Hypothetical Matchup: Baylor Bears vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

Kevin C. Cox

Rather than mess around with either of the teams occupying the #2 and #3 spots, I decided to go for The King today as the matchup for our Baylor Bears. In true Halloween fashion, it's scary.

After yesterday's successful venture against the Ohio State Buckeyes, I went out this morning in seek of bigger game for the Baylor Bears. I found it. And ... it's not pretty.

2013 FootballOutsiders Metrics for the Baylor Bears vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Category Baylor (7-0)
Alabama (8-0)
EDGE
Overall F/+ Rk 5 (36.5%)
1 (48.0%)
EVENish
Overall FEI Rk 7 (.245)
1 (.322)
EVENish
Overall S&P+ Rk 2 (290.4)
3 (282.8)
EVEN
Field Position Advantage 29 1 Alabama

When Baylor Has the Ball... EDGE
Offensive/Defensive FEI Rk
7 (.634)
6 (-.672)
EVEN
Raw OE/DE
1 (1.383)
8 (-.545)
EVEN
First Down Rate
1 (.899)
28 (.611)
Baylor
Available Yards Rate
1 (.749)
7 (.336)
EVEN
Explosive Drives
1 (.420)
22 (.083)
Baylor
Methodical Drives 93 (.116)
6 (.083)
ALABAMA
Value Drives
2 (.650)
6 (.243)
EVEN
Offensive/Defensive S&P+
1 (157.5) 3 (150.5)
EVEN
Play Efficiency
1 (161.9)
8 (131.0) EVEN
Std. Downs S&P+ Rk.
3 (143.5)
5 (138.0) EVEN
Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 1 (216.2) 18 (123.1) Baylor
Rushing S&P+ Rk 16 (124.4) 2 (152.7) Alabama
Passing S&P+ Rk 1 (209.9)
20 (121.6) Baylor
Drive Efficiency 2 (153.1)
2 (172.4) EVEN
Difference in Net Points
2 (2.64)
6 (-1.77) EVEN

When Alabama Has the Ball... EDGE
Offensive/Defensive FEI Rk 26 (-.327) 18 (.461) EVEN
Raw OE/DE
11 (-.515) 7 (.692)
EVEN
First Down Rate 7 (.529) 11 (.783) EVEN
Available Yards Rate 12 (.345) 8 (.622) EVEN
Explosive Drives 24 (.086) 2 (.333) Alabama
Methodical Drives 45 (.129) 67 (.145) Baylor
Value Drives 11 (.273)
6 (.593) EVEN
Offensive/Defensive S&P+ 11 (132.9) 8 (131.1)
EVEN
Play Efficiency 27 (114.8) 11 (130.0) Alabama
Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 39 (109.9) 8 (133.7) Alabama
Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 26 (119.6) 14 (129.1) Alabama
Rushing S&P+ Rk
57 (106.0)
14 (126.8) ALABAMA
Passing S&P+ Rk 27 (117.7) 12 (135.6) Alabama
Drive Efficiency
8 (151.0)
7 (132.3) EVEN
Difference in Net Points
1 (-2.93)
5 (1.70) EVEN

Special Teams EDGE
F/+ Special Teams
102 1
ALABAMA!!!
Special Teams Efficiency
102 (-1.886)
1 (7.219)
BAMA OMG
Field Goal Efficiency
45 (.296)
17 (.601)

Punt Return Efficiency
117 (-.318)
5 (.224)

Kickoff Return Efficiency
47 (-.126)
3 (.298)

Punt Efficiency
124 (.055)
10 (-.491)

Kickoff Efficiency
51 (-.212)
1 (-.491)

Opponent Field Goal Efficiency
22 (-.312)
117 (.637)

A Few Notes:

Check yesterday's notes for the biggest changes between last week and this. Between yesterday and today, there's not much different at all save the change I made to the special teams section. After publishing, I realized (and was helpfully informed, just in case) that it doesn't make sense to compare our punt return efficiency, for example, against theirs. The two units don't occupy the field at the same time. Rather than change things around, I've just taken the edge category out there where the matchup doesn't work. It should still be pretty obvious how things stack up, regardless

Also from yesterday:

A note about the EDGE category -- I put the cutoff for all caps vs. normal typeface at 40 ranking spots. It's totally arbitrary, as any number I chose would be. My logic is that with 125 teams in FBS, if I have an advantage over you of about a third of the possible rankings, that's pretty good. Totally arbitrary, as I said, and very simplistic. I'm not married to if, if you have a better idea. The cutoff from EVEN to an edge is 10 spot. Same thing.

I also added a "EVENish" category that is specific to Alabama. I'm just not comfortable saying that Baylor, ranked #5 in F/+, is EVEN with the #1 team in the country. There's a difference, even if it is small.

Overall:

Alabama is really, really good. That's all there is to it. They didn't get to #1 here because of the ridiculous SEC media bias-- they did it by being really good. Let's say that again. Alabama is really good.

There's a lot between this chart and yesterday that adds up. Alabama's offense isn't quite as good as Ohio State according to the metrics, so the Baylor D vs. Alabama O looks similar, if not a little better for the Bears. On the other side, however, Alabama's defense is miles better than Ohio State's, and that's a problem. There are no obvious holes on the entire Alabama team, and that extends, once again, into an ungodly special teams unit. I rank the individual units in this game in the following order:

1. Alabama ST (8.1% F/+) OR Baylor O (26.2% F/+)
3. Alabama D (23.5% F/+)
4. Alabama O (16.5% F/+)
5. Baylor D (12.4% F/+)
70. Baylor ST (-2.1% F/+)

When Baylor Has the Ball:

This is what the people who want this game want to see: the Mad Arsonist Art Briles against Mr. Process Nick Saban. The high-flying Baylor Bears against the Crimson Tide. SEC FOOTBAWWWWLLLL vs. The New Standard-Bearer in the Big 12 Conference. It is not, however, the side that would likely determine the outcome of this game. I'll explain more later.

