Saban's greatest Alabama defense yet? That's the ceiling for this 2021 group
Before Alabama football became synonymous with explosive playmakers like Jalen, Tua and Mac, Jeudy and DeVonta, or Waddle and Najee, there was always the Alabama defense. Come hell or high water, if you were going to beat the Crimson Tide, you’d have to stare down the most well-coached, smartly-schemed and talent-rich defense in the country. You don’t go 165-23 with 6 national championships in 14 seasons without a rock solid staple of excellence, and for Alabama, defense always came first.
It’s hard to imagine anything at Alabama worth complaining about, but isn’t that the beauty (and the point?) of Saban’s fabled “process”? There is always room to improve. Contentment doesn’t breed championships and those are won at the margins, where Saban’s Alabama are always masterfully maneuvering and micromanaging. Think Any Given Sunday, and Al Pacino’s famed “6 inches in front of your face” speech. Saban’s Alabama doesn’t just fight for those 6 inches; they are constantly finding ways to refine their approach and make that fight easier.
For that reason, there’s a focus on what the defense can be for Alabama in 2021.
Reflecting on that requires admitting what it hasn’t been since 2017: invincible.
Yes, the Tide finished 6th in S&P+ defensive efficiency in 2020 and 32nd in total defense, and led the SEC in scoring defense (19.3 ppg) numbers that were plenty good enough to win a national championship behind one of the greatest offenses in the history of the sport.
But for the third consecutive season, the Tide didn’t feel invincible on defense, and on some nights — like in a nip and tuck SEC Championship against Florida — the Tide looked … almost ordinary?
Recent social media videos celebrating Alabama’s 2016 defense, which scored almost a touchdown per game, or the 2017 defense, which helped the Tide capture a national title while leading the nation in scoring defense (12 ppg), interceptions (19) and defensive havoc rate (along with 40 sacks!), show that the days of Alabama’s defensive dominance aren’t long past.
But the Tide have also had games where they bled points, only to be bailed out by electric perimeter playmakers and dynamic quarterbacks. Take this astounding statistic, for example. From 2010-2017, Alabama’s defense finished in the top 10 in total defense each season and allowed 28 points or more in a game just 14 times over 8 seasons. In the past 3 seasons, the Tide have finished just outside the top 10 in yards allowed per play and total defense and have surrendered 28 points or more in 10 games.
That’s a noticeable decline, even if the Crimson Tide keep winning because they’ve adapted to the modern game offensively.
Nick Saban, for his own part, notes that defense is different today than even 10 years ago. He embraces the challenge, but he thinks his defense is capable of more.
“It’s challenging as a defensive guy to be able to adapt and adjust to the way the game is played now, but I think the rules in college football have sort of ignited the change throughout the game,” Saban said Wednesday. “Things always sort of cycle, and the trend has been to spread the field with three and four wide receivers and four open formations and implement RPOS and lots of screens. You spread the field and make a defense defend 53 yards wide and 100 yards deep, which has not always been the case when the more people that line up right — I call it wad ball — the more constrictive you can be in terms of how you create space for offensive players to make. Those are real challenging things to try and defend.”
But Saban said defenses are catching up, and he expects his group to compete and improve.
“Defenses are catching up and creating more issues with some of the things (offenses) want to do,” Saban said. “So there may be some movement back in the other direction, toward more conventional type of football and regular formations. We have to be ready for all of it.”
It will be tough for any Crimson Tide defense to top the production of the 2011 national championship defense, which surrendered 20 points or more only 1 time in 13 games. But metric-based prognosticators like Pro Football Focus believe this will be the best Crimson Tide defense in years — one capable of carrying the load while an offense breaking in a new starting quarterback and a host of new perimeter playmakers gains its footing.
With players like Josh Jobe, Christian Harris, Jordan Battle, Malachi Moore, Phidarian Mathis, Will Anderson and Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o all on campus, this is certainly a defense with star power. Even with Patrick Surtain II gone to the NFL, the secondary returns every other starter and has the chance to be one of the best in Crimson Tide history. And you won’t find a better group of linebackers from top to bottom in the country. The addition of expert run-stuffer To’o To’o (he led the SEC with 17 run stuffs at Tennessee last year, per ESPN stats) should keep Bama stout stopping the run, as could the return of LaBryan Ray, who missed the majority of last season with an elbow injury.
If you can’t be multiple against Alabama, you have very little chance (even Florida managed 3 rushing touchdowns in the 52-46 SEC Championship Game) against the Crimson Tide. It should be even tougher for opponents to stress the Tide in the run and pass game this year.
How good can the group be? The Tide will find out quickly. Miami expects electric quarterback D’Eriq King ready for the opener on Sept. 4, and the Tide travel to Gainesville for a highly-anticipated matchup with the Gators two weeks later. Shut down two offenses filled with blue-chip athletes and dual-threat quarterbacks, and you’ll get a pretty good idea how nasty things might get on the Capstone this autumn.
For now, with the expectation being the offense will take a small step back– all eyes are on the defense. As it should be at Alabama. As it has always been.