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Graphing the Tide at Auburn: Bama was more efficient, but the Red Zone betrayed us

Bama was better, but had trouble finishing and had to rely on miracles instead

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Box score: Alabama at Auburn

Stat Alabama Auburn
Stat Alabama Auburn
Points 27 24
Total yards 451 337
Rush yards 192 244
Rush attempts 44 42
Yards per rush 4.4 5.8
Pass yards 259 93
Pass attempts 16-24 6-17
Yards per pass 10.8 5.5
1st downs 21 18
3rd down eff 6-17 4-12
4th down eff 2-2 0-0
Turnovers 0 3
Tackles 39 44
Sacks 3 2
Penalties-Yds 8-72 5-28
Possession 32:43 27:17

I hated watching this game, and you know, the Iron Bowl is turning out to be one of the least gratifying “Graphing the Tide” articles each year. Sure, the data can draw a counter-narrative in these games, as the on-field product is often wacky (especially at Auburn), but it’s like trying to read trends from a bowl of chaos.

Anyway, the box score basically agrees with the advanced metrics below on this one: Alabama’s offense was performing well beyond the resulting points on the board, with this game somehow coming down to last-second miracles despite the Tide out-gaining the Tigers by 114 yards (a substantial 33%). The rushing differentials were frustrating — especially when you know that most of the gains game on a few outlier plays — but in the end the team with the most “wins” in the box score came out on top (if not entirely or apparently for those reasons).

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Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

And, yep, here’s the “controversial counter” to the narrative that the Tide didn’t play well: they had a substantial cumulative efficiency advantage over the course of the game, even after a 4th-quarter nosedive brought them within 8% points of Auburn — still a size-able SR win at 48% vs. 40%. If I saw this chart out of context after the game, I’d have assumed we won by 14-21 points.

But the devil is in the details — or, at this point, I think the Devil lives under Pat Dye field — and that other metric on this chart does exist. Despite a stronger 1st quarter or so from the Tide, the Tigers kept up on explosiveness throughout the game, clawing back with QB draws and busted runs. Neither team had a particularly high XR, but Alabama squeaked out the advantage late — remember the play? — with a 14% to Auburn’s 12%.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

And, dang, isn’t this chart telling. On the Alabama side, it’s a vision of efficiency and balance, with both the rushing and passing games contributing to a solid effort well above league averages.

On Auburn’s side, there basically wasn’t a passing game: five total successful passes in this game charts like Army’s offense, including 3 of them being explosive. Unfortunately, the Tigers didn’t need to pass to stay in this game, as their rushing offense picked itself off the mat early and floated in the high ranges throughout, slowly drifting in the 2nd half.

But try flipping between these charts quickly, one after another. Note that Auburn’s “great rushing attack” in this one merely matches that of the Tide ... and their passing game was almost DOA. So how does a team with only one phase of effective offense end up in the lead against a team with two?

Rushing rate (cumulative)

Both teams rushed a lot in this one ultimately — for Alabama, I think it was more of a “surprise, Milroe ran” variety — but Auburn learned quickly that that was their only card to play, so they committed heavily and stayed.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

If there is something to say about Auburn’s rushing attack, it’s that it was a lot more explosive than Alabama’s. Usually teams don’t rely on rushing to generate explosiveness, but alas, QB draws and broken coverages resulted in Auburn’s running game exploding more than you’d typically expect. No, I don’t know why.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

That first quarter was lovely, with the Tigers in negative territory and the Tide riding high. Alabama also had another boost to the Average Extra Yards metric with that 68-yard TD pass to Jermaine Burton (perhaps another miracle, though we didn’t know it at the time).

Both offenses went quiet in the 4th, but only one of those offenses ended on this line:

“Jalen Milroe pass complete to Isaiah Bond for 31 yds for a TD (Will Reichard KICK)”

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

The quarters chart isn’t as kind to the Tide: that 1st quarter success was really important to our statistical advantage here, and with how the Tide was looking then, some of us were thinking this was going to be a blowout.

Alas, the Tigers showed some explosiveness in the 2nd quarter (on a higher play count), won the 3rd quarter (so much for our famed halftime adjustments), but then thankfully cratered even further than Alabama did in the 4th. Sheesh.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

The Drives chart is another echo of the weirdness from this game: flip back and forth between these charts, and the red team sure did look like it had more successful drives.

But Auburn’s outsized scoreboard success leaned on three things:

  1. Short, explosive drives (their drive 5, 9)
  2. One of those “lowest possible Success Rate that still moves the chains” drives (drive 7, and kinda drive 17)
  3. And a few drives where they weren’t all that efficient, but every efficient play was also explosive (drive 13, 15, and Alabama had one in drive 16)

It’s a weird combination of factors — very fitting for this particular team playing in this particular stadium — and one I’m really looking forward to not seeing again for 2 years.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Weirdly, Alabama won on all of the downs — crucially, including 4th down — except for the 2nd. Does that seem like a “this game was tied late” stat to you? Me neither. But apparently Auburn lived entirely on average 2nd down efficiency and high explosiveness on 3rd downs. The latter is important but the general story is a head-scratcher.

Alabama was an absolute monster on 1st downs, with a 21% XR inside of a superb 62% SR. We’ve covered this storyline a few times this season, but strong 1st downs, even when they don’t convert, are a recipe for getting higher SRs (easier to convert) on following downs.

