TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “Start fast and finish strong” is a mantra long associated with success, and Nick Saban is no exception. He’s regularly emphasized the philosophy throughout his coaching career, including at the University of Alabama.
Only this year’s Crimson Tide are taking it to another level, especially the start-fast part.
Whether it’s the first quarter, or just a first down, Alabama has been especially adept at giving itself a significant advantage at the get-go.
“I think it’s very important,” senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said about the Crimson Tide getting off to good starts on Saturdays. “Most of the time we’ve been known to come out pretty slow. We really emphasized this year to come out fast.”
It has, and we’re talking like Usain Bolt fast. Alabama has outscored its opponents 76-6 in the first quarter.
During those 15 minutes in five games, it has run for 450 yards and passed for 410, while outgaining opponents 860-350. The first downs demonstrate a comparable contrast, 37-15.
Remember, most offensive coordinators script a lot of the plays they run in the first quarter. So it’s when the Crimson Tide defense primarily sees what the opposition came up with during weeks and months of preparation.
Yet Alabama hasn’t trailed during the first quarter. The only time it did all season was after Florida State’s Auden Tate caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Deondre Francois with 13:41 remaining in the second quarter of their neutral-site opener in Atlanta.
It lasted all of 2 minutes and 13 seconds, when the Crimson Tide quickly answered with a five-play, 85-yard drive capped by Calvin Ridley’s 53-yard bomb from Jalen Hurts
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“Just executing,” Hurts said. “It’s always the goal, to come out and start fast.”
Under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Alabama is averaging 15.2 points per game in the first quarter, which leads the nation. The breakdown is 17.3 points at home and 12.0 elsewhere.
In 2016, the Crimson Tide averaged 8.6 points during the opening fame, and two years ago just 4.1 points, the lowest of Saban area.
“A little more experience,” Hurts said was the biggest difference as the offense returned numerous key starters. “That helps. It kind of shows.”
Alabama first-quarter scoring average
On the flip side, Alabama’s defense has yielded only 1.2 points per game in the first quarter, which only ranks third in the nation. Penn State has yet to give up a first-quarter point while Georgia is at 0.8.
Last year, the Crimson Tide yielded 3.0 points in the first quarter, which was sixth nationally.
Alabama already leads the nation in scoring defense, 8.6 points per game. There aren’t too much coaches who would like his team’s chances after falling behind two touchdowns to Saban.
To make matters worse for opponents, Alabama is outscoring teams 73-0 in the third quarter. It’s the modern equivalent to the original story of the Crimson Tide mascot, Big Al. The name stems from a fan’s comment “Here come the elephants!” when Wallace Wade would insert his best players during the 1930 national title season.
Alabama is also dominating its opponents on first downs, a statistic widely overshadowed by third-down conversion because it can directly result in a defense getting off the field. But the more success a defense has on first down, the harder it is for the offense to reach that yard-marker.
“Oh, that’s where you win the game, right there,” senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “If you win first down, that changes the way offenses think on second and third down. That’s the most important down.”
Hamilton considers giving up 3 yards or fewer a first-down win, putting the opposition in second-and-long and then potentially third-and-long, which also increases the chances of a turnover.
With that in mind, consider what Alabama’s offense has averaged on first down in each game. The numbers are nothing short of eye-popping on that side of the ball for the Crimson Tide, even including incomplete passes:
Average gain on first downs
Alabama’s defense hasn’t quite had the same success, going from 1.7 yards per first-down play against Vanderbilt to 7.5 against Ole Miss, which has an up-tempo offense that thrives on quickly snapping the ball to try to turn any first down into two, three or more.
But for those who were wondering why Alabama was still playing its defensive starters when senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand suffered an MCL-knee injury in the third quarter and the Crimson Tide ahead 45-3, it’s because Saban had learned the hard way that you can’t let up against that kind of quick-strike offense.
Ole Miss won back-to-back games against Alabama in 2014-15, and last year jumped out to a 24-3 lead prior to the Crimson Tide scoring 45 of the game’s next 48 points – followed by the Rebels scoring two late touchdowns to turn it into a one-possession game.
“The team we’re playing this week was ahead 41-10 one week and ended up getting beat,” Saban said about Texas A&M’s shocking season-opening loss to UCLA. “So you have to keep playing.
“The way college football is right now, people are very prolific at scoring a lot of points. You have to keep scoring on offense, you have to keep moving the ball on offense, you can’t relax, you can’t not pay attention to detail and you’ve got to keep playing well on defense and keep making plays for 60 minutes in the game.”
Thus, the emphasis is on start fast and finish strong. What this team has already learned is that the better they do the former, the easier it is to complete the latter.
“There is no better feeling than to know that you just dominated your opponent from start to finish,” Hamilton said.
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