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How Saban has been Defeated in the Past

Defeating Saban doesn't happen often, but there are some trends that occur when a team does upset him.

Saban has had a lot of continuity while coaching at Alabama, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  Due to this continuity, I thought there might be a few common trends in Saban upsets.  I didn't look at any of the games in his first year, because Saban's team had an average record of 7-6, which means you can't really compare that team to any of his other teams.  I picked ten games that Alabama was expected to win, and didn't.  Some of these themes seem obvious, and a couple aren't.

Outstanding Quarterback Play

This one wasn't surprising at a glance, but a few small details were odd.

Quarterback Completions Attempts AVG PA TD INT
Brian Johnson 27 41 8.2 3 0
Cam Newton 13 20 10.8 3 0
Jordan Jefferson 10 13 10.8 1 0
Stephen Garcia 17 20 10.1 3 1
Johnny Manziel 24 31 8.2 2 0
Trevor Knight 32 44 7.9 4 1
NIck Marshall 11 16 6.1 2 0
Cardale Jones 18 35 6.9 1 1
Bo Wallace 18 31 8.1 3 0
Chad Kelly 18 33 10.3 3 0

  • The Brian Johnson that played quarterback at Utah is the same Brian Johnson that is currently MSU's quarterback coach.
  • The first thing I noticed is that it didn't really matter how many times the quarterback threw the ball.  Four of the ten quarterbacks threw the ball under thirty times, which isn't that often.
  • Not throwing interceptions is really important, which you probably guessed before reading this article.  That being said, it is important that no one on this list has thrown more than one interception.
  • Seven of the ten quarterbacks averaged eight yards or more per pass attempt, which is above average against anyone.  Nick Marshall made up for his lack of passing efficiency by running for 92 yards and not throwing an interception.  Cardale Jones didn't really need to have that good of a game, because his runningback ran for 230 yards.  Trevor Knight threw for 7.9 yards per pass, so he was very close to my arbitrary benchmark.
  • Most of these quarterbacks didn't run the ball effectively.  The ones that did were Manziel and Marshall, who were both smaller, faster runners.
  • Every quarterback threw at least one touchdown pass for at least 20 yards or more.
  • The talent level of quarterbacks on this list is not consistent at all.

The Runningbacks Usually Didn't Produce

It isn't unreasonable to think that a team needs a balanced offense to beat Saban, but history says otherwise.

Runningback Rushing Attempts YPA Rushing TD
Matt Asiata 13 2.2 1
Ontario McCaleb 8 6.3 0
Stevan Ridley 24 3.7 1
Marcus Lattimore 23 4.0 2
Ben Malena 14 3.6 0
Brennan Clay 17 2.6 0
Tre Mason 29 5.7 1
Ezekiel Elliot 20 11.5 2
Jaylen Walton 11 3.5 0
Jordan Wilkins 7 5.6 1

  • Most of these runningbacks didn't have good games.  With McCaleb (Auburn 2010) and both of the Mississippi runningbacks, it looks like their coaches didn't even try to establish the run.  Tre Mason and Ezekiel Elliot did have great games against Alabama, especially Elliot.  Lattimore had a good one as well.  Mason plays in the NFL, Elliot will, and Lattimore would be if he hadn't torn his ACL.
  • I couldn't have told you what team some of these runningbacks even played for before I looked it up.

There is Usually an NFL Caliber Receiver (and it isn't necessarily him leading the way)

The best wide receivers don't always have good games against Alabama, but they at least take enough of the opposing defenses attention to help get their teammates get open.  Reuben Randle, Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, Sterling Shepard, Sammie Coates, Devin Smith, and Laquon Treadwell were all involved with at least one of these upsets.  It wasn't always one of the star players, but in every one of these upsets, the leading receiver got at least 75 yards against Alabama (with the exception of Auburn in 2013).  Several got over 100 yards.

Shut Down the Run

In seven of these ten upsets, Alabama ran for less than 4 yards per rushing attempt.

Opponent YPA Rushing TD
Utah 0.9 0
Auburn (2010) 2.3 1
LSU 3.3 1
South Carolina 1.2 0
Texas A&M 3.9 2
Oklahoma 3.7 2
Auburn (2013) 6.2 1
Ohio State 5.0 3
Mississippi (2014) 3.8 1
Mississippi (2015) 5.1 2

  • Saban's teams have ran the ball better when losing games in recent history.  I'm not going to bother trying to explain why.
  • The 2014 Mississippi game is a little deceiving.  Sacks count as total rushing yards because the NCAA views a sack as a rushing attempt.  T.J. Yeldon was averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

Win the Turnover Battle

Out of these ten games, Alabama has committed more turnovers than their opponent in eight of them.  In the South Carolina game, both teams had one turnover, and Alabama didn't turn over the ball against Auburn in 2013.

How Does This Apply to Saturday?

Prescott only has one interception so far this season, which fits in with what I wrote about quarterbacks and winning the turnover battle.  However, while Prescott is a good runner, his running style isn't similar to Johnny Manziel's and Nick Marshall's, who are the two quarterbacks who have by far had the most success running the ball against Alabama.  Also, Prescott got destroyed whenever he tried to run the ball on third down last year.  The fact that runningbacks usually aren't very good in upsets of Alabama is good news, because MSU hasn't had an every down runningback emerge this year.  We might see Derunnya Wilson have a big game, or help another receiver such as Fred Ross have a big game.  As far a shutting down the run goes, it will be extremely difficult.  MSU's rushing defense is ranked 58th, according to Bill Connelly's S&P rankings.  Winning the turnover battle is extremely important, and MSU is ranked last in the SEC in fumbles lost.  That statistic makes it even more important for Prescott to avoid throwing interceptions.