The 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide have already cemented itself as one of the most remarkable teams in college football history. Alabama beat Florida 52-46 in the SEC Championship Game to improve to 11-0 with all victories coming against conference competition. The Tide navigated that difficult slate of opponents and won by a remarkable average of 30.2 points per game.
However, the job is not yet done. Alabama is set to take on Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl semifinal in Arlington, Texas, on New Year's Day. A win over the Fighting Irish would set up a date with either Clemson or Ohio State in Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida on Jan. 11 with the national championship on the line.
As the No. 1 seed, Alabama is the favorite to win it all — and for good reason. Actually, make that five good reasons:
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Win the College Football Playoff
1. 3 Heisman Trophy candidates
Entering the SEC title game, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith were the top two betting favorites for the Heisman Trophy, respectively. Jones and Smith connected for 184 yards and two touchdowns on 15 passes against the Gators, which pushed Smith's totals to an FBS-best 98 receptions and 1,511 receiving yards, as well as 17 touchdowns, which ranks second. Shortly after the final whistle blew in Atlanta, Smith took over the top spot for oddsmakers, setting the stage for him to become the first true wide receiver to win the Heisman since Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991.
Smith has had an amazing season and would be a deserving Heisman winner, but Jones didn't do anything to lose votes as he completed 33 of 44 pass attempts for 418 yards and five touchdowns. The only real blemish was an interception, his fourth of the season. Jones has completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 3,739 yards and 32 touchdowns while averaging 11.4 yards per attempt. Only Heisman winners Kyler Murray (11.6 in 2018) and Baker Mayfield (11.5 in 2017) have posted a higher average in college football history. And of course, Jones still has time to catch the former Oklahoma signal-callers.
Remarkably, running back Najee Harris actually outshone his teammates in the win over Florida by scoring five total touchdowns. Harris opened the scoring with an eight-yard touchdown run, and after Smith and Jones connected for a 31-yarder to take a 14-7 lead, Harris caught three touchdown passes. He added a one-yard plunge in the fourth quarter for good measure, and now ranks third in the country with 1,262 rushing yards and leads all FBS players with 24 rushing touchdowns.
2. Offensive line success
Alabama has stars at every offensive skill position, but those playmakers can't do it alone. Fortunately, the Crimson Tide also features one of the best offensive line units in the nation. In terms of raw talent, no one is better. Alabama's average offensive lineman earned a .9316 rating in the 247Sports Composite — the highest in the nation. Only Georgia (.9276) and Ohio State (.9265) come close, and only three others (Penn State, Tennessee and Texas) hit .9000. The unit also ranks No. 1 in Offensive Line Strength rating at CFB Winning Edge, which takes those same recruiting ratings but adjusts them based on experience and career production, and also adds weight based on playing time.
Offensive line is arguably the most difficult position for recruiting analysts to evaluate, but the Crimson Tide have largely played up to their lofty expectations up front. Alabama ranks No. 11 in pass-blocking grade and No. 22 in run blocking, according to PFF. Prior to the SEC Championship Game (the last date figures were available to us), the Tide ranked No. 7 nationally in both Power Success Rate (86.4 percent) and Sack Rate (2.4 percent) according to the line stats at Football Outsiders, as well as No. 8 in Stuff Rate (12.9 percent), No. 11 in Standard Downs Line Yards (2.99), and No. 12 in Line Yards overall (3.02). Alabama also ranked in the top 25 in FBS in Passing Downs Line Yards (3.44) and Passing Downs Sack Rate (4.8 percent). And while those numbers may not be dominant on their own, combined with the overall success of the offense as a whole (No. 2 in FBS with 49.7 points per game and 7.83 yards per play during the regular season), it’s easy to understand why the unit was named a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award earlier this month.
Furthermore, tackle Alex Leatherwood, guard Deonte Brown, and center Landon Dickerson were all listed in the top 10 of their respective position groups by ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. in his latest 2021 NFL Draft rankings. Unfortunately, Dickerson — Kiper's No. 1 center prospect — was carted off against the Gators after he suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury. He has already been ruled out from playing in the playoff. But given the talent and depth available, there’s reason to expect the unit will still have success without Dickerson.
