Monday, August 20, 2007

"To every thing there is a season..."

In Ecclesiastes, Chapter Three, it is written "To every thing there is a season..." and indeed there is as such.

And that's true here at Outside The Sidelines, too. There was a time to begin and a time to grow, and now there is a time to move on.

At bottom, I'm just a football junkie, nothing more. If there are two teams fighting over a pigskin, I want to see it. Football is, in my opinion, the greatest sport in the world, and the competitive qualities of the game can, and often do, bring out the best in men. And beyond that, I love in-depth analysis, and have for nearly all of my adult life. For years, though, I always thought of football as a simplistic game, and it really didn't satiate the my desire for complicated things. Oh sure, I loved the game nonetheless, but it was in a passionate, non-analytical sense.

And then I started reading sites like Football Outsiders, and trying to understand the game on a technical level. Once I did those things, I realized that the game of football was just as complicated and complex as any thing you would ever find in the academic world, and that really sparked a fire for me. It really just combined two things that I love: football and in-depth analysis, and it just took things to a new level for me in that sense.

So, all of the number crunching and the analysis you've seen around here the past few months were basically all things I did on my own. I never really did it so I could do a blog or anything of that nature, I just did it because, well, I wanted to know those things. It was just that once you have the research already done, you may as well publish it for those who want to know. And thus the creation of Outside the Sidelines.

Unfortunately, not too many people are interested in those things. The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of people would much rather believe the quick-hitters from the talking heads and their cliches, rather than reading some real in-depth analysis that shows you how things really are. Sad enough, that's generally the truth. For every one person that reads the wonderful work at Football Outsiders, there are tens of thousands who listen to the misleading, pointless, and baseless drivel from ESPN.

Honestly, though, there's quite a few people who are apparently interested in the real in-depth analysis. I never expected Outside The Sidelines to be much of a success in terms of readers, but honestly it's done much better than expected. At this point, we're getting around 300 readers per day, and we're probably going to get 6,000 or 7,000 for the month. Honestly, I never imagined it would do this well; I'd been happy with 30 readers per day.

But, as Ecclesiastes tells us, "To every thing there is a season." And now is the time to move on.

I have been asked by the guys at Roll Bama Roll to join their site as a writer, and I've decided to accept their offer. Roll Bama Roll is a fine site -- in my eyes, the best 'Bama blog on the Internet -- and they want me to do what I've been doing here, just at their site. They've got a much bigger reader base than I do, and I think it's the best move. At the end of the day, it will just make what research that I do available to many, many more people.

Nothing is going to change, mind you. We're going to do the exact same research that we have done here, it will just be at a new site. The only thing that you will change is that you will have to go to, instead of, to read it. And actually, things will get much better. We're going to chart games this year, and we're going to be able to do some advanced analysis that will make what we've done thus far look elementary. To borrow a line from Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

As said earlier, the move is for the best. And for all of the research we've done so far, Outside The Sidelines will remain up, so you'll still be able to access all that has been done thus far.

Nevertheless, for better or for worse, to all of the readers of Outside The Sidelines, I extend to you a heartfelt thanks for taking the time -- and I realize it generally takes a lot of time to read the things around here -- to read through all of the analysis that I have done over the past few months.

I hope that you all will join us at Roll Bama Roll. Rest assured, if you liked what you read here, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bye Weeks & Strength of Schedule

In the comments of the earlier post on strength of schedule, someone wanted me to elaborate on how by weeks prior to a game affects the the overall strength of the schedule.

Long story short, an off week prior to a game definitely makes an impact on that particular game, no doubt about it. The recuperation time is different, the practice schedule is often different, etc. It's hard to make the argument that it doesn't make an impact.

But exactly what kind of an impact does it make?

Sometimes a team seemingly plays better following an off-week, and sometimes they seemingly regress, so there is no set fixed response to take into account.

Moreover, you would probably run into a situation where off weeks have different impacts depending on when they occur. Obviously, an off week in the second week of the season is very different than an off week in the ninth week.

Beyond that, when you play one of the Sisters of the Poor, it's effectively an off-week for all intents and purposes. How does that go into account?

Again, I'm not saying that bye weeks don't have an impact in this sense, but to be quite frank I really just do not see any way to legitimately quantify it in terms of an overall strength of schedule rating.

I suppose this could be a textbook example of the first half of the old saying that, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Inventing A New Metric: Strength of Schedule

Most of the mainstream statistics, often quoted as they may be, are generally worthless in terms of evaluating the true quality of football teams. And no statistic is more worthless than the one generally used to tabulate strength of schedule.

Here's a list of strength of schedule in 2006
, but don't even waste your time clicking the link, it's not worth the time. When strength of schedule is tabulated, how do they do it? Elementary style, that's how. They just add up the cumulative records of a team's individual opponents, do that for every team, and then rank each team based on opponent's winning percentage. At bottom, it's first grade logic mixed with third grade math.

There are just so many things wrong with that approach.

To begin with, teams with equal records are, in fact, not equal. That's a rather simple insight, but nevertheless it is something that the traditional strength of schedule tabulation does not take into consideration. For example, last year the USC Trojans and the TCU Horned Frogs both went 11-2, but is there really any doubt as to who was the far superior team? Of course not, but even so, both teams count the exact same in strength of schedule.

Beyond that, a few outlier teams can drastically sway a team's strength of schedule ranking when using the traditional tabulation. Take Notre Dame in 2006, for example. Critics argued that the Irish weren't particularly good and mainly won ten games because of a weak schedule. Notre Dame defenders, however, quickly pointed to the fact that the Irish schedule wasn't really that bad, and was in fact the 39th toughest out of the 120 FBS teams when using the traditional tabulation. But that's an incomplete response at best. Even if you use the traditional tabulation, once you break it down even further it's a poor argument. In reality, Notre Dame's ten wins came over teams with a combined record of 56-67 (.459 winning percentage). On the other hand, their three losses came against teams with a combined record of 31-5 (.861 winning percentage). At bottom, Notre Dame beat up on combination of the Sisters of the Poor and some mediocre teams, and then were annihilated when they faced good teams. The underlying reality is that you can have a poor schedule as a whole, but play a couple of really good teams and that will sway your strength of schedule rating into looking pretty solid.

