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Iron Bowl: Inside the Numbers

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Auburn and Alabama are, arguably, the two most complete teams in college football, but neither is perfect.

Historically, when both Iron Bowl contestants are in the top ten, the game has almost always lived up to its billing. Expect that to continue to be the case as two of the most complete teams in college football face off in what is certainly an elimination game for Auburn and could, justly or unjustly, potentially prove to be one for Alabama.

Given the overall lack of weaknesses for either of these squads, instead of going through every matchup within the matchup and, more or less, simply gushing about the pair’s strengths versus strengths, it’s more pragmatic to focus on the rare points of possible exploitation, i.e. strengths versus (relative) weaknesses.

Finding just one capitalizable imperfection per facet of the game was hard enough as is, and it is perfectly safe to assume that if it isn’t covered here it is simply a strength versus a strength and a must-see viewing experience, as if the Iron Bowl weren’t already.

Auburn’s Offense: Short Yardage Conversions

The Tigers are converting 79% of their third and fourth down conversions, with two or fewer yards to the sticks. They are also only allowing stuffs on 14.5% of their carries, a credit to both the offensive line and running backs. Those rates are good for 13th and 9th in the nation, respectively.

Meanwhile, Alabama is allowing conversions on 71.4% of tries under the same parameters, which ranks 89th, and stuffing opposing ball carriers 22.7% of the time (32nd in FBS).

Alabama’s rush defense, as a whole, is very good -- amongst the nation’s best -- but the defensive line is not what it has been in years past. It doesn’t feel right to say that Auburn’s offensive line may be able to create some push up front, but that’s what the numbers would suggest.

Kerryon Johnson has rushed for more yards between the tackles than anyone in the SEC this year, averaging more than five yards per carry, only 1.9 of which is coming after contact. Granted, the Tide are allowing just two yards per carry between the tackles, so something’s got to give. Fittingly, in the bizarro world that has been the 2017 college football season, it appears to be Alabama’s front seven.

Alabama’s Offense: Wear Them Down

Quite frankly, even this is a bit of a reach. Auburn has the best, most complete defense in college football. There’s small stuff to nitpick, depth for example, but even that’s a stretch.

Still, Auburn is in the top ten for defensive S&P+ (an opponent adjusted metric from SBNation writer Bill Connelly that combines efficiency and explosiveness) during the first three quarters. Their ranking drops to 30th in the fourth quarter. It’s still a bit of a conundrum, however, as Auburn has been more susceptible to the pass during that final frame, whereas Alabama would, theoretically, be more apt to attack via the run with its endless stable of backs.

This one doesn’t feel great, but there might be a little something there.

Auburn’s Defense: Getting After Jalen Hurts

Alabama has thrown the ball on just under 34% of its offensive plays this year, so it will be important for the Tigers to capitalize on what will likely be limited opportunities. When they do drop back, though, Jalen Hurts has been sacked 8.7% of the time. Alabama’s opponent adjusted sack rate ranks 103rd in the country.

Comparatively, Auburn’s opponent adjusted sack rate stands at eighth, nationally. This is due, in large part, to Jeff Holland’s emergence as, arguably, the most effective pass rusher in college football. The junior leads the team with nine sacks, and has recorded a pressure on an average of approximately one out of every five pass rushes.

For context, if someone was playing a football video game on the hardest setting and one of the CPU’s players was averaging a pressure on 20% of his rushes, the user would be well within his or her rights to place their controller inside their television with a rage fastball.

He will have an interesting matchup, expected to predominantly line up across from Alabama’s Matt Womack, who, while having not allowed any sacks, has given up a pressure on almost 5% of his pass pro snaps, which could be considered middling, at best.

Alabama’s Defense: When Auburn Gets Behind Schedule

Auburn ranks 21st in the country for offensive success rate -- gaining 50% of the necessary yardage to move the chains on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th downs -- with a mark of 46.2%. Then again, Alabama is 8th in defensive efficiency, allowing opposing offenses to stay on schedule just 33.2% of the time.

When Auburn inevitably does get behind where it wants to be, from time to time, that team is in a particularly bad spot. The Tigers drop from 11th in the country in opponent adjusted S&P on standard downs to 59th on passing downs, whereas Alabama’s defense holds in the top three, regardless.

As alluded to earlier, Alabama isn’t piling up tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage against the run, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowing yards in chunks. Less than 30% of opposing carries gain five or more yards (3rd in FBS), while Auburn only picks up five or more yards on 40.1% of runs (51st).

That means, even when Auburn picks up a yard or two on first down and second downs, their backs will be against the wall much more than it would appear, outwardly, which does not bode well against a Tide defense that ranks number one in opponent adjusted S&P on both of those downs.

Auburn’s Special Teams: Kickoffs

Auburn currently sits in the top 15 for kickoff success rate, mostly on account of Daniel Carlson notching a touchback 73.8% of the time. Alabama ranks 100th overall, with a 36.4% kick return success rate.

The Crimson Tide take a touchback on kickoffs more often than all but nine FBS teams. Carlson’s kicks are touchbacks more often than all but five kickers.

When Alabama does bring the ball out, they are 72nd in yards per return.

Auburn’s kickoff coverage has had a couple of lapses, but with Carlson it doesn’t really matter.

People don’t like to acknowledge special teams, but they matter. They will matter more than ever for Auburn, on Saturday, as the Crimson Tide go into the game in the top five in average starting field position, given that the team who wins the field position battle wins the game 72% of the time.

Alabama’s Special Teams: Punting

For all the reasons that Alabama is undefeated, the one highlighted above, about field positioning, is near the top of the list. JK Scott is an absolute weapon, in that respect. 21 of his 38 punts have been fair caught, and 22 have been downed inside the 20-yard line.

When Scott’s punts are returned, Alabama ranks second in the country allowing 1.25 yards per return.

All things considered, Alabama ranks 7th in punting success rate.

On the flipside, Auburn is 98th in punt return success rate. They have not returned a single punt for 30+ yards, and have averaged less than ten yards per return.

***

The 2017 Iron Bowl will, overarchingly, be a show of strengths versus strengths. Auburn and Alabama have the best two defenses in college football, and a couple of the more effective offenses.

There may be a series of slight edges for each team, but the units that are best able to exploit the more gaping deficiencies will be the ultimate difference makers.

Top to bottom, there isn’t a more complete team in the sport than Auburn or Alabama. However, neither are totally perfect. That said, perfection is about what it will take to walk away victorious, come Saturday afternoon.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP