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Explosive Plays Will Decide Alabama-Ole Miss

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Alabama has lived by the big gain in 2016.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama's offense has had a different kind of feel so far this year, and it's not just because freshman quarterbacks Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts have been taking turns under center. The usual vision of the Crimson Tide running a grind-it-out scheme—which has been fading in recent years but still hung on with Derrick Henry's nearly 400 carries last year—is gone.

Bama's offense has been highly reliant on big plays so far in 2016. Some of it is due to the freshman signal callers being a bit scattershot, while more of it can be attributed to a milquetoast run game that has struggled with three new interior linemen and a pair of new running backs. No matter the cause, this is unusual ground for the Tide to be on.

Real quick: there are almost as many definitions for "explosive play" as there are coaches, but what I use is a run of at least ten yards or a pass of at least 20 yards. Everything you see below from 2016 doesn't include garbage time or run-out-the-clock drives at the ends of halves. The 2015 stuff, however, includes everything because I don't have the more specialized data for that season.

The following table shows how much the SEC's offenses have used explosive plays through the first two weeks.

Team Explosive Play Pct. Explosive Yards Pct. Success Rate
Kentucky 15.7% 80.5% 38.7%
Ole Miss 21.1% 66.4% 43.6%
Alabama 13.3% 65.8% 39.0%
Georgia 18.1% 63.6% 44.0%
Texas A&M 16.2% 56.4% 47.2%
Auburn 13.0% 54.7% 42.2%
Missouri 13.2% 53.6% 42.1%
Tennessee 9.9% 51.7% 38.1%
2015 Alabama 10.4% 49.3% 43.8%
LSU 9.6% 48.1% 41.1%
Vanderbilt 18.8% 44.8% 40.2%
Mississippi State 12.1% 43.1% 43.9%
South Carolina 7.6% 36.6% 30.5%
Florida 7.4% 32.5% 47.5%
Arkansas 7.1% 27.7% 41.8%

The first column shows what percentage of plays were explosive. The second column shows what percentage of the teams' total yardage has come from explosive plays. The final column is the context-adding success rate measure, which is about efficiency and has nothing to do with big plays.

We have Kentucky at one extreme as an offense that basically can't move the ball at all unless a player is getting loose—or more likely, the defense is having a breakdown. On the other end we have the Gamecocks, Gators, and Razorbacks as teams that can't break off big plays with regularity. Florida makes up for it with an above-average success rate, while Arkansas doesn't make up for it as much with its below-average success rate. South Carolina's offense is just bad all around.

The 2015 Crimson Tide got about half of its yards off of big plays. The 2016 edition is much more reliant on big gains, as its explosive yardage rate is about 16 percentage points higher. Bama from a year ago was more consistent moving the ball with a roughly average success rate, while Bama from this year is noticeably below average.

These broad measures don't tell the full story, though. For that, let's examine Alabama's offensive drives.

Looking at the drives in isolation is not of very much use, so I picked three comparison teams. One is Florida, as its offense has been the polar opposite of the Tide's when it comes to explosive plays. For something in the middle, I chose Auburn—the median team for explosive play percentage—and Tennessee—the median team for explosive yardage percentage.

For the next table, I looked at scoring drives (SDs). I included drives with a missed field goal in the scoring drives because it's still an honest try at a score even without the points. I eliminated scoring drives that began inside the opponent's red zone, as those preclude the possibility of an explosive pass play.

Team SDs SDs w/Expl. Play Pct. EPs >= Half SD Yds Pct. Of Total
Alabama 7 6 85.7% 5 71.4%
Florida 10 6 60.0% 4 40.0%
Tennessee 8 7 87.5% 4 50.0%
Auburn 8 7 87.5% 5 62.5%

The Tide, Vols, and Tigers all used explosive plays on all but one of their scoring drives. This fact shouldn't be surprising, as A) it's hard to sustain long drives without explosive gains, and B) big plays make it easier to score. All three had at least two drives (three, in Bama's case) where they had an explosive play but didn't score or attempt a field goal. The Gators stand out with only 60% of their scoring drives using explosive plays—and they have scored on every drive with an explosive play—but they're the outlier.