Moreover, what about those other odd-ball things that affect games, like injuries? Obviously, those aren't accounted for, but they should be. Take Tennessee in 2006 for example. In a critical stretch (against LSU and Arkansas), Erik Ainge was injured. Now obviously, Tennessee was a much easier opponent without their star quarterback on the field, but in terms of strength of schedule, they go in the books as a 9-4 team regardless of it you faced Ainge or his back-up Johnathon Crompton. Obviously that's not right.

At bottom, without going into further detail, we really need to invent a new metric for determining strength of schedule simply because the current one is effectively meaningless, and because strength of schedule is highly important.

Nothing is concrete as of this minute, but I'm trying to come up with something for the 2007 season.

At the moment, though, I have a few ideas for how the system would work:
  • Division 1-AA teams would not count in any way whatsoever.
  • Non-BCS teams would count, but to a significantly smaller degree. For example, an 11-2 TCU team would not count as much as an 11-2 USC team.
  • Significant injuries (such as to a quarterback) will make a particular team count less in terms of strength of schedule
  • Expand the data by looking at not just wins and losses, but more advanced statistics such as Pythagorean Wins and the like.
We'll see as the 2007 season progresses.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

2007 Defense: Expect The Unexpected

Ten years ago, Mary Schmich penned a fine column for the Chicago Tribune, and in it dispensed the following advice:
"Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday."
All told, that's good advice for life in general. But it's also pretty good advice for the game of football as well.

Often times, you should expect the unexpected. The things you think will be major problems often times never come to fruition, and things you never think about suddenly pop up and cause havoc.

Take our team in 2006, for example.

Going into the season, everyone knew that the running game would be fine and that the offensive line would play much better, but the real concern was at quarterback with John Parker Wilson. As it turned out, though, Ken Darby showed up overweight and out of shape, which resulted in a poor running game, the line continued to struggle, and John Parker Wilson had a solid year. On defense, despite key losses, people thought that Ramzee Robinson would anchor a good secondary, Terrance Jones would step in and adequately replace the out-going Demeco Ryans, Juwan Simpson would blossom in full, and the real concern was at middle linebacker. As it turned out, of course, Robinson struggled greatly against every quality receiver he faced and the secondary was relatively poor. Terrance Jones was a shell of Demeco Ryans, and that was when he was healthy, Juwan Simpson had a poor year as both a player and a leader, and the main pre-season, concern, middle linebacker, turned into the best player on the entire defense with the rise of Prince Hall.

And now we are here with the 2007 season just 17 days away, and nearly everyone cites the defense as a major concern. Generally speaking, the argument is that the front seven is in major trouble, but the secondary will be very strong.

As they say, though, expect the unexpected. Don't be surprised if the exact opposite of what is expected unfolds in 2007.

The front seven, surprisingly enough, has the potential to be a good, solid unit. I know you hear all of the doom and gloom, but it's nonetheless true. Just follow me.

At defensive end, we are pretty strong. Wallace Gilberry is a four-year starter, and one of the better pure defensive ends in the conference. He is experienced, and plays with as much as heart as you will see from anyone. Moreover, with the right scheme, he can rush the passer, and is a very good defender against the run, something that can't be said of a lot of the more glamorous defensive ends in this conference. Bobby Greenwood will start opposite Gilberry, and he too is a good player. He is very talented, no doubt there, has good size and he has looked well in Fall practice. This is the same guy who made several freshman All-America teams, don't forget that.

At linebacker, it's actually a surprisingly strong group.

Prince Hall returns, and he was a beast a year ago. Honestly, he was the best player on our defense as a redshirt freshman, and he played most of the year overweight and out of shape. As Coach Kines said, he was about a biscuit away from putting his hand on the ground (i.e. moving to defensive end). For 2007, however, Hall has dropped about twenty pounds and is in noticeably the best condition he's been in since he arrived at the Capstone. Better conditioning and a year of experience should only make Hall an even better player.

Rolando McClain is a true freshman, but it is not absurd to expect good things out of him. Physically, he is about as gifted of an athlete as you will find. He is massive (6'4 and 255 pounds), but is also very athletic. Moreover, he's a smart kid, and an extremely hard worker. Beyond that, he is impressing everyone in Fall camp thus far. In fact, yesterday Nick Saban even specifically praised McClain at length, and any time the Nicktator doles out praise to anyone, you should take notice. You almost feel wary of saying it this early in his career, but objectively speaking, McClain has legitimate NFL caliber talent. He's young, but he will start and should be productive.

Zeke Knight will start at outside linebacker, and he too has loads of talent. The truth is, Zeke Knight is one of the most talented players on the entire roster. He's very big, strong, and quick. He was a top-notch recruit out of high school, and could have played for anyone. And now he's finally where he should have been all along: linebacker. Moreover, for the first time in his career, he's healthy now that the heart murmur has been corrected. He, too, has looked good in Fall practice, and a productive year, at the very least, can be expected from him. And honestly, given his freakish athletic abilities, Knight could very well turn into a playmaker.

Keith Saunders will man the Jack position, and he's a fifth-year senior with a good deal of experience. We'll eventually have better players at the Jack position, but we shouldn't be overly concerned with Saunders. He's a solid player, and he fared quite well at the Jack position during the A-Day game, and will likely have a solid senior season.

The only real concern in the front seven is the nose tackle. Bryan Motley will almost certainly start there, and he has some potential on down the road. Unfortunately, at the moment, he is also young, undersized, and inexperienced. It's just not going to be pretty on the interior defensive line, no two ways about it. With that in mind, however, the harsh truth of the matter is that we have been piss-poor on the interior defensive line ever since Jarrett Johnson, Kenny King, and Kindal Moorehead graduated after the 2002 campaign. At bottom, we have relatively poor players replacing relatively poor players.

So, when you look at the front seven, it's actually fairly promising. No, they aren't the second coming of the Steel Curtain, but they do have some potential, and should have a relatively solid campaign in 2007. Certainly the interior tackle play is a concern, but as 2004 and 2005 showed, as long as the rest of the front seven plays well, you can make up for poor interior line play. Moreover, considering we will have two very big inside linebackers (one at 235 and the other at 255), that will go a long way to helping shore up the run defense.

