Wilson: The Recipe to Beat Alabama, and 3 Teams That Can Do It

Wilson: The Recipe to Beat Alabama, and 3 Teams That Can Do It article feature image

USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jim Harbaugh, Nick Saban and CeeDee Lamb

  • Sportsbooks are giving Alabama almost a 70% chance to win the 2018-19 College Football Playoff.
  • Collin Wilson dives into the numbers to see where Alabama is weakest, and gives three teams that can challenge the Tide.

The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first set of rankings on Tuesday, Oct. 30.  Barring a major (major) upset at Tennessee, Alabama will be ranked No. 1.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook lists Alabama at -225 to win the national championship, meaning a bettor would wager $22.50 to win $10. The implied probability of the Tide winning it all is almost 70%.

The three other playoff spots will go to teams hoping to upset the mighty Tide.

As for the team that can actually beat them? It’s been a conversation at bars and among national media all season. Paul Finebaum went on ESPN’s First Take last week to discuss Alabama and the possible contenders to defeat the Tide.

Finebaum identified three teams that could possibly beat Alabama in Ohio State, Notre Dame and LSU. But they’re different from my three.

There are some deficiencies in Alabama’s advanced stats. This column will look at three teams that can expose the Crimson Tide’s few weaknesses. These are teams I’d bet on against Alabama, assuming the prices are what I expect.

Keep The Action Network power ratings in mind with this column, as Alabama will be favored over anyone in the field.

Where Can Alabama Be Exposed?

Most of these issues in the advanced stats are a result of garbage time and second-string play. Also, its worth mentioning Alabama led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa vs. Alabama led by quarterback Jalen Hurts skews plenty of numbers on the offensive side.

But if you want to beat Alabama, you need to be well-rounded, because against Missouri the Tide proved that they can play under both quarterbacks.

Here are the areas in which Alabama is weakest. Most statistics come from the advanced statistical profiles Google Doc curated by Bill Connelly of SB Nation/Football Study Hall/Football Outsiders.

Rushing Explosiveness

Most of these statistics require definition, but this particular number looks at the IsoPPP rating for Alabama on the ground. The Tide rank 104th on offense and 76th on defense.

That means Alabama doesn’t generate big gains on the ground, and doesn’t prevent big rushing plays, either. It’s uncharacteristic of a Saban team, but that’s been the case this year.

Defensive Line Havoc

While Alabama ranks third in overall Havoc, the defensive line is just 47th. Havoc is defined as the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble or defensed a pass.

The Crimson Tide defensive line isn’t bad by any means, but it certainly is not making life for offensive linemen and quarterbacks as tough as a team such as Clemson.

Turnover Margin

Alabama is +11 in actual turnover margin halfway through the 2018 season, with an expected turnover margin of just +6.3.

That means Alabama has benefitted from about 3.4 points of turnover luck per game, and a team that can cause Havoc can at least be even in turnover margin.

Percentage of First Downs Allowed on First or Second Down

One of the more interesting advanced stats is Alabama’s defense continually allowing teams to move the chains on first or second down. The Crimson Tide rank 110th defensively in this category.

Any opponent that excels in converting first downs, and converting them early, can have the Tide defense on its heels.

Special Teams: Field Goal Kicking

Is this really a surprise? The handicap on Alabama in big games is always about the field-goal kicking, as Tide kickers have failed for decades (from Leigh Tiffin to Andy Pappanastos).

Current kicker Joseph Bulovas is 8 for 12 on field goals so far this season, giving Alabama a rank of 110th in field-goal value.

Punting has also been an issue for the Tide after losing J.K. Scott to graduation. True freshman Skyler DeLong is averaging 34.4 yards per punt and ranks 98th nationally in punt efficiency, although he doesn’t get much work.

Three Teams That Could Beat Alabama

Michigan Wolverines

It’s no secret that I have continued to back the Maize and Blue since their opening loss to Notre Dame.

I thought Shea Patterson would only get better as the weeks went by, and now there is word his favorite target from fall camp, Tarik Black, may return soon. I got down on some Michigan futures before the Wisconsin blowout, so I am fully invested in the upcoming schedule for Wolverines.

From the advanced stats angle, Michigan is 17th in rushing explosiveness. Running back Karan Higdon has 687 rushing yards at 5.73 per carry. Patterson’s 10-3 touchdown to interception ratio helps assist an actual turnover margin ranking of 33rd in the nation.

Michigan’s defense is one of the best in the nation against rush and pass no matter how you slice it. The big question is if any team can limit Tagovailoa’s passing attack, and the Wolverines would have the best shot.

They rank third in the nation in pass yards per attempt, first in pass yards per game, and ninth in completion percentage.

Michigan by far is the best defense suited to slow down Alabama. Before Week 8 kicks off, The Action Network power rankings would line this game on a neutral field at Alabama -9, while S&P+ would have a point spread of Crimson Tide -6.5.  In that scenario, I would back the Wolverines with no hedge on any futures.

Georgia Bulldogs

Selling the Bulldogs as a potential team to beat Alabama will be tough following a 20-point loss to LSU. Georgia had a terrible day, allowing four turnovers and letting LSU go 4-for-4 on fourth down. This could act as a wakeup call for a team that has allowed inferior opponents to control the trenches.

Georgia does meet most of the metrics above, ranking 25th in rush explosiveness with its excellent stable of backs. Georgia is one of the best in the nation at getting a first down quickly, ranking fourth at moving the chains on first or second down. If we bring up place kicking, it’s important to mention that Rodrigo Blankenship is the most clutch kicker to gamblers across the nation.

We mentioned some of the advanced passing defense stats for Michigan, and Georgia also has been successful against the pass, led by cornerback DeAndre Baker. The Bulldogs defense ranks sixth in yards allowed per pass attempt.

The Action Network power rankings and S&P+ would put this game around a touchdown on a neutral field, which we might see in the SEC Championship Game.

Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners would have to win out to get to the College Football Playoff, but the hypothetical matchup with Alabama could be the most explosive offensive football game in the history of the sport. Oklahoma is 26th in rushing explosiveness, third in first downs on first and second down and ranks 31st in Havoc rate allowed.

It would take plenty of convincing for me to take a money line wager on Oklahoma to beat Alabama with that defense, but offensively, the Sooners can trade punches against the Crimson Tide.