Looking at the chart above, it's obvious from a glance that all of the matchups where we had a BAYLOR edge are now gone. Alabama's defense is that good. There are still a couple of places where the Bears have an edge of some size, namely in passing the ball and on passing downs, but it's not nearly so sizable as it was against the Buckeyes yesterday. What's even worse: Alabama is extremely good against the run, meaning they probably don't have to help out their front seven with their safeties. That impacts our play-action game, the source of so much of our passing strength.

Still, it's hard not to look at this and want it to happen, even if we know it probably can't. On this side of the ball, you have the #1 offense by S&P+ against the #8 defense. FEI has the units ranked 7th and 6th, respectively. Each has the #2 ranking in drive efficiency, meaning Baylor scores points about as efficiently as Alabama prevents them and vice versa. The particular matchup I keep coming back to is the running game: if Alabama prevents us from establishing Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin as it appears they would (#2 run defense vs. #16 run offense), that's a big problem. Everything we do is based off the threat of the run.

The numbers give Baylor's offense a slight edge over Alabama's defense, but it's only that. I've long felt that big layoffs before bowl games generally favor the defense, who has that much more time to practice and scheme to stop an offense. It's part of the reason I feel like the SEC dominates BCS bowls where they might not otherwise had the game occurred in the course of the season. This is doubly true, in my opinion, with Nick Saban, a coach that lives for nothing more than dissecting an offense into its disparate parts and squashing each like so many bugs. That doesn't diminish the respect I have for Art Briles or the Baylor offense at all-- it is simply a sad (in this instance) reality I see in CFB. Baylor would score points in this game because that's what Baylor does, but it would be as closely-fought a battle as any we've seen on that side.

When Alabama Has the Ball:

We're taking a slight step down in terms of offensive opposition today from yesterday, though that step is smaller than the one we just saw up on defense. Alabama has a great offense with no apparent weaknesses that isn't elite. The run the ball about as well as they throw it, which contributes to their strong rankings on both standard and passing downs. They're also much better in explosive drives than any of us that haven't looked closely at their rankings before probably expected. As kalon noted in the comments, Alabama doesn't have a great methodical drive rate because it doesn't have to. They are explosive enough to not need them, but it makes sense, with their rushing offense, that they could get them.

In the aftermath of the Kansas State game, we've talked quite a bit on the blog and the podcast about who could replicate the Kansas strategy of possessing the ball, denying it to Baylor, and eventually grinding us to death. Other than the Wildcats, there are two teams that I'd fear would try and succeed. One of them is Stanford. The other is Alabama.

With Alabama's ability to stop or severely limit our running game in mind, it makes perfect sense for the Tide to work purposefully to establish their own, keeping our powerful offense on the sideline as much as possible. This is not a strategy born of fear-- it's the exact same concept as that which tells Baylor we should always go faster. If you take the other team out of their comfort zone, your chance of winning almost always goes up. This would also be, it should be noted, the best passing attack we will have seen yet, if ratings hold true. That includes Texas, Texas Tech, and everyone else. A.J. McCarron's stats are down from 2012, but he'd still be the second-best QB in the Big 12 behind Bryce Petty, according to passer rating.

There are a lot of EVENs in the edge column on the side because Baylor's defense isn't nearly as bad as people would have you believe. As I've said before, it's actually been quite good. But there are a few more Alabamas than I'd like, which is what prompts me to say that this would be the matchup that determines the outcome of the game. I am confident that our offense could play the vaunted Alabama defense to or close to a stalemate, with each side winning battles. It is the Alabama offense, in conjunction with the outstanding Alabama special teams, that would win them the war.

Special Teams:

Alabama has the best special teams in the country by a longshot. We do not. It's a big reason that they have the best Field Position Advantage in the country, something that gives their offense a much easier task than it might otherwise have. Obviously, it's impossible to sit here and predict how things would play out specifically. Maybe Spencer Roth boots 60 yarders repeatedly and Baylor replaces some of the backups on our coverage teams with starters in a bowl game. Maybe Aaron Jones #kissesthebicep consistently in a dome somewhere rather than pooching it. I don't know. The point is that the numbers on this side are really, really bad for us, and it's a big advantage for the Tide.

The Bottom Line:

I'm a Baylor homer, obviously. It comes with the territory of being a fan that runs a blog. But even with my homer glasses, I can admit that it would take a lot of things going right for Baylor to win this game. I say that without an ounce of doubt in Baylor's offense or defense. Even if we are really good, it's entirely possible for others to be better. That != failure.

Having said that, the good news is that I think this game would be much closer than people probably expect, especially those that buy wholeheartedly into the SEC IS AMAZING AND EVERYONE ELSE SUCKS myth. Baylor has potentially the best offense in the country, certainly one of the best (depending on which stats you choose to follow). It is better on that side of the ball than any team Alabama has faced this year save A&M (and then it's arguable). But Alabama itself is pretty great, too, and I don't know if we would be able to stop them enough to get the job done. I think we'd score points, just not enough.

Boy, I'd love to see it and be wrong.

For those new to ODB who see the Poll below and think I'm crazy for giving Baylor the option of being a 14-point favorite over Alabama, that's the way I always do polls. If one side gets something as an option, the other side does, too.

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