Alabama Football: Offensive numbers mean little to Clemson matchup

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman /

Styles make for great matchups, not numbers. Alabama football’s offensive production this season means little against Clemson, and that is a good thing.

In American League baseball, when the two ace starting pitchers play in the same game, they do not actually face each other. Instead, they face each other’s teammates in their respective batting lineups. In the National League, unless his name is Madison Bumgarner, the two pitchers meeting across from each other is pretty irrelevant, as well.

The same should be said about offenses in football, especially in the college game.

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Football writers like to discuss offensive production numbers a great deal; however, the part that they conveniently leave out is the fact that the numbers are too subjective. Why? It gives the writer credibility by using statistics that lean in the direction of his or her argument.

It’s like chewing gum commercials: three out of four dentists approve this product only means something when it includes every dentist in the world in the survey. If the company only asked 100 dentists, and some seem more like the Dr. Isaac Yankem variety than good ones, then the statistic is pretty sketchy, to say the least.

Neil Paine of ESPN wrote a good analysis of the statistics for both Clemson and Alabama football. He includes a ton of numbers which suggests a great deal of research. He’s definitely not the Yankem type, based on his deductions from the stats.

Paine states that Alabama, statistically, “were not quite as dominant as a season ago: Going into the playoff, Elo considers the 2017 Tide to be 29.9 points per game better than an average FBS team, which is not only a far cry from their mark this time last year (40.2) but also ranks just fourth in the country this year, behind Clemson (32.6), Georgia (31.3) and Oklahoma (30.0).”

However, Paine is quick to realize that the Crimson Tide are not necessarily weaker for it. He sees Alabama football having a “greater balance” as a team than they were when they lost to Clemson a year ago. Instead of a team focused on having the most dominant defense in the country, with the offense trying not to hurt the team, Alabama has shifted its attention to improving the offense itself.

While Paine takes great pains to deliver solid statistical information to show Alabama’s tinkering of the offense, let’s just think through what has been observable to the fans’ eyes.

Last year’s Alabama offense, led mainly by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, was pretty safe. Freshman starting quarterback Jalen Hurts was under a lot of pressure to learn the playbook, learn how to lead the offense, and learn how to handle the media scrutiny in Alabama. Kiffin had Hurts either check his first target read or hand the ball off. If the first pass was not open, Hurts ran for whatever yards that he could get. The ball control was solid and kept the opposing offenses off of the field.

It was working, so why fix it?

Then, Clemson happened in the national championship.

In 2016, the Tigers allowed only 181.9 yards per game through the air, while making opposing quarterbacks’ lives not worth living. The tenacious defensive line and the linebackers combined for 48.5 sacks, which helped the team also earn 20 interceptions by rushing passes.

Alabama, for the most part, kept to the game plan that gave them success throughout the season. That plan was part of the problem. Clemson lived with the runs that Bo Scarbrough made, as long as Hurts could not beat them downfield. Eventually, when Scarbrough was injured and removed from the equation, the Clemson defense zoned in on Hurts.

No other Alabama rusher earned more yards than Scarbrough’s 93 yards and Hurts’ 63, which came more from scrambling to avoid sacks than it did from planned runs. Clemson prided itself on getting to the quarterback quickly and Hurts’ quick look before tucking the ball only played into the Tigers’ game plan.

This season, Clemson’s defense has kept up the momentum, earning 44 sacks in just 13 games.

Alabama, on the other hand, has changed their offensive style. Hurts has protected the ball even better than last year, but it has been because of making better passes deeper into his second or third reads. He has stayed in the pocket more often, allowing his offensive line to do their jobs while he has found more wide receivers and tight ends open in the secondary.

Sure, Hurts’ touchdowns are down, but so are his interceptions (nine to one) and his quarterback rating is up (139.1 to 157.1). He also has been pulled more often in games where the game was already won before the second half started.

Why the discrepancy of the numbers? Who cares?

A quarterback tucking the ball more than half the time was always going to lose to Clemson in the last national championship, just like he would lose to them in this year’s Sugar Bowl. The style does not fit against the Clemson defense.

A quarterback who is more balanced, making defenses have to guess what will happen and making them tired in the process, has a better shot at beating Clemson. That’s what Deshaun Watson did to Alabama’s top-ranked defense: he could run just as well as he could throw the ball. A dual threat is much more deadly than a safe one-trick QB.

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One could argue that Alabama has been preparing Hurts for a revenge game against Clemson all year. They have not been dominating scores against other teams like they did last season, but that was last season. Numbers mean nothing against a team one has not played in a year. What does it matter if the numbers are supposedly smaller than last season? Hurts’ new style is set to beat Clemson, not to dominate as the greatest quarterback in the history of the game.

And, unless someone changed the rules, the most important thing is winning the game, not how many points a team beat other opponents in the past.