TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If there’s been a statistical surprise with the University of Alabama offense this season its third-downs conversions.

The Crimson Tide has converted 40 of 70 attempts, for 57.1 percent, which not only tops the Southeastern Conference but is second in the nation to Georgia Tech’s 58.1.

Considering that Alabama has a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator, just getting close to last year’s numbers probably would have been considered more than acceptable. Instead, they’re way better.

Alabama doesn’t maintain a record in the category but since 1970 its best season in third-down conversions was 74 of 143, 52 percent, in 1973. The last time the Crimson Tide finished above 50 percent was 1978, and its best under Nick Saban was 2012 at 47.9 percent.

Alabama third-down conversions
Year, Percent (conversions-attempts)
2013 48 (70-147)
2012 48 (80-167)
2011 47 (78-167)
2010 45 (67-150)
2009 39 (76-194)
2008 42 (76-183)
2007 38 (75-198)

However, not even Saban expects the offense to keep this pace as the Crimson Tide goes through the heart of its SEC schedule.

“I think we’re going to play a lot better teams coming up here that, first of all, that can affect the quarterback with the rush,” he said. “So we’re going to have to do a better job of protecting. I don’t think (quarterback Blake Sims has) really played against a significant rusher all year. That’s a fact, protection.

“Second thing is as we get into our league, we saw a little of it last week, we’re going to get more closer coverage, we’re going to get more people playing us close, doing things to take away what we’ve done. So I think it’s going to be a little more difficult to continue that kind of efficiency.”

Saban made the statement last week, before Alabama’s 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. Sure enough, the Crimson Tide had its worst showing of the season.

Alabama’s third-down conversations, game-by-game
West Virginia 9-15, 60.0
Florida Atlantic 6-12, 50.0
Southern Miss 7-11, 63.6
Florida 12-16, 75.0
Ole Miss 6-16, 37.5

But a second look at the numbers from the Ole Miss game show something interesting, which becomes obvious when you compare Sims’ passing and rushing numbers on third down.

Sims’ third-down passing, game-by-game
West Virginia 8-9-0 0 TD, 90 yards, six first downs
Florida Atlantic 1-1-0 0 TD, 10 yards, one first down
Southern Miss 2-2-0, 0 TD, 26 yards, two first downs
Florida 6-8-0, 1 TD, 89 yards, five first downs
Ole Miss 5-7, 0 TD, 36 yards, five first downs
Total 22-28-0 (71.4 percent), 1 TD, 251 yards, 19 first downs

Team totals: 27-34-0 (79.4 percent), 2 TDs, 329 yards
Last season: 50-76-3 (66.14 percent), 6 TDs, 582 yards
2012 season: 56-90-2 (62.2 percent), 8 TDS, 724 yards

Incidentally, no other SEC quarterback is better than 62.5 percent, with Patrick Towles of Kentucky and Dak Prescott essentially tied.

Sims’ third-down rushing, game-by-game
West Virginia 3-28 yards, three first downs
Florida Atlantic 2-5, 1TD, 1 first down
Southern Miss 1-20, 1 first down
Florida 2-5, 2 first downs
Ole Miss 4-2, 1 first down (and one sack)
Total 12 carries, 60 yards, 1 TD, eight first downs

With Sims coming off a bruised shoulder Alabama ran the ball eight times on third down against the Rebels, and only notched one first down, on third-and-1. Sims was also sacked, which counts against his rushing yards.

So the Crimson Tide actually tried to run as much as throw on third down in the game. The average distance to go for the first down was 7.75 yards on the carries and 6.5 on the passes if you include the sack as a pass on thrd-and-16. Otherwise the average was 4.5 yards to go on passing plays.

Also of note, Sims only attempted two third-down passes to wide receiver Amari Cooper, which was a departure from the first four games.

Leading third-down targets, season
Player, Catches-Targets, Yards, TDs
Amari Cooper 12-15, 118 yards, 2 TDs
DeAndrew White 2-3, 50
Chris Black 2-2 23
T.J. Yeldon 2-3, 19
Christion Jones 2-2, 10
ArDarius Stewart 1-1, 40

Specific to Alabama’s game at Arkansas on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Razorbacks are third in the SEC and 14th nationally in third-down conversions at 49.1 percent, primarily because they gain so many rushing yards on first down.

Arkansas is averaging 316.6 rushing yards per game, which leads the SEC and is 6th in the nation. Incidentally, Alabama’s defense has allowed a league-leading 64.0 rushing yards per game, third nationally.