Again, the front seven certainly won't be great, but as long as injuries don't hit us particularly hard, it could be relatively productive. All things considered, it should be relatively good against the run, and Saban will use his usual complicated blitz schemes to get pressure on the quarterback.

The pass defense, however, could be a major problem.

For whatever reason, people have this idea that our pass defense in 2006 was good, but that simply is not true, and the advanced statistics made that harsh truth blatantly obvious. Nevertheless, a lot of people believe that notion, and a corollary of that false belief is that our pass defense, particularly with the addition of Saban and his expert tutelage, should be good in 2007.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to be that easy considering we must replace two starters from a secondary that wasn't particularly good to begin with.

Simeon Castille returns at cornerback, and he should have a good season. Aside from Castille, however, things are uncertain at best. Opposite Castille, no one in particular has stepped up to take the second cornerback spot. All in all, it seems to be a three-way battle between Kareem Jackson, Lionell Mitchell, and Marquis Johnson. Each player brings his a different skill set to the table, but at the moment none of them have stood out and taken the job. Moreover, the scary part is that Jackson and Johnson have never played any meaningful snaps, and Mitchell has only seen time as a nickel corner. It's all just one big question mark as to who starts opposite Simeon Castille.

The safety position, though, is a much bigger concern.

Rashad Johnson and Marcus Carter seem to be the likely starters, and honestly that's not a particularly good thing.

Johnson plays hard, but it's difficult to see him becoming more than just a replacement-level player. He is a former walk-on, and honestly his specialty may very well be special teams more than anything else. As mentioned earlier, he plays hard, but generally speaking there was just little-to-no production from him in 2006. Despite playing over 400 snaps, he registered only 26 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions, and no passes broken up. The Tennessee game provides a great example: despite Ainge throwing almost 50 passes and Johnson playing 60 snaps, he ended up with only two tackles (one solo, one assist), and no passes defensed of any kind. He seems like a good kid and a tough player, but there's just not much production to speak of from him.

Marcus Carter, while highly touted out of high school, is probably one of the worst safeties in the conference, and honestly he would be on the bench at most other SEC schools. He saw little meaningful playing time in 2004 and 2005, was terrible a year ago in 2006 as a part-time starter, and he looked just as bad at the A-Day game. He struggles in run support (see Keiland William's 38-yard touchdown run in the LSU game), plays with hesitance, and is poor in terms of pass coverage.

The harsh truth of the matter is that neither of these two guys are particularly good, and neither of them are "winning" starting jobs, so to speak. In reality, it's just that no one better has came along to beat them out, unfortunately. Honestly, we greatly need some other players to step up at safety. Michael Ricks could have probably started almost immediately, but he did not qualify. Justin Woodall is incredibly talented, but at the moment he still has not been able to crack the starting lineup. Corey Reamer has good size, but he's never been healthy, and doesn't seem to be contending for any meaningful playing time. Moreover, after knee surgery, his speed is a concern, which was probably one reason Saban experimented with him at linebacker in the Spring. Chris Lett could perhaps do it, but he hasn't practiced all Fall from complications with diabetes, so he is almost certainly going to redshirt. The truth is, if most practice reports are to be believed, Saban and company have tried a lot of different combinations at safety, and to this point nothing seems to be working particularly well.

All told, there are just a lot of problems regarding both safety positions, and unless someone else steps up over the next couple of weeks, those problems are likely to manifest themselves in a bad way once the regular season begins. With Carter and Johnson as the starters, at best they are serviceable players, and at worst they are major liabilities.

The truth be told, Saban will need to work his magic on these guys in terms of fundamentals, and also create a good bit of pressure on the quarterback for the Crimson Tide secondary to play near where most people think it will.

At the end of the day, things don't always turn out like you think. Don't be surprised if the front seven plays relatively well and the secondary struggles.

Recruiting: 1980-1982

A friend sent me an interesting link yesterday. The link takes you to a PDF file that gives a pretty in-depth analysis of the Alabama recruiting classes from 1980-1982, the last three inked under Paul Bryant.

Click here for the entire thing.

It's pretty interesting stuff, and the overall conclusion has to be that recruiting fell off the final three years under Bryant. Certainly his age was used against him greatly by opposing coaches, and it does seem that there was a drop-off in the overall talent level.

But, then again, maybe not.

Bryant was always a bit of an odd-ball when it came to recruiting, and there is no disputing that. Certainly we signed our fair share of highly-rated recruits, but there was more to it than that. Bryant was also widely known for not even looking twice at recruits that other top schools were drooling over, and he often times went hard after recruits that no one else looked at.

Woodrow Lowe is the perfect example of the latter. Coming out of high school, he received no scholarship offers, and planned to enlist in the Navy. Bryant saw something, though, and offered him a scholarship when even the Sisters of the Poor wouldn't. Of course, Lowe became one of the greatest linebackers in Alabama football history (three-time All-American), and went on to play eleven years in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers.

It's evident in other players, too. Just look at Musso: he was small and slow for a tailback, but Bryant loved him as a player, and he thrived at Alabama in both a pro-style offense and in the wishbone.

Many people have pointed out that, had recruiting been as closely scrutinized then as it is today, most of Bryant's recruiting classes would not have been rated particularly high. And honestly, it's hard for me to disagree with that. At bottom, to a large degree, Bryant went after a lot of players that no one else saw anything in. Players like that were his specialty, and he was very open and honest about that fact. Admittedly, Bryant was often straightforward about the fact that he often times struggled to get the most out of the incredibly talented players. He literally thrived on players who weren't very good but didn't know it.

And it's hard to say that the talent was running out towards the end of the Bryant era. After all, as posted in this forum before, in Bryant's final year we were 5-0 and number one in the country after annihilating eventual national champion Penn State. It was the failure of Bryant's health that got us, not a lack of talent. We may not have had a lot of highly-rated players, and we may have not had a lot of players who went on to great success in the NFL, but you don't do things of that nature without a lot of talent on hand.

