Alabama football's next task: facing SEC's best pass defenses

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Alabama’s passing attack can make history in more ways than one on its current trajectory.

The only teams in the last decade to average 11.8 yards per attempt or more over an entire season were last year’s Air Force and Navy teams, which benefited from attempting fewer than 130 passes in their entire seasons. In the same span, only one team (2017 Oklahoma) finished its season with a quarterback rating greater than 200.

The Crimson Tide is averaging 11.81 yards per attempt so far. Mac Jones’ current quarterback rating is 210.32.

The coming weeks could prove most challenging in holding that pace.

While UA waits to see if and when it will play LSU this season, the final three games of its regular season (as currently scheduled) are against Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas. The Wildcats and the Razorbacks boast the two best pass defenses in the SEC, while Auburn’s unit is better than all but one of the units UA has faced so far in 2020.

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A great deal of Kentucky’s success against the pass comes from limiting what UA has done best: explosive plays.

The Wildcats are not necessarily skilled at forcing incompletions, ranking 10th in the SEC in completion percentage allowed (66.3%) and last in pass breakups with 11. (Kentucky is second in the SEC tied for second nationally with 11 interceptions, but that accounts for just 5% of the 196 passes the Wildcats have defended.) The Wildcats also aren’t stellar in pressuring quarterbacks, as the only SEC team to play more than five games with fewer than nine sacks.

Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) celebrates a touchdown pass with Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) in the game with Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Yet, Kentucky is 13th in the nation (among teams with at least five games played) in allowing only 16 passes of 20 yards or more. Kentucky has allowed just 8% of its opponents’ passing attempts to go for more than 20 yards, and it is one of just two SEC defenses that has yet to allow a pass of 50 yards or more.

“They give you a lot of different looks. They’ve recruited big, long athletes, guys that have really good ball skills,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said of Kentucky. His Volunteers passed for 112 yards against Kentucky, well below their season average of 174.7. “They play together, give you a lot of different looks, so they create issues.”

The other SEC defense that has not allowed a pass of 50 yards or more: Arkansas, which Alabama is scheduled to play Dec. 5.

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“They’re diverse on defense. Their linebackers are very active and play the ball well,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said of the Razorbacks. “They have been extremely opportunistic as a football team and play together extremely well.”

In those cases, Alabama’s offense is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. UA is tied for fifth nationally with 20 pass plays of 30 yards or more, a pace of 3.33 plays per game ahead of last year’s team, which averaged 2.76 such plays per game.

Mac Jones’ current quarterback rating can only be rivaled by that of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Burrow’s 201.96 last season.

“I think what Mac has done best is take control of the offense and lead the offense as a whole,” Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III said. “And as far as proving people wrong, I feel like that’s something, as a team, we’re all trying to do.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson