Alabama Football: 5 Statistics That Will Look Drastically Different in 2014
If there’s been one constant with the University of Alabama football program under the direction of Nick Saban it’s that none of the teams have been alike.
Granted, they’ve all played in the same schemes, and some of the changes have been minimal, but each team has had its own identity.
A good example is with the three national championship seasons. The 2009 squad rode Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and dynamic backup Trent Richardson. The 2011 defense might have been the best anyone’s ever seen in college football. The same could be said of the 2012 offensive line.
Alabama in 2014 will be no different in that respect, with the coaches trying to mold everything around the talent on the roster—and there’s a whole lot of it this year.
Here are five Crimson Tide statistical categories that could see sharp changes from 2013:
1. Third-Down Defense
One of Alabama’s biggest problems last season was that the defense couldn’t get off the field when it needed to the most. Not surprisingly, the unit’s worst performances were in the two losses and two closest games:
Texas A&M 5-8, 62.5 percent
LSU 7-12, 58.3
Auburn 8-15, 53.3
Oklahoma 7-15, 46.7
The two obvious explanations are that that the pass-rush was lacking at times (combined with lack of containment against mobile quarterbacks), with little consistency at cornerback.
The result was a spike in third-down conversions by opponents, at least by Alabama’s standards.
Year, National rank
Specifically, opponents successfully made a first down, or scored, on 61 of 176 opportunities last season, or 34.7 percent.The higher conversion rate in turn led to more plays and opportunities to score.
In 13 games last season Alabama defenders were on the field for 771 plays, during which they yielded 3,725 yards. They averaged 4.83 yards per play and 286.5 per game.
It’s almost unfair to compare last year’s defense to the 2011 Crimson Tide unit that pulled off a shutout in the BCS National Championship Game, but it’ll help make the point.
That year opposing offenses converted 45 of 184 third-down opportunities, 24.46 percent. The Alabama defense was only on the field for 720 plays, during which it gave up 2,287 yards, 3.32 per snap and 183.62 per game.
Consequently, opponents scored 12 offensive touchdowns against Alabama in 2011, compared to 21 last season.
With a better pass rush, and cornerbacks who will improve as the fall progresses, look for Alabama to be better on third downs this season.
2. Turnovers (lost)
A Sabanism, if you will, that the Alabama coach likes to regularly use with his quarterbacks is the old football adage that any offensive series that ends with a kick is a pretty good one.
There are three ways of doing so, with a punt, a field goal or an extra point.
In contract, Nick Saban feels that just about the worst thing his offense can do is turn the ball over, which Alabama did 17 times last season, with 10 fumbles lost and seven interceptions. That tied for 21st in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but was the Crimson Tide’s worst showing since it had 19 turnovers in 2008.
Interceptions, Return yards
Meanwhile, ball control has been a point of emphasis during this offseason.
A big reason why there were fewer loose balls is that AJ McCarron and his centers, usually Ryan Kelly, didn’t botch a single snap. The quarterback’s only fumble last season came near the end of the Sugar Bowl on a sack.
However, fumbles lost were up due to the running backs giving up seven, which us something Alabama fans aren’t used to seeing after Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson almost never lost the ball. It played a factor in Kenyan Drake taking fewer handoffs at the end of last season as the coaches sent a very clear message.
The guess here is that with a new quarterback, Alabama will have more fumbles in general (McCarron had seven with two lost in 2012), but fewer lost.
3. Turnovers (created)
There’s no way around the fact that Alabama’s defense was lacking when it came to turnovers last season.
Granted, safety Vinnie Sunseri returned two interceptions for touchdowns before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, and safety Landon Collins had one, but the Crimson Tide only created 19 turnovers last season. That tied for 80th out of 123 teams the NCAA ranked in the statistical category.
Out of 20 fumbles it only recovered eight, while the 11 interceptions were the fewest since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.
The 24 interceptions in 2009 were tied for the second most in Alabama history (with 1968), behind the 25 recorded in 1979. During the seven seasons before Saban’s arrival, Alabama averaged 12.4 interceptions, with a low of six in 2001 and high of 18 in 2002.
In comparison, Saban’s Michigan State teams averaged 12.4 pickoffs (with a high of 15 in 1995) and his LSU squads 15.2 (21 in 2003).
Look for Alabama to be closer to its average of 17.4 under Saban, if for no other reason than opponents targeting the revamped secondary.
4. Receiving Yards
This should actually be called the Amari Cooper category, because unless the wide receiver has more injury setbacks, the junior will be getting the ball a lot more this season.
After posting the first 1,000-yard receiving season by a freshman in Crimson Tide history, Cooper was limited by toe, foot and knee injuries through most of 2013.
Cooper didn’t notch any 100-yard performances until his last two games of the season, when combined he made 15 receptions for 299 yards. The rest of the season Cooper had 30 catches for 437 yards, for a total of 45 receptions in 12 games for 736 yards and four touchdowns.
"Obviously he's a guy that we want to get the ball to as many times as we can,” said Nick Saban this spring, with the coach also stating Cooper was so good that defenses almost have to double-team him.
If that wasn’t enough of a warning to opponents, new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has a reputation of going to a player until the defense stops him. For example, in 2012 Southern California wide receiver Marquise Lee made 118 receptions for 1,721 yards (14.6 average) and 14 touchdowns in 13 starts en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award, Paul Warfield Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Even though it won’t necessarily try and do so, Alabama will almost certainly notch more sacks this season.
In addition to having more depth in the defensive front seven, Kevin Steele is back coaching the interior linebackers and likewise Bo Davis with the defensive line. Unless something surprising happens, the Crimson Tide will be putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks after having just 22 sacks last season.
That ranked 86th in the nation, while Alabama finished fifth in total defense.
"Sacks have nothing to do with winning, nothing at all," Nick Saban said in 2009. "There's no stat in the NFL that says how many sacks you're getting contributes to winning. It's good to affect the quarterback. We affected the guy because he was throwing it so fast, we couldn't sack him. To me, that's affecting the quarterback, is it not? You can't hold it to throw down the field. "It's about affecting the quarterback. You don't have to sack him to affect him."
Consider the top 10 teams in the nation last year, along with their final records:
Rank, School, Games, Sacks, Average, Record
1 Louisville 13, 43, 3.31, 12-1
2 Utah 12, 39, 3.25, 5-7
3 South Alabama 12, 38, 3.17, 6-6
4 Washington 13, 41, 3.15, 9-4
5 Stanford 14, 44, 3.14, 11-3
6 Fresno St. 13, 40, 3.08, 11-2
7 Nebraska 13, 39, 3.00, 9-4
T Virginia Tech 13, 39, 3.00, 8-5
T Texas 13, 39, 3.00, 8-5
T Ohio St. 14, 42, 3.00, 12-2
T North Texas 13, 39, 3.00, 9-4
Just one of the top-10 teams in sacks finished in the top 15 in total defense: Louisville.
Nevertheless, a coach is definitely not going to turn down a sack.
Alabama sacks (2007-13)
The most sacks by a Saban-coached team was during his last season at Michigan State, 1999, when the Spartans notched 60 to go with 119 tackles for a loss.
When Saban was at LSU from 2000-04, the Tigers went from just 11 in 2000 (while giving up only nine), to 20, 27, 44 during the national championship season, and 37 in 2004.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics were compiled by the author from NCAA.com and the official team website.