Meanwhile, 2nd down is a bummer. Remember all of the times you’ve yelled at Tommy Rees to stop rushing it up the middle on 2nd down? Well you were correct (again) and this is what that correctness looks like (26% SR, 0% XR on 2nd downs).

Finally, I’d been afraid of this “Alabama lives on 3rd downs” story all year, and it started creeping up here (our 1st half 3rd down conversion rate was suspiciously good). It ended up drifting in the 2nd half, but indeed we still had the advantage on 3rd and had to make some 4th downs to win the dang thing.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

And, yep, given that 3rd downs didn’t present a huge gap in this game, this is the other big culprit you look at when teams are so statistically uneven, but then scoreboard doesn’t line up with it. Alabama was much more efficient and explosive outside of the Red Zone — aka, in the large majority of plays in the game — but efficiency dropped off sharply inside the RZ.

Meanwhile, Auburn barely spent any time in the Red Zone (7 plays) but really made the most of those tries.

Hilariously, that last miracle pass by Milroe from ‘and goal’ does not count as a Red Zone play because it was so far out!

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

Alabama did it’s usual 2023 thing this week of being efficient from short yardage. Unfortunately, Auburn apparently mastered those distances this week, posting a 100% SR on their 5 tries from short.

Otherwise the chart is a little wacky. These tendencies don’t line up perfectly, of course, but I kinda equate the 10+ yards out line to our 1st down performance (both high SRs), and that miserable 7-9 yard distance performance (0% SR) I like to call “Tommy Rees calls a run from 2nd and long.”

Top Rushers

Jase McClellan had a pretty good game, all things considered, with a 50% SR on 14 attempts. Roydell Williams and Jam Miller got some play there too (see Jam’s 2/2), but unfortunately no Tide tailbacks got explosive rushes in this one. Fortunately, Jalen Milroe got two big ones, though I don’t love him having to run 14 times at “only” a 43% SR.

Damari Alston had solid efficiency against the Tide. Their other backs weren’t particularly efficient, but each back got some explosive plays that, in context, were all very explosive and very important in this near-upset

Top Passers

Jalen Milroe was a much, much, much better passer than Payton Thorne — not that that seemed to matter for 90% of this game — with his solid 54% SR, stellar 29% XR, and no interceptions in sight.

Payton Thorne was so bad but, fittingly, was still able to squeak out 3 explosive completions to keep Auburn in this game.

Top Receivers

Isaiah Bond! While putting him as the image feature in this article is no surprise — that catch was the highlight, and he’ll appear all over articles this week — he did deserve it for more than the single highlight. Isaiah was our leading receiver with 5 catches (at 80% SR), and 3 of those were explosive.

Jermaine Burton had some important contributions — including another explosive 3rd down conversion that should’ve counted (but the refs were cowards and otherwise terrible) — plus Amari Niblack and Malik Benson came down with explosive catches. But in our recent games we’ve usually had another receiver or two notch at least 1 for us.

On the Auburn side, barely anyone caught the ball at all, but Ja’Varrius Johnson was the most frequent recipient from that bunch.

Alabama tacklers vs. Auburn

Team Player SOLO TOT
Team Player SOLO TOT
Alabama Jaylen Key 5 7
Alabama Caleb Downs 5 5
Alabama Deontae Lawson 5 5
Alabama Malachi Moore 3 4
Alabama Justin Eboigbe 3 4
Alabama Dallas Turner 3 4
Alabama Tim Smith 2 3
Alabama Jihaad Campbell 2 3
Alabama Terrion Arnold 2 3
Alabama Tim Keenan III 2 3
Alabama Chris Braswell 2 2
Alabama Trezmen Marshall 1 2
Alabama Quandarrius Robinson 1 1
Alabama Roydell Williams 1 1
Alabama Jaheim Oatis 1 1
Alabama Kool-Aid McKinstry 1 1

We’ve got tacklers data this week. It’s no surprise anymore Caleb Downs up there towards the top, as he always seems to contribute big. But the other leader is DB Jalen Key, who we haven’t seen towards the top of these charts all season.

Otherwise, there weren’t as many defensive backs as usual on this chart, given that Auburn barely passed and seemed content rushing inside. Deonte Lawson put up 5 solos in his return to the rotation, and otherwise the defensive line and other linebackers filled in the gaps.

Other non-statistical thoughts on this game.

  1. Yes, Auburn deserved the early facemask. But I’d have happily given that up if I’d known that the refs would repent that original sin by siding with the home team on nearly every other close call.
  2. It was DPI in the End Zone (twice, really), the 3rd down was converted, and the newest Auburn “brilliant trick play that sure looks like it’s actually cheating” should’ve been called a false start given that players on the LOS were jumping around before the snap. I’m not sure how you draw the fine line between ‘receiver motion’ and jumping early (remember that skill players can be called for false starts too).
  3. Even non-ref bad breaks just kept coming: the lucky punt bounces for the Tigers, the bad snap late with the Tide so near the end zone, our formerly-rock-solid kicker missing another. I’ve tried to rationalize around the “Jordan Hare voodoo” thing but goddamned if it doesn’t really seem to exist.
  4. It’s astounding, given these stats, that Alabama was in a position where they had to rely on miracles to win this game, but it’s even more unusual and amazing that the miracles — muffed punt, 3rd-and-19, 4th-and-31 — actually came through.

Roll Tide. See you after the Dawgs.