Play Breakdown: Dissecting A Disaster

In the second installment of the play breakdown series, we're going to look at the play that likely cost us the 2006 Arkansas game. And no, I'm not breaking down a Leigh Tiffin kick, I'm looking at John Parker Wilson's fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Randy Kelly. At that juncture, we had the ball in Arkansas territory, leading 10-9, and the Arkansas offense was completely shut down. Even after the fumble return for a touchdown, the Hogs gained less than 75 yards of total offense the rest of the day (including overtime), and Mustain threw two more interceptions. Obviously it was a game-changing play for us, and arguably a career-changing play for Coach Mike Shula, so it warrants closer inspection.

The situation is 3rd and 12, Alabama football at the Arkansas 48. We need the Arkansas 36 for a first down. At the moment, we lead Arkansas in a close contest, 10-9, with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.

Alabama comes out in a four wide receiver set. There are trips receivers to the right (Caddell, Brown, and Oakley, respectively), with D.J. Hall to the offensive left. Tim Castille is lined up six yards behind the line of scrimmage as the lone back.

Arkansas counters with a 3-3-5, but it's far from vanilla.

The following is a small diagram of how the Hogs and the Tide line up pre-snap. Right click the image and open the link in a new window to see the full size.

As you can see, the Hogs aren't in a vanilla formation. It's a 3-3-5, true enough, but one linebacker is lined up with the left tackle (24), and another is outside of the left tackle. Moreover, safety Randy Kelly (9), is slowly creeping up into the box. Oddly enough, the Hogs have two linebackers and two defensive backs on the near side of the field, where the Alabama offense only has one receiver (22, Hall). On the other hand, on the far side of the field, Alabama has trips receivers, but the Hogs have only three defenders on that side of the field (one of which is a safety who is so deep he can barely be seen on the film), and the inside receiver in the trips formation isn't even covered up.

Obviously, the Hogs have something up their sleeves. But what?

It looks like Arkansas is planning a blitz, but from where? Given safety Randy Kelly (9) is creeping into the box, the Hogs could pressure the quarterback with at least seven defenders.
One linebacker is lined up inches away from Alabama right guard B.J. Stabler (61), and the other two linebackers are roughly one yard away from the line of scrimmage.

The coverage appears to be man, but what about Matt Caddell (11)? No one is covering him, so are Wilson and company to assume that the deep safety (about 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage) is in man coverage against him? That doesn't seem right.

You have to give the Hogs credit where it is due. This is a nice formation that their defensive coordinator Reggie Herring has come up with, and it's disguising things quite nicely. It's hard to get a grasp on exactly what they are going to do.

But alas, the play clock is ticking down. Antoine Caldwell (59) snaps the ball to Wilson, and the play begins.

The following is a small diagram of the play itself. Right click the image and open the link up in a new window to see the full size version.

True enough, the Hogs have a blitz coming. The defensive line rushes, as does Sam Olajabutu (24), and Randy Kelly (9), who is coming on a safety blitz. At bottom, it's a basic thing: six blockers on five rushers. But it's still quite confusing because we had no idea exactly where it was coming from.

The question of Matt Caddell is answered quickly. He was uncovered, but it was actually man coverage. The linebacker lined up directly over B.J. Stabler (61), was in man coverage against Caddell, and quickly retreated from the line to cover Caddell. Yes, that creates a major mis-match (linebackers generally can't cover receivers), but the linebacker does have help over the top from the deep safety, and if things work out as planned with the blitz, he won't have to cover very long anyway.

Unfortunately though, there seems to be no audible in anticipation of the blitz. Despite the pre-snap read indicating a blitz is coming, even if we don't know where, Wilson takes a seven-step drop. Instead of switching to a three or five step drop to release the ball quickly, we apparently stick with our guns.

Once he drops back, Wilson first looks to his left, in the direction of D.J. Hall (22). But nothing is there for Hall. He runs a vertical route upfield, and, well, that's about all he can do. The Arkansas linebacker dropped into a soft zone coverage in the area, and the idea behind that was likely to prevent Hall from catching any quick curls, slants, or in routes as Wilson attempts to get rid of the ball quickly. It's a good call from the Hogs, and it works to perfection. The linebacker precludes Hall from running anything to the inside, and the sideline prevents him from running an effective out route. So, he does all he can (by design or not, perhaps it was an option route), he runs downfield, perhaps on a go route (you can't really tell by the game film).

As for the three receivers in the trips formation...

Will Oakley is the outside receiver, and he runs about a three-yard curl route. I would think that was an option route on Oakley's part with him reading a blitz (it'd be pretty dumb to call a three-yard curl route against press coverage on third and long), but it's not effective at all. Though it's a short curl, it makes for a very long throw for Wilson. In order to get the ball to Oakley, a pass would have to travel about twenty yards, and the proximity of the Arkansas cornerback would yield an easy pass break-up, or worse, an interception. If Oakley indeed chose the three-yard curl route, it was a very poor decision. It creates an impossible throw for Wilson. Oakley should have done something to come back to his quarterback and made for a shorter throw.

Matt Caddell is the inside receiver (I think, it looks like him, but I can't specifically see the number), and he is uncovered. At the snap, Caddell runs straight upfield. The Arkansas linebacker comes over to cover him, and Caddell's vertical route keeps him covered. Considering the safety is in front of him and the linebacker is right by him, it's essentially impossible for Wilson to drop the ball in between the two defenders. Perhaps he can get open if the play has a long time to develop, but here it obviously doesn't. The ideal thing would have been for Caddell to break off his route and cut across the middle on a crossing route. With the Arkansas linebacker going in the opposite direction to get to the area where Caddell is (remember, he was lined up nose-to-nose with right guard B.J. Stabler), Caddell could have cut to the inside and caused the Hog linebacker to likely fall flat on his face trying to quickly reverse field. Caddell would have been wide open, Wilson could have thrown an easy five-yard pass, with Caddell having a huge chance for a big play. A worse-case scenario probably has that completion going for nine or ten yards, but alas, Caddell continues upfield and remains blanketed.

Keith Brown (81) is the middle receiver, and he runs a quick slant over the middle. The cornerback covering him plays him close in press coverage, but nevertheless, Brown gets his job done. He is open, and a good throw from Wilson will likely yield a few yards, though not likely a first down. But Wilson doesn't throw the ball to Brown. He continues to look at Hall (22), though he is well covered, and by the time he actually gets around to looking at Brown (81) he is in major trouble.