That said, Bama only managed two scoring drives without at least half of the yardage of the drive being covered by explosive plays (I didn't include defensive penalty yards in this calculation). One was a 48-yard touchdown drive against WKU that had no explosive plays, while the other was an earlier touchdown drive against the Hilltoppers that only had 43.1% of the yards gained in explosive fashion.

Alabama has had a higher percentage of its scoring drives rely on explosive yardage than the other three. Four of the five Bama drives listed in the right side of the table had explosive yardage covering over 80% of the total drive yardage. Only one of Auburn's such drives went over 80% explosive, while just two each for Tennessee and Florida were over 80%.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with explosive plays. Quite the contrary. When Bill Connelly codified his Five Factors of Winning, explosive plays got the most importance of all. And with big play guys like ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley, Damien Harris, and O.J. Howard, Alabama is well equipped to break off big gains.

But with two freshmen playing quarterback and a run game that couldn't crack four yards per carry against a mediocre Western Kentucky defense a week ago, what happens if Bama runs into a defense that actually can prevent big plays?

No disrespect to USC, but the Ole Miss defensive line is easily the best that the Crimson Tide will have seen in the first three weeks. There is a good chance that the Rebels will be able to stuff the run while also putting more pressure on Hurts and Barnett than they've yet seen. Another subpar showing in success rate is likely, so Alabama will have to continue to generate explosive plays.

If the Tide was about to face last year's Landsharks, I'd be ringing alarm bells. Ole Miss allowed explosive gains on just 9.2% of snaps in SEC play a year ago. It was the only defense to keep that rate under 10%.

Against FSU in Week 1, the Rebels allowed explosive runs 15.8% of the time and explosive passes 13.0% of the time with an overall rate of 14.1%. Those are figures Alabama can work with, as they are all within a percentage point or two of what the Tide put up while shredding USC.

You may also remember from the first table above that Ole Miss has generated about the same amount of its total yardage from explosive plays as Bama has. The Rebels also have generated more than 50% more explosive plays than Alabama has—including an explosive rate of 22.2% against FSU, thanks for asking—with a noticeably higher success rate. They've not been as reliant on big gainers as the Tide has been to get down the field.

Just look at that first table charted out with a trend line.

explosive plays

Alabama isn't quite as disproportionately reliant on explosive plays as Kentucky is, but it's well above the trend line. The Rebels, however, are right on trend.

Ole Miss has had ten scoring drives and has used an explosive play on all but one of them, just like Alabama (and Auburn and Tennessee). However, only six of the ten had explosive yardage taking up at least half of the yards gained. That figure is right in line with Auburn's in the same category and more than ten percentage points below Bama's. Further, only three of the nine scoring drives used explosive yardage for more than 80% of the territory covered.

Alabama's defense is still incredible, and it's been tops in the conference at stopping explosive plays so far in 2016. It has allowed big gains on 6.7% of runs and 4.9% of passes for an overall rate of 5.5%. It also has faced a pair of teams with brand new quarterbacks, including one in WKU that had a huge talent disadvantage. Ole Miss, by contrast, has an experienced quarterback and plenty of talent to go around on the top line of its depth chart.

Chad Kelly's Flying Chaos Circus will probably generate a healthy number of explosive plays. It did against FSU's excellent defense two weeks ago, and it did against the Tide last year.

Ole Miss could really put pressure on Alabama if it can limit the number big plays it gives up (again, just like it did last year). The Tide may even give the Rebels a boost there if Bama receivers drop several passes like they did against Western Kentucky.

It's too early to say that Alabama can't grind out long drives, as it simple hasn't had to yet. It also hasn't proven that it can, though, and with an iffy run game and freshman quarterbacks, it's going to be a lot harder now than it was last year when it was handing off to Henry and running play action with a fifth-year senior quarterback.

Alabama has lived by the big play in 2016, but if Ole Miss plays its cards right, the Tide might die by it on Saturday.