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Inside the numbers: Alabama’s secondary is pivotal to a national championship in 2017

Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (#29) hold "Ball Out" turnover belt after recording a pick-six in 2016 SEC Championship Game versus Florida.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

He played the position in college and is currently coaching the role at the University of Alabama while being the head man; so, Nick Saban knows the importance of a mature secondary. No matter how good the Crimson Tide was offensively and on the defensive front in the last two seasons, its secondary has been the deciding factor between winning national championships or losing critical games since Saban arrived in 2007.

In its four national championship (2009, 2011-12, 2015) campaigns, Alabama’s defensive backfield surrendered a completion percentage of 50.3 percent. The combination of Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt at defensive coordinator witnessed the Tide give up 2,303.3 passing yards, while generating 74 interceptions to 42 touchdowns –  a 95.1 quarterback rating allowed.

What makes the numbers listed above more appreciative is when you look at how opposition tore the Tide apart in seasons when it did not earn a national title. Excluding 2007 from the picture, quarterbacks have completed 54 percent of their throws for 2,683.6 passing yards combined in 2008, 2010, 2013-14 and 2016 – the years where Alabama missed its ultimate goal. Along with that, opposing quarterbacks had two more touchdown passes than the Tide’s secondary had picks (77-75) giving them a passer rating of 110.02.

Having Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett back is a big deal, but Alabama needs to have more studs in the back five for rotational purposes. Even in its national title runs in 2012 and 2015, Smart, Pruitt and the Tide came across two signal callers that were very prepared and torched Alabama.

Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was highly efficient, completing 24 of 31 attempts – 77.4 percent – for 253 yards with two touchdowns in a 29-24 thrilling upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012.

Three years later, Chad Kelly led the Ole Miss Rebels to Tuscaloosa and pulled out a 43-37 victory. Kelly hit on 18 of 33 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Prior to Deshaun Watson in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship, the last three quarterback to defeat the Tide (Bo Wallace, Cardale Jones, Chad Kelly) did it by completing 18 of 30-plus attempts – netting a percentage of either 50% or higher.

The numbers weren’t necessarily mind-bottling; nevertheless, all three guys found ways to take shots versus Alabama. Watson was one of three quarterback to turn in a 400-yard game against the Tide a season ago, joining Kelly and Arkansas’ Austin Allen. Watson’s performance would prove triumphant, as he hit on 36 of 56 passes – 64.3 percent – for 420 yards and three scores to capture a 35-31 win at Raymond James Stadium.

All in all, when the secondary struggles or if there is not enough talent to emerge, Alabama tends to allow a completion clip that nearly four percent higher (3.7) than usual. It gives up 380.3 more passing yards and surrenders a passer rating that 14.92 points higher than its norm. Brian Daboll will have the offense where it needs to be and the defensive front should find new active pieces, but the Tide may once again go as far as its secondary chooses to take it. Position coach Derrick Ansley will have a task on his hands in getting each part of this group to play winning football.

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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