Now let's look at the blocking up front.

Arkansas' star defensive end Jamaal Anderson (92) lines up over Chris Capps (72). At the snap, it becomes evident that Chris Capps is left on his own, with no help whatsoever, as was too often the case in 2006. Anderson -- as he almost always does -- uses his athleticism to rush hard to the outside, trying to beat Capps off the edge. And Capps does well, using good footwork to position himself in front of Anderson. Just when Anderson seems like he may be able to get past Capps, he suddenly cuts back inside, likely due to Wilson stepping up in the pocket. But in doing so, the play ends before Anderson can pressure the quarterback.

The Arkansas defensive tackle (DT) ferociously attacks the gap between Antoine Caldwell (59) and B.J. Stabler (61). But Caldwell is not regarded as one of the best centers in the country for nothing. He essentially puts on a blocking clinic, and stands up the Arkansas defensive tackle. The back-up Arkansas defensive tackle who was sitting on the bench got about as close to Wilson as did the starter on this play. B.J. Stabler technically "helps" Caldwell to a degree, but not really. He mainly just stands there while Caldwell and Capps take care of the two pass rushers on their side of the line.

The left side is where it gets interesting. Arkansas rushes three players: defensive end Antwain Robinson (97), linebacker Sam Olajabutu (24), and safety Randy Kelly (6). The Crimson Tide has three blockers: left tackle Andre Smith (71), left guard Justin Britt (50), and running back Tim Castille (19).

Unfortunately, it doesn't go well for the Crimson Tide.

Sam Olajabutu (24) rushes hard to the outside, where he is met with a hard block from Tim Castille (19). All in all, it's a nice block from Castille, and he effectively neutralizes the talented Arkansas linebacker. It's reasons like this as to why he is in the game on passing situations.

Randy Kelly (6) begin to creep up closer to the line, and as soon as the ball is snapped, he takes off full speed, looking for John Parker Wilson. But it doesn't really work. He has to run about ten yards to even get remotely near Wilson, and Justin Britt (50) does a very good job of picking him up once he enters the pocket. With a solid block, Britt neutralizes the talented Arkansas safety.

Antwain Robinson (97), however, is the one that ends it for the Tide. Andre Smith (71) nearly took his head off earlier in the game, but the time has come for Robinson to exact his revenge on Big Andre. Obviously, Andre is expecting a speed rush to the outside by Robinson, but that doesn't happen. Instead, Robinson rushes hard to the inside, and it takes Andre by surprise. Though he fights hard, Andre simply can't catch up with Robinson enough to force him out of the play, and Robinson is successful in getting to Wilson.

By this point, the play is over. Wilson should have taken the easy throw to Keith Brown (81) on the slant, but he locked onto Hall too long and by the time he saw Brown it was too late. Essentially, Arkansas has won this play. Their three rushers (97, 6, and 24) have gotten the job done against the left side of our offensive line. Neither Kelly (6) or Olajabutu (24) can get to Wilson, but they have collapsed the pocket, and with Robinson (97) beating Andre Smith, Wilson -- though he steps forward in the pocket looking for room, which is indicated in the diagram by the red line and circle -- is just trapped with nowhere to go. He doesn't have his feet set, and he really can't throw the football. Again, Arkansas has won this play, it's time for Wilson to cover up the football, take the sack, and send the punting unit onto the field.

But the youthful Wilson foolishly refuses to relent. Instead he chooses to fight to the death, and the death comes quickly. At the last second, he tries to get off a quick throw -- the only person he could have had the arm strength to get the ball to throwing in that awkward position would be Keith Brown (81) on the crossing route, but honestly the Arkansas linebacker in zone coverage would have probably snagged that ball -- but he is doomed. Before his arm begins to go forward, Antwain Robinson (97) hits him and the ball pops loose. It's a fumble. An alert Randy Kelly scoops up the ball and races to the end zone. No Alabama player has a chance of bringing him down, Arkansas touchdown.

Arkansas 17, Alabama 10.

The Hogs, with an impotent offense on the sideline and Alabama having the ball in their territory, have somehow created the eventual overtime causing touchdown.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What Could Have Been

Some years, you are left with nothing more than thoughts of what could have been. The potential to win big was there, but somehow it just didn't work out. I was racking my brain the other day, and came up with a rough list of a few Alabama teams that could have certainly made the "What Could Have Been" list.

Here goes...

1982: Most people forget just how good this team was. We were high on everyone's list in the pre-season, and we did not disappoint early on. Finally, Penn State and Joe Paterno came to town, and we annihilated the Nittany Lions 42-21. After that, we were 5-0, ranked #1 in the country, and Bryant's seventh national championship was just sitting there for the taking. Unfortunately, Bryant's health failed, and we collapsed over the final weeks, losing to Tennessee, Southern Miss, Auburn, and LSU. Penn State, the same team we beat by three touchdowns earlier in the year, went on to beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and win the national championship. Three months after that victory over the Nittany Lions, Bryant was dead at 69.

1986: Coming off of a 9-2-1 season in 1985, everyone returned for 1986, including Mike Shula, Al Bell, Gene Jelks, Cornelius Bennett, Van Tiffin, and others. Most everyone had us as the favorite to win the SEC, and some had us as outside contenders for the national championship. We got off to a hot start at 7-0, and annihilated Tennessee by 28 points. The following week, we turned into a terrible performance out of nowhere, and Penn State drilled us in Tuscaloosa. Two weeks later, we squandered away a game with stupid penalties and turnovers against LSU, and the season ended with a loss to Auburn where we again largely beat ourselves. We blew out Washington in the Sun Bowl to 28-6 to finish 10-3, but we were major underachievers. Ray Perkins left shortly thereafter.

1988: The 1988 squad finished 9-3, and had a good year, but injuries killed us. Bobby Humphrey came into the year as Alabama's all-time leading rusher, and was considered by many to be the Heisman front runner. He was lost for the year early on with a broken foot against Vanderbilt, and Gene Jelks and David Smith also went down for the season. We went 9-3, losing two close games to LSU and Auburn. The Bayou Bengals won the SEC in Mike Archer's second year, but quite honestly they weren't very good (Miami beat them by 40+), and had the injury bug not hit us so hard, we'd have been SEC Champions and playing in the Sugar Bowl.