3. Pass rush and turnovers
Defense may no longer win championships in college football (even Nick Saban says so), but Alabama still has a talent advantage against every opponent given the Crimson Tide features the highest average 247Sports rating for both its defensive starters and defensive players overall at .9563 and .9460, respectively. Alabama may not have the elite defensive metrics yesteryear, as the Crimson Tide currently ranks 33rd in total defense (351.2 ypg) and 22nd in yards allowed per play (5.04), but last week's struggles against Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney aside, the unit can still give opposing offenses fits - especially when it comes to rushing the passer and forcing turnovers.
Alabama sacked Trask five times, marking the third consecutive game in which the Tide had five or more sacks and pushing its total to 32 this season, which ranks No. 9 in the country. The Crimson Tide has averaged 2.91 sacks per contest, which ranks 24th. The unit also ranks 19th in PFF's pass rush grade, which is higher than all but Ohio State among CFP participants. In part because of the constant pressure put on quarterbacks, Alabama has intercepted 11 passes this season and has recovered 10 fumbles. The 21 total turnovers gained rank No. 7 in the country.
4. Running up the margins
Looking at basic counting stats can be informative, and knowing where Alabama ranked in scoring offense and total defense, for example, can provide insight. However, it's also important to know how a team's offense and defense relate to one another, which is why marginal performance is a better indicator in terms of overall team performance.
Alabama scored 49.7 points per game and allowed 19.5, meaning the Crimson Tide posted a scoring margin of 30.2 points per contest, which was the best in college football in 2020. The Crimson Tide averaged 7.83 yards per play through the SEC title game and surrendered 5.04, a margin of 2.79 that ranks No. 2 to BYU (2.90) on the FBS leaderboard. Alabama also posted a margin of 192.7 in total yards per contest, having averaged 543.9 per game on offense and allowing 351.2 defensively. Only Clemson (209.1) and BYU (200.6) were better overall. Alabama also led the nation in yards per pass attempt (11.1), and when combined with the 6.8 the Tide allowed defensively, posted the nation's best margin in yards per pass attempt — one of the unheralded but most highly correlated stats in football analytics historically - at 4.3.
Diving deeper, Alabama ranks second nationally with 0.337 Expected Points Added per play on offense, in non-garbage plays versus FBS opponents, according to cfb-graphs.com. The Alabama defense (-0.030) ranks a modest 48th, but the net is an elite 0.199 EPA/play margin, which ranks second only to Clemson (.203) nationally.
The use of stats-based analytics is on the rise across college football and can offer a great deal of insight on teams and players. Nevertheless, coaching and everything it includes - from recruiting and game-planning to motivational pregame speeches — still plays a huge role in how a team prepares, practices during the week, and plays on the field. Alabama has arguably the best head coach in college football history in Nick Saban, not only in terms of the number of games and championships he has won, but in the ways in which he has adapted with the evolution of the game. And, what's perhaps even scarier than a Saban-built and Saban-coached team is knowing that "The Process" is still in full effect even if Saban isn't around.
Saban tested positive for COVID-19 in the week leading up to Alabama's game against No. 3 Georgia in October. Protocols would not allow him to be with the team for multiple practices leading up to what was billed as the biggest game of the 2020 season to that point. It turned out to be a false positive and Saban was cleared in time to coach in the game, which Alabama won 41-24. Just over a month later, as the Crimson Tide was preparing for the annual Iron Bowl against Auburn, Saban tested positive again. This time it was confirmed, and Saban watched from home as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepped in to lead Alabama to an easy 42-13 victory over its archrival.
Thankfully, Saban fully recovered and was back on the practice field shortly thereafter. He also reappeared on the sidelines for the Crimson Tide's 55-17 victory against LSU the following Saturday. But we learned a lesson (though it's something we probably knew all along) while Alabama was without its Hall of Fame leader: The Tide rolls on.
Saban has recruited one of the most talented teams in history and has put together an excellent coaching staff capable of carrying out his vision at practice and on game day. The head coach will be in Arlington for Alabama's semifinal clash with Notre Dame, and given the early point spreads have the Crimson Tide favored by more than two touchdowns, it's highly likely he'll lead the Crimson Tide onto the field Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida with an opportunity to win his seventh national championship. Because of the incredible offensive firepower he has assembled, both with headlining Heisman contenders and often underappreciated offensive linemen, as well as a defense good enough to keep the team at or near the top of most marginal statistical categories, plus a coaching staff and well-oiled machine running in Tuscaloosa whether he's physically there or not, Alabama is the team to beat in the 2020 College Football Playoff.
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