Saturday, August 18, 2007

Media Expectations Game

Living in Tuscaloosa, I can't help but notice how media perceptions of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team have changed. Of course, back in January, there was great excitement about the program with the new hiring of Nick Saban as head coach. The media followed his every move as he put together a staff and recruited players. The media rejoiced as Bama packed 92,000 into Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Spring Game. The media further sung praises as Saban had success on the summer recruiting trail. Now, all that excitement and optimism is giving way to pessimism now that we're two weeks away from Bama's opening kickoff and people are starting to actually consider the product on the field.

I occasionally listen to sports talk radio. It's not my favorite thing in the world to do, but I do it at times. I particularly like the morning radio show with Tony Curry, Al del Greco, and Jay Barker, despite Jay Barker's absurd declaration that Tyrone's Prothro's injury, which ended his football career and likely will have him walking with a limp and parking in blue parking spaces for the rest of his life, was a good thing. I think he was just having a "stupid day" and I'm willing to let it slide. He's not a repeat offender. Tyrone Prothro is welcome to disagree with me.

All week, talk radio has had a somber mood as they have taken to discussing shortcomings of Bama's defensive personnel. More than one person has said that Bama will probably have to win some very high scoring games in order to have success. They take solace in the fact that Bama's offense appears to be solid, with key returning players at QB, offensive line, and wide receiver. The defense, in contrast, lacks playmakers other than Simeone Castille, and is particularly weak on the front 7, making the whole defense vulnerable.

I'm here to tell you that it's worse than you thought. The offense isn't as good as you're expecting it to be. John Parker Wilson was only an average SEC quarterback last year. He had decent cumulative stats, but those were inflated because he made an awful lot of pass attempts, because his team rarely put opponents away early. Wilson made more pass attempts than anyone in the SEC other than Andre Woodson, yet was 5th in the SEC in yards, 5th in touchdowns, tied for 4th worst in interceptions, and was the only full-time starting QB not to score a rushing touchdown.

His rate stats really tell the tale though. He was 9th in yards per attempt (remember, he threw more passes than all but one other SEC QB). He was 10th in attempts-per-touchdown. He was actually rather good in the attempts-per-interception stat (4th best), so he took care of the ball well. He just didn't produce a whole heck of a lot of yards or points, especially when you consider that he made so many pass attempts. Other than interceptions, Wilson's rate stats are very similar to those of Michael Henig at Mississippi State.

Of course, Wilson was just a sophomore, in his first year as a starter. That's an important consideration. It means there's a lot of room for improvement. He also has experienced and talented receivers and at least two very good offensive linemen in Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell. However, the offensive line is the same unit that couldn't open up holes in the running game and was below average in giving up sacks last year.

Then, there's the running back situation, in which it appears that a redshirt freshman will be the starting tailback. He could end up being very good, but you have to mark that down as a question mark at this point.

There are other offenses in the SEC that are just as potent as Bama's, at least on paper at this point before the season starts. Arkansas boasts a guy who probably should have won the Heisman last year. Vandy has a solid dual-threat QB, the best receiver in the conference, and a very good offensive line. LSU and Florida, of course, have talent all over the field. Kentucky has the best QB in the conference, and very good receivers and a running back. Georgia has arguably the best young quarterback in the conference. Tennessee has a solid QB and solid running backs, though they suffered a big loss when Lamarcus Coker was suspended for the season.

If Bama is going to have to win with offense, they're going to find that harder than they think. I don't think they're scoring 45 points on SEC teams, and may have trouble holding the better offenses in the league to less than 30.

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