1990: Again with the injury bug. We lost three close games to open the season (a combined margin of loss of 8 points), and that set the tone. We rebounded late and played well, but it was largely all for not. Had Siran Stacy not gone down with a season-ending knee injury on the first play from scrimmage in the season opener, we could have won 10 games, and instead an impotent offense doomed us to 7-5, despite a great defense.

1995: The 1995 Alabama squad wasn't as good as in 1994, but it was doomed mainly by poor officiating and the NCAA. We lost to Arkansas when the Hogs scored a game-winning touchdown on a pass that I still swear was trapped, and we lost to Auburn when Curtis Brown's game-winning touchdown pass was ruled out of bounds, though a Post-Herald photograph the following day showed that Brown was indeed in. With better officiating, we end up 10-1. Unfortunately, to make things worse, shortly after the Auburn game the NCAA bans us from post-season play that year, and we end up sitting at home. With better officiating and some leniency from the NCAA (yeah, yeah, I know, snowball's chance on hell on both), we end up 10-1, win the SEC West, and face Florida for the fourth consecutive year in the SEC Championship Game.

2002: We went 10-3 in 2002, but it could have been much better. We lost heartbreakers to two top five teams in the closing seconds, but we were still 10-2 going into the Auburn game. That 10-2 record included blowouts over Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU, and others. And then Fran left, and we bombed the Iron Bowl. Truth was, that squad had the highest Pythagorean Wins of any team in the SEC in 2002 (even more than Georgia), and it was most likely our best team in the post-Stallings era.

2004: Ah, the ultimate injury year. A piss-poor decision by Mike Shula ended with Brodie Croyle out for the year against Western Carolina, and the injuries only got worse from there. The truth is -- largely due to a much better offensive line -- the 2004 had more potential than the 2005 squad did, but injuries killed it. We finished 6-6 with several close losses, but with better injury luck, we probably end up with 9-10 wins and Mike Shula is still at the Capstone.

Introduction: Play Breakdowns

Here at Outside The Sidelines, I've decided to introduce a new column. Each week, I'll be taking a key play, or perhaps two, from the Alabama game (and in weeks Alabama is not playing, another game), and having an in-depth play breakdown, complete with diagrams and explanations.

As the introductory column, I've decided to give everyone a sample by breaking down a key play from the 1993 Sugar Bowl.

Specifically, the play we'll be looking is George Teague's interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter.

The situation is first and ten for the Hurricanes at their own 29-yard line, with roughly ten minutes left in the third quarter. Moments earlier, Miami was trailing 13-6, and Tommy Johnson intercepted Gino Torretta's first pass of the second half. Several players later, Derrick Lassic plunged over the goal line on third and goal, extending the Tide lead to 20-6. The Miami offense needs to respond and narrow the gap.

The following is the play diagram:

And, well, there you have it.

Miami comes out with Torretta in the shotgun. There are trips receivers to the right. Number 3 is an unknown receiver, 36 is Lamar Thomas, and 88 is Horace Copeland. On the opposite side of the formation, there is a single receiver, number 5, Kevin Williams. Also, number 17, tight end Coleman Bell is lined up to the offensive left. As you can see, with four wide receivers and a tight end on the line of scrimmage, no backs are left in to protect Torretta.

Alabama responds with what was made into a legendary package in Crimson Tide lore after this night. Despite Miami spreading the field with dangerous receivers, defensive coordinator Bill Oliver puts all eleven defenders in the box.

In terms of personnel, we respond with:

Four down linemen: John Copeland (94), Eric Curry (80), and two interior defensive linemen I cannot identify.

Four cornerbacks: George Teague (13), Tommy Johnson (10), Antonio Langham (43), and a cornerback lined up over Kevin Williams (5) that I cannot identify.

Two linebackers: Lemanski Hall (11), and Andre Royal (36).

One safety: Chris Donnelly (21).

As mentioned earlier, as you can easily see, all eleven defenders crowd the line of scrimmage. All cornerbacks come up to the line against their receiver, and seemingly it is going to be man coverage with no safety help. Even the two linebackers and the safety are less than a yard away from the line of scrimmage.

Given the heavy blitzes that we had employed throughout the first half, combined with the great natural pass rush from the ends (Copeland and Curry), Torretta knows that he will have to release the ball quickly. Considering the cover package seems to be man on the wide receivers, Andre Royal (36) will likely to have to cover the cover the tight end (17) in man coverage. From there it's simple math, we can quickly blitz six defenders against their five offensive linemen, and you can do the math on that one. Hence, Torretta must work quickly.

Now, all of the background information aside... Torretta lifts his right leg, signaling to his center Tirrell Greene that it is okay to snap the football.

The ball is snapped.

Despite all of the posturing to the contrary, we bring only the standard four-man rush. Royal, as expected, is in to man coverage against the Miami tight end. Chris Donnelly (21) quickly retreats into deep zone coverage. Though the play never develops to the point where we could fully understand his assignment, it seems that Donnelly's role is mainly to give help to the unidentified cornerback covering the explosive Kevin Williams (5). Lemanski Hall (11), too, quickly backs away from the line of scrimmage and appears to be playing zone coverage in the middle of the field. In doing so, he shades slightly towards the far side of the field to put him closer to the trips receivers. Again, though the play never develop to the point where we can fully understand his assignment, likely, Hall's responsibility is to defend intermediate crossing routes.

Still, though Donnelly and Hall drop out into zone coverage instead of rushing the quarterback, it's still a risky call by Bill Oliver and company. The Miami receivers are explosive, and Gino Torretta is less than a month removed from picking up the Heisman Trophy. All three cornerbacks to the defensive left are in man coverage, with no help whatsoever. If they get beat, there is a very high possibility that this play turns into a big one for the 'Canes. Even the unidentified cornerback is a concern. Kevin Williams is one of the most explosive skill position players in the country, and Donnelly -- the transfer from Vanderbilt -- is not particularly athletic. If Williams runs a go route, there is no way that Donnelly will be able to retreat quickly enough to even remotely help the unidentified cornerback in coverage. At bottom, it's a risky call, and there is absolutely no margin of error for the four Tide cornerbacks.

At the snap, the Miami wide receivers quickly release off the line of scrimmage. The two outside receivers in the trips formation to the right quickly surge upfield. Horace Copeland (88) moves to the outside shoulder of Langham, and Lamar Thomas (36) moves to the inside of Johnson in order to release into their routes. Kevin Williams, too, moves to the inside shoulder of Williams and gets into his release. All three receivers surge upfield, but it's highly unlikely that all three of them are running go routes. In reality, the play never develops long enough for us to really figure out where they are going.

As mentioned earlier, the Tide rushes only four. Eric Curry (80) rushes to the outside in an attempt to beat the Miami left tackle off of the edge. John Copeland (94), his fellow bookend, initially rushes to the outside in an attempt to beat the Miami right tackle off the edge, but after charging upfield, he suddenly cuts inside. The Miami right guard and the center both block the left defensive tackle, and that combined with Copeland's rush creates a massive throwing lane for Torretta.

At this point, Torretta is clearly a confused and apprehensive quarterback. His actions are not indicative of a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback with two national championship rings. Upon receiving the ball, Torretta quickly maneuvers it to grip the laces properly, and instantly begins to throw the football. Despite having two fine receivers (88 and 36) isolated in man coverage with no safety help, Torretta never even looks in their direction. The entire time he stares down the inside receiver in the trips formation (3), and throws the ball in his direction as soon as physically possible.

The inside receiver (3) in the trips formation lines up with George Teague (13) immediately in front of him. At the snap, the receiver releases into a shallow crossing route over the middle. But Teague doesn't make life easy for him. He is physical with the receiver, and jumps the route. At this point, the massive throwing lane between the Miami right tackle and Miami right guard has opened, and Teague is a mere eight yards away from Torretta. The confused and apprehensive Heisman Trophy winner is already well into his throwing motion by now, and Teague sees the ball will be heading in his direction. Though he is man coverage, he is staring down Torretta, just waiting for the ball to be released. The receiver (3) seemingly starts to cut back to the outside (confusion between the quarterback and the receiver, perhaps?), but Teague does not budge an inch, and neither does Torretta.

The ball is thrown, and Teague (13) quickly snags the interception and races around the offensive left end. Considering he cut back the outside, the Miami receiver cannot make the tackle. The two receivers on the left side of the formation (Kevin Williams, 5, and the tight end, 17) are now too far down field to come back and make the tackle, and there were no backs to get him. The only one standing between Teague and the end zone is the slow-footed Gino Torretta, and he simply can't chase the speedy Teague down.

Teague darts around the end, races along the sideline, and into the end zone.

Alabama 27, Miami 6.

The Crimson Tide moves one step closer to its twelfth national championship.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scrimmage Notes

Fall practice is now well underway, and the first major hurdle has been cleared. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide conducted its first scrimmage.

A few general scrimmage notes:
  • We threw the football, a lot. By my count there were 63 passes to 29 runs. Now don't go crazy, we won't do that in the regular season, but it's an interesting note. And, moreover, it was pretty successful for the offense. On 63 passes, we threw for -- again, by my count -- a whopping 528 yards. We averaged around nine yards per attempt, over thirteen yards per completion, and a completion percentage of around sixty per cent.
  • Terry Grant continues to look like the starting tailback. On Saturday, he had 15 carries for 110 yards, and a touchdown. The touchdown came off of a 22-yard run. Glen Coffee got only 4 carries. Again, as mentioned earlier, it seems that as long as Grant stays healthy, he will be our starting tailback.
  • Jimmy Johns, as I noted earlier, will be used quite a bit in this offense. This is not going to be a situation like we had with Le'Ron McClain where he is a blocker and not much else; we will attempt to use Johns in a Jacob Hester-esque fashion. Saturday's scrimmage showed that quite nicely. All told, Johns had 10 carries for 39 yards and 3 catches for 26 yards. He's just too talented to be just a blocker. He's going to get a lot of touches this year, get ready for it.
  • John Parker Wilson had another nice day, going 13-22 for 231 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. From everything we have seen in camp, he could have a very good year.
  • Roy Upchurch did not play. He is still in the black jersey due to some off-season shoulder surgery. There is no indication whatsoever as to when he'll return.
  • The defense is not playing well. Generally speaking, the defense usually plays better than the offense early in camp, but not so with the Crimson Tide this year. The quarterbacks have a field day of throwing the football, and we couldn't stop Terry Grant either. We've apparently got some major improvement to make on that front.
  • We seem to be doing pretty well in terms of place-kicking. On the day, we were four of five in field goal attempts. Christensen hit from 42 and 21 before missing from 31. Tiffin made a 21-yarder before connecting from 51. Sounds good.
  • P.J. Fitzgerald is showing some promise, and he has a nice upside. But he still needs to improve. On eight punts in the scrimmage, he averaged only about 37 yards per punt, which is about what he did last year. Unless he dramatically improved hang time from over a year ago, that needs to improve.
  • Thankfully, we got out of the scrimmage relatively free from injury. Of course, injuries hurt whenever they happen, but there is nothing worse than when you see a rash of injuries during practice. We have the potential to have a very good year if things come together, but we do not have anywhere near the quality depth needed to have a good year in spite of some poor injury luck.

Mission Impossible: The OTS Response

A Sea Of Blue, one of the best Kentucky blogs around, had a very good article the other day entitled, "Mission Impossible: Growing a football program in the SEC."At bottom, the article details the perils of building a football program up in the SEC, coming to the conclusion that for a program like Kentucky, it's almost impossible to turn into a legitimate and consistent winner.

I must say, it's pretty hard for me to disagree with much of what they say. Granted, for the Kentucky faithful, it's a bitter pill to swallow, but bitter pills generally contain large granules of truth, so it is what it is.

And Sea of Blue is correct, it's a nearly impossible task for a lower tier SEC program. The level of competition in this conference is so ridiculously high that it is the athletic equivalent of scaling Everest with nothing but a Snickers bar and a Swiss Army knife.

