Alabama football's historic third-down offense improving heading into CFP championship game

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Alabama gained at least 500 yards in four of its first five games. It ran for at least 140 yards in three of those games and threw for more than 400 yards in four of them. It set a pace that seemed unsustainable, yet one that has mostly been held up on the way to a record-breaking season.

In one critical aspect, UA has even improved on its early-season track record.

Through nine games, Alabama (12-0) was converting 57.2% of its third downs, a historic rate that would’ve been enough to lead the nation. Then, in its most recent three games, it converted 25 of its 39 third downs faced (64.1%) to bump its conversion rate for the season up to 59.26%, which has not been done since at least 2006. Going into a projected shootout in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship game against Ohio State (7-0), a high-powered third-down offense is a good quality to have.

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“I think we've got a very selfless team on offense. I think our players really understand our scheme and what we try to do,” UA offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “I think they also understand defenses very well. We've got a very high football IQ on offense, and they recognize when the run game looks good. They recognize when the pass game should look good. They recognize the one-on-one opportunities that maybe we can create for a Najee (Harris) or a Smitty (DeVonta Smith) or a (John) Metchie (III) or a (Jaylen) Waddle for that matter.”

A great deal of Alabama’s recent third-down success is almost always converting the easy ones, and often using its Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line to do it. Of the 39 third downs faced in the last three games, 17 of them have come with three or fewer yards to gain. UA ran on 14 of those plays, and moved the chains on 12 of those runs.

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It doubles as a situation that has not brought out the best in Ohio State’s defense: It has faced 12 carries on third downs with three or fewer yards to go and allowed a conversion on eight of those 12 runs, averaging 8.33 yards per carry allowed on those 12 runs.

When UA is forced to convert longer third downs, it gives opposing defenses nothing to work with in terms of tendencies.

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Alabama faced four third downs of six yards or more against Arkansas and targeted a different receiver with all of them: a failed attempt to Xavier Williams in the final minutes after conversions to Slade Bolden, Smith and Miller Forristall. The following week, in the SEC championship game, UA turned to Najee Harris for two completions and two conversions on two third-and-6 plays in the same possession.

“It is a complete offense. There are now five All-Americans on the offensive side of the ball and a Heisman Trophy winner,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.”

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