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November 10, 2009

Column: Numbers don't back criticism

It's time to give some credit where it's due.

Think back to the beginning of the season and what were the biggest concerns regarding the University of Alabama football team.

A new quarterback, running back, tight end, three new starters on the offensive line and wide receiver depth was an additional concern.

Defensively, no Rashad Johnson at safety and replacements also needed to be found at end and Jack linebacker.

Nine games in, it's obvious that someone has stepped up at each spot, including Greg McElroy.

Yes, McElroy, who seems to be square in the sights of some fans and still getting used to it. Granted, many of the Alabama faithful don't seem to be happy unless they're worrying/dwelling (and in some cases obsessing) about something, but more about that later.

Let's start with the offensive line.

Here are two statistics that demonstrate how far this group has come along: Despite replacing Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith and All-American center Antoine Caldwell, Alabama has more rushing yards than at this point last year and fewer sacks.

Specially, Alabama was leading the SEC with 205.3 rushing yards per game at this point in 2008, and is currently fourth with 213.0. The Tide had given up 13 sacks, compared to just nine this season.

That's impressive.

"I can't say that the attention given to Andre and Antoine wasn't warranted, they were great football players," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "Sometimes things like that take time. We have quality offensive lineman."

One of the results is that sophomore running back Mark Ingram, who is well on his way to breaking the UA single-season rushing record, already has as many career 100-yard games as the person he replaced, Glen Coffee.

Here's a quick list of the 100-yard performances since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Except for the 2008 SEC Championship Game (when Coffee had 112 yards), Alabama won every game.

246 by Mark Ingram vs. South Carolina (Oct. 17, 2009)
218 by Glen Coffee vs. Kentucky (Oct. 4, 2008)
173 by Terry Grant at Vanderbilt (Sept. 8, 2007)
172 by Mark Ingram at Mississippi (Oct. 10, 2009)
162 by Glen Coffee at Arkansas (Sept. 20, 2008)
150 by Mark Ingram vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 5, 2009)
144 by Mark Ingram vs. LSU (Nov. 7, 2009)
144 by Glen Coffee vs. Auburn (Nov. 29, 2008)
140 by Mark Ingram at Kentucky (Oct. 3, 2009)
134 by Terry Grant vs. Western Carolina (Sept. 1, 2007)
126 by Glen Coffee at LSU (Nov. 8, 2008)
121 by Glen Coffee vs. Houston (Oct. 6, 2007)
118 by Trent Richardson vs. FIU (Sept. 12, 2009)
113 by Mark Ingram vs. Arkansas State (Nov. 1, 2008)
112 by Glen Coffee vs. Florida (Dec. 6, 2008) (SEC)
104 by Terry Grant vs. Tennessee (Oct. 20, 2007)

A host of tight ends have stepped in like Colin Peek, Preston Dial and recently Michael Williams. Whereas last year's top receiver not named Julio Jones, Mike McCoy, finished with 16 catches for 191 yards, sophomore Marquis Maze has already easily exceeded that (31, 368), and junior Darius Hanks has more yards (198).

Meanwhile, McElroy was feeling the pressure until his two touchdowns against LSU, ending his end zone drought of 113 attempts that dated back to the Kentucky game.

"I put more pressure on myself that than anyone could ever put on me," he said. "I miss a pass I'm madder at myself than any fan, any reporter, any player, any coach. I'm more upset because I know I let myself down.

"That's the pressure I was facing the past couple of weeks."

One has to wonder how much the criticism has been warranted, especially for an undefeated team. Consider the following sets of numbers, and try and guess whom they belong to:

1. 114-of-173, 65.9 percent, four interceptions, 1,531 yards, 11 touchdowns;
2. 140-of-236, 59.3 percent, four interceptions, 1,721 yards, 11 touchdowns;
3. 124-of-204, 60.8 percent, four interceptions, 1,412 yards, eight touchdowns;

The first set of numbers belongs to 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and the second to McElroy. Granted, Tebow has 578 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns, compared to McElroy's 40 yards, but the Gators don't have a running back like Ingram either.

The third set of numbers belonged to John Parker Wilson at this point in 2008, during his third year starting.

"Sometimes as a quarterback you receive a lot of credit and you receive a lot of blame, and sometimes you feel like that's deserved and sometimes you feel like that's undeserved," McElroy said. "It's not anything that anyone can do anything about. It's the nature of the position, it's the nature of the school and it's just the way things are. It's something that you've got to make peace with."

Although Saban doesn't like comparisons, we can't help ourselves. Here's how the overall offense compares to a year ago:

Offense
Scoring: Down 1.3 points per game.
Passing: Averaging 38 more yards per game.
Passing efficiency: Rating up from 127.1 to 132.3.
Total: Average yards up from 369.0 to 414.7.
Third downs: Conversions down from 44 percent to 37.4.
Red zone: Up from 81.1 percent to 87.2 with two more opportunities (39). Five fewer touchdowns, nine more field goals.


Meanwhile, Alabama's defensive numbers are almost identical except for sacks which are way up thanks to the Tide being more aggressive. Considering it's a senior-laden unit aided by a strong infusion of talent, the standard has been set for every subsequent team.

"We're a lot better than last year," senior nose tackle Terrence Cody said. "Just the experience."

Defense
Scoring: Tide yielding .4 less points per game.
Passing: Alabama giving up 15.9 fewer yards per game.
Passing efficiency: Rating from 101.4 to 90.4.
Rushing: Tide gave up 65.6 yards last year, 68.0 this season.
Total: Down from 251.4 to 242.0.
Third downs: Opponents converted 25.2 percent last year, up to 30.5.
Sacks: Up from 18 a year ago to 26.
Red zone: 80 percent a year ago, down slightly to 75.0. The difference? One possession.

Other statistics
Penalties: 11 more penalties overall, a difference of 11.2 yards per game.
Opponents' penalties: 3 more overall, 6.7 yards per game (Note: Penalties are slightly up in general with teams averaging 51.65 yards per game, compared to 50.59 a year ago).
Turnovers: Tide has created one more turnover and given up two fewer.
Time of possession: Alabama led the SEC last year with a 32:31 average, and again tops the conference at 32:37.

Overall, except for third-downs and red-zone offense (a subject for another day), Alabama's numbers are essentially the same or better across the board despite all the new faces in new places and the fact that nine games into last season the Tide had yet to face LSU.

With more depth, big-play potential and a team that obviously hasn't peaked yet, it leaves only one conclusion: As of now, Alabama appears to have a better chance of reaching the national title game than at this point a year ago.


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