Just think of the great quality teams in this conference. Alabama is the traditional powerhouse, and we arguably have the greatest tradition in all of college football. Tennessee is a traditional powerhouse, and one of the top ten great programs of all-time. Even teams like LSU, Georgia, and Auburn are generally considered as top fifteen programs, historically speaking. Florida traditionally hasn't been a powerhouse, but truthfully they have been the premier program in the SEC over the course of the past twenty years. If that is not hard enough, now throw in a historically good Arkansas program, and a steadily-rising South Carolina program.

The thing about the SEC is that it is so competitive from top-to-bottom. In the other conferences, it is generally a couple of schools at the top that win basically everything, and the rest are generally middling at best. The Big Ten has Ohio State and Michigan. The new ACC has Miami and Florida State (not so much now, but no one doubts that will be who dominates that conference once they get things together). The Big 12 has Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. The Pac-10 has USC. The old Big East had Miami. The old ACC had Florida State. The old Big Eight had Oklahoma and Nebraska (as Bosworth put it, "The Big Two and the Little Six").

Break it down over the past several years.

In the Big Ten, either Michigan or Ohio State have won a share of the Big Ten championship in nine of the past eleven years.

In the Big 12, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas have combined to win the Big 12 championship in seven of the past ten years. Moreover, one of the those three teams have appeared in the Big 12 Championship Game each and every year since its inception in 1996.

In the Pac-10, USC has won the conference championship the past five years in a row, and just being honest, with as much talent as they have, it will almost certainly be six in a row this year. Projecting that even further -- again, with all of the talent they have -- they could easily run off seven or even eight straight conference championships.

The SEC is very different. In the past nine years, eight different teams have appeared in the SEC Championship Game, and six different teams have won the SEC championship.

At bottom, the parity in this conference is just so high that going into any year, a large number of teams could win the SEC. As we've written about in the past, it's just damn near impossible to predict the eventual SEC champion, and that is due to the extremely high amount of parity to be found within the conference. Take LSU for example. They are likely to have a great team this year, and they are everyone's favorite to win the conference. But seriously, what are the chances that they actually get it done? Honestly, if I had to say, I'd probably say 25% or less. And that's nothing against LSU mind you, they are a great team, but the rest of the conference is just so tough and the least little slip-up will cost you the title. Hence why an pre-season SEC favorite hasn't won the SEC since Tennessee in 1997.

It's just a murderer's row, no two ways about it.

And keep in mind I'm not bragging here, and I'm not trying to start one of those god-awful "best" conference debates. I'm merely pointing out that the level of competition in this conference is so high that it is going to be almost impossible for a team like Kentucky or Vanderbilt to turn into a consistent winner.

Take a look at Arkansas, for example. Before the Hogs joined the SEC in 1992, they were one of the better football programs in the nation. They had won the old Southwest Conference thirteen times, and had winning records against every Southwest Conference team except Texas. From 1936-1989, they finished ranked in the final poll 25 times. Since moving to the SEC in 1992, however, things have not gone well for the Hogs. They have yet to win the SEC, and really haven't even gotten particularly close. Beyond that, in the fifteen years prior to their joining the SEC, the Hogs had five seasons of ten or more wins, but in the fifteen years since joining the SEC, they only have one. Moreover, they have losing records against several SEC foes since joining the conference (Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, etc.), and have only been ranked in the final poll three times in the fifteen years since making the switch, compared to nine times in the previous fifteen years.

Even for one of nation's better programs, it is a tough road filled with peril. I can only imagine what it must feel like for those who bleed blue and white.

It's just these schools have everything against them. They are generally light years behind in terms of facilities, and really there's just no feasible way for them to catch up. Moreover, they can't replicate the tradition bit, and players who are looking for a quick-ticket to the NFL will not be headed to their campuses. Beyond that, they generally don't have the big bucks to pay the best coaches, so even if they hire a good coach they usually just use the school as a stepping stone, and many of these schools (Kentucky is a good example) are simply not in geographic areas where ungodly amounts of the football talent comes out of the high school ranks each year.

Just look at what these schools have to do in order to get a little talent. What little in-state talent there is grows up with little or no attachment to that particular school and thus it often leaves the state for greener pastures (see Shaun Alexander of Florence, Kentucky). So what are those schools to do? Obviously, recruiting out-of-state talent away from far superior programs who grew up bleeding their state school's colors just doesn't happen very often. So, at the end of the day, they just aren't left with very much talent, and it shows up on Saturdays.

And if you think this is just an SEC phenomenon, you are wrong. It's really true of all of the big conferences, honestly. Can Stanford really ever consistently run with the big dogs of the Pac-10? The same goes for teams like Baylor, Purdue, Kentucky, and others. They may have some success on occasion, but it is generally a one or two year stretch followed by years and years of below mediocrity.

All in all, despite all of the major rule changes by the NCAA in the name of parity and increasing competition over the past several decades, generally speaking, it's still a college football world divided between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand you have the powerhouses with the almost endless resources, the magnificent facilities, the massive stadiums, the diehard fanbases, the talent-rich recruiting bases, and on the other hand you have those programs who, well, don't have any of that. And the results essentially show that.

At bottom, I think I would have to agree wholeheartedly with their conclusion. I'm just really not convinced that most of these programs, almost regardless of what they do, can really ever turn into consistent competitors in the true powerhouse conferences, particularly in the SEC.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Damien Square Commits To Alabama

Damian Square has committed to Alabama.


If you will recall from an earlier article, I listed Square as one of the top recruits we were going after, and though he was a bit of a long shot, he was a possibility with Saban.

As it turns out, we've reeled in the long shot.

Square chose Alabama over the likes of Texas A&M, Miami, Florida, and others. We are recruiting him as a defensive lineman, and according to him, Saban and company told he that he was our number one defensive tackle recruit. Considering he has quickly jumped up from 230 pounds to 270 pounds, he should have no trouble putting on the added weight to move inside. Even so, if he cannot do that, given his athleticism, he could play defensive end at that size and be very effective.

Originally a Texas A&M commitment, Square had this to say to's Andrew Bone:

“I will only visit Alabama. I won’t take any other visit. I love Alabama’s recruiting class. I can see the athletes in this class, and that’s why I can see a national championship coming soon."
The Crimson Recruiting Boom continues, and a top-five recruiting class seems closer than ever.