A season-long penalties problem proved to be most costly at the end of Alabama’s regular season last year, in its final possession of a loss to Auburn. Fifteen penalty yards slowed progress on a drive that ultimately ended with a missed field goal attempt on the 11-yard line.
The field goal could have tied the game; without the penalty yardage, there could have been a game-winning touchdown.
Barring a pandemic-required schedule change, Tuesday brings UA 95 days away from its 2020 season opener against Southern California. It will be the team’s first chance to improve on a 95-penalty 2019 season that proved both costly and historic.
The 95 penalties committed by UA, when broken down to 7.3 penalties a game, were by far the most of a UA team coached by Nick Saban. None of Saban's previous 12 squads committed more than six a game, and only five of those 12 committed five or more. The 2019 team was both the first UA team to commit 11 penalties in a game since the 2016 Peach Bowl and the first of the Saban era to commit 13 in a game, which it did in the aforementioned Auburn game.
It is not fair to pin all of UA’s penalty problems on the 2019 team, as penalties have been on the rise for years. Before 2015, only one Saban-coached UA team had committed five or more penalties a game (2010, 5.1). Starting with 2015, UA has committed 5.9, 5.7, 5, 5.8 and 7.3 penalties a game. That rise in penalties has not been mirrored by the rest of the sport: in six of the last 10 years, the national median for penalties a game was between 6 and 6.2.
However, the drastic rise from 2018 to 2019 does say something about last year’s team, especially when considering how the penalties broke down by type.
Midseason shuffling along the offensive line could have contributed to the 19 false starts, as UA used two different starting centers (Chris Owens and Landon Dickerson) and inserted Deonte Brown into the lineup after his four-game suspension. Some of UA’s nine offside penalties could have been products of inexperience in the defensive front, but other signs of inexperience defensive include five substitution infraction penalties and five roughing the passer penalties.
It stands to reason that some of those procedural penalties may get better as UA returns all but one offensive line starter and the bulk of its defensive front from last season. However, it is losing most of the secondary that committed 11 pass interference penalties and four defensive holding penalties, leaving it liable to increases in that regard.
However the 2020 team ends up committing its penalties, it will need to commit fewer of them. It will likely be an emphasis for the entire preseason.
“A lot of these penalties that we got in this game were unforced errors, jumping offsides, things like that, critical situations. Not substituting correctly on defense,” Saban said in September. “We cannot put ourselves in those positions. Third-and-10 is a whole lot different from third-and-five, so you get an offsides or whatever and they hit a big play because you’re playing different types of coverages.”
Alabama's penalties, broken down by infraction:
False start, 19
Pass interference, 11
Personal foul, 11
Substitution infraction, 5
Roughing the passer, 5
Delay of game, 4
Illegal block, 4
Defensive holding, 4
Unsportsmanlike conduct, 3
Illegal motion, 2
Ineligible receiver downfield, 1
Illegal shift, 1