I love looking at the numbers behind sports. I love looking at them after the season to help dissect what really happened and I love thinking about them beforehand to help anticipate how the season will go.
So here are five key stats to watch for 2011. I think these five will give the average Alabama fan a gauge as to how the season is going.
1) Tackles for loss – Last year’s 75 TFL were the fewest since Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama in 2007. That was good for 10th in the conference versus top three finishes in each of Saban’s first three seasons. The higher this number, the more we’re playing in the opponents backfield; it means we’re causing negative situations for down and distance scenarios – and that’s a good thing. I’m hoping to see this number move back to the upper 80s.
2) Sacks – Like the TFL stat, sacks mean we are controlling the line of scrimmage and playing in the opponent’s backfield. Sacks also impact down and distance scenarios, but usually in a much more negative way than TFL. Bama’s 27 sacks last year were good for seventh in the league and that’s about where Saban’s teams at Alabama have usually finished. This is the first year where every play on the team was recruited and signed by coach Saban. That means we should have the personnel he wants and needs to run his 3-4 defense. Factor that in with a healthy Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and our sack total should go up to at least the low 30s.
3) Interceptions thrown – Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, we will have a first time starter. That means their decision making will be tested by opposing defenses and by the general speed of the game. Will we return to the John Parker Wilson era where 8 to12 interceptions per year was the norm, or will the new guy(s) be more in line with Greg McElroy (four to five per year)? I think it’s anticipated that we’ll take a step back in this area and that the new QBs will put the defense in a bad spot occasionally, but if this number stays under eight, I think the result will be a special season.
4) Yards rushing per game – In 2008 and 2009, I think we saw the kind of rushing game that personifies a Nick Saban team. Over that time, Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch and Trent Richardson, along with a strong offensive line, hammered defenses. Last year, we took a step back, finishing only fifth in the conference. This year with a brand new quarterback, and with a solid offensive line, I think we’ll see our rushing numbers go back up (whether by design or necessity). If this doesn’t, I think it’s a bad sign for the team. It’ll mean that the offensive line hasn’t jelled like we had hoped, our running backs have been hit with injuries, or we’re consistently playing from behind.
5) Time of possession – This is probably the hallmark stat of the Saban era at Alabama. After leading the conference in this area for 2008 and 2009, we again took a major step back last year and finished fourth. Basically, winning this statistic means we’re winning the line of scrimmage. It means we’re doing what we want to up front and controlling the game. It means when the game is on the line, we can drive the ball down your throat and take the life out of your hopes. If think if we have a successful season (returning to the SEC championship game or better), we’ll see our time of possession be around 32 or 33 minutes per game.