is currently ranked 59th in defensive third down percentage.

In 2011, Alabama ranked #1 in the country in giving up the fewest plays of over 20 yards or more.  In 2014, Bama’s defense checked in at #50.  This year, the defense is ranked #65.  Not good.

Say what you will but Alabama’s defensive prowess is evidently on its way to slipping into some form of mediocrity and it’s been a steady decline over the last few years.

 

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