Alabama vs. Auburn: Which team has the better defense?
The calling cards of Alabama and Auburn is defense. Not just good defensive play, but great defensive play. Both teams will go through some up and down years offensively, but you can always count on a rock-solid defense from the Tide and Tigers.
That figures to be the case in 2018 as well. Alabama may be replacing three first-round picks on that side of the ball, but considering how well they recruit on an annual basis, there’s top-shelf talent waiting in the wings to replace lost top-shelf talent. Auburn is bringing back a plethora of veterans to all three levels of the defense and is long on talent and experience. Inarguably, these are two of the most talented starting defenses in the country.
So, considering such a lofty buildup, who exactly has the better defense between the two titans from the Yellowhammer State?
Auburn: The Tigers were strong against the run last year, finishing fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed with 137 and second in yards per carry at 3.6. There’s reason to believe they’ll be even better in 2018 as they return one of the best defensive lines in the country in the form of Marlon Davidson, Dontavius Russell and Derrick Brown.
Russell is entering his fourth year as a starter at DT and has 37 starts under his belt. He has been a model of consistency against the run with great power at the point of attack and the ability to play 2 gaps. He also improved as a pass rusher last year and finished tied for third on the team in sacks with 3. Davidson flashed enormous potential as a true freshman in 2016 and had huge expectations going into 2017, but numerous minor injuries led to an up and down year. He’s fully healthy now and many are expecting him to produce an All-SEC caliber season at DE.
Brown (below) is the athletic marvel at 6-5, 317, with first-round potential. He’s very strong against the run with a powerful base who constantly disrupts plays behind the line of scrimmage. He regularly necessitates double teams and he regularly splits them, making him someone opposing offenses have to account for each play. Backup Nick Coe would be a starter at nearly any other school in the country, and has enough versatility to be able to rotate in across the defensive line, providing great flexibility and depth.
The biggest loss in the front seven from last year is Jeff Holland, who was one of the better pass rushers in the SEC last year, finishing with 9.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs. Looking to replace him will be T.D. Moultry, who gave tantalizing flashes of his enormous pass rushing potential as a freshman last year. He’s a twitchy, explosive edge rusher who can really bend off the edge. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes close to matching Holland’s production at the “Buck” OLB position this year.
The linebacker corps is deep and experienced led by a trio of seniors in Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson. Davis, entering his third year as a starter, led the Tigers in tackles last year with 82 and was an all-around playmaker who added 7 TFLs, 4 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries. He’s a fiery leader who is a thumper against the run, showing the strength to stack and shed blockers and the range to fly to the ball.
Williams, also entering his third year as a starter, plays the run well on the strong-side with good power at the point of attack and has a nose for the ball. Atkinson is the flier of the bunch with tremendous speed and range and, as a former safety, is the best in coverage. Richard McBryde, K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten are talented underclassmen providing depth.
All in all, the Tigers have a terrific front seven and they should be very strong against the run. The starting defensive line is one of the best nationally and the linebacker corps is both talented and experienced. Trying to generate a consistent rushing attack on this front seven will be a challenge for anyone.
Alabama: The Tide were absolutely fantastic on defense last year, finishing No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (11.9 points allowed per game), rushing yards allowed 94.7 and total yards (260.4). They will be working in some new starters in the front seven this year, however, and are replacing first-round picks at NT (Da’Ron Payne) and ILB (Rashaan Evans), and a fourth-round pick at DE in DaShawn Hand. With that said, this is Alabama – where 5-star prospects are replaced by the next wave of 5-star prospects.
The defensive line will struggle to replace Payne’s presence at the nose — he was quite literally the spearhead for the defense. There’s high hopes for sophomore Quinnen Williams, who might not have the traditional girth for NT at 6-4, 285, but is quick and powerful with the ability to penetrate. Isaiah Buggs returns at DE and is arguably the most consistent player on defense. His numbers don’t accurately portray his impact, but he excels against the run and also provides some pass rush. He has the strength and athleticism to play numerous positions up front, providing great flexibility.
The star of the defense is DE Raekwon Davis, a genetic freak of nature at 6-7, 310, who has the power his size would suggest but the feet and lateral mobility of someone 75 pounds lighter.
He was third on the team in tackles last year with 69 while also adding 10 TFLs and 8.5 sacks, the latter of which was fifth in the SEC. He’s a very well-rounded player who impacts the game in a number ways, particularly against the run, where at times he’s simply unblockable. He’ll again compete for All-American honors and is a likely top-10 pick next spring.
The linebacker corps is relatively young but immensely talented, both inside and out. The unit faced a plethora of injuries last year which forced many of the younger players onto the field in crucial moments, which is expected to pay dividends. Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses are slated to man the inside and both fit the mold of the modern-day linebacker, with exceptional athleticism, speed and range. Both are still improving their run fits inside but have made huge leaps developmentally and appear poised for breakout seasons. Instinctively, they’re natural ballhawks.
Anfernee Jennings, when healthy, is one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the SEC and is expected to start at OLB. With that said, he missed the title game with a knee injury and underwent surgery in the offseason, so it’ll be interesting to see if he moves the same way he did before the injury. Christian Miller, who missed nearly all of 2017 with a biceps injury, is expected to get the start opposite Jennings. He was able to come back at the end of last year and looked explosive and twitchy in the title game, coming up with a big sack.
The biggest problem for the linebacking corps will be staying healthy, as that was the big problem last year and the injury bug is already rearing its ugly head in 2018, with presumed starter Terrell Lewis going down with a torn ACL earlier in the summer.
Overall, Alabama’s front seven is going to be downright lethal, with a striking combination of both speed and power. There’s a very good chance that they’ll once again be contending for best run defense in the country statistically.
Alabama: Hoo boy, is Alabama going through some changes in the secondary. They lose starters every year to the NFL Draft and graduation, but rarely do they lose their top 6 DBs in a single offseason. After finishing No. 6 nationally in passing yards allowed per game at 165.7, they now need to replace Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Anthony Averett, Levi Wallce, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown, and while there certainly are talented players waiting in the wings, it’s really going to be interesting to see how quickly they can mesh together.
Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith will likely get the start at outside corner and both are high upside players with a lot of potential. Diggs is an elite athlete with good length at 6-2, with the skill set to excel in press man coverage. Smith, brought in this spring as the nation’s No. 1 JUCO DB after originally signing with LSU, is another long corner at 6-1 with quick feet and good ball skills.
Shyheim Carter could be the one to replace Fitzpatrick at the “Star,” where his versatility, headiness and playmaking ability will allow him to be moved around like a chess piece. Expect Patrick Surtain, the nations No. 6 overall prospect and top CB for the 2018 signing class, to see some serious time as well.
At safety, Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney are expected to win the starting jobs. Thompson (below) saw some valuable time at the tail end of last season and will likely be the leader in the back end. The 6-2, 194-pound junior has been patiently biding his time the past two years as a reserve and is expecting a breakout campaign after flashing serious playmaking potential.
McKinney saw a little bit of time as a true freshman last year after being considered one of the top safety prospects coming out of high school in the 2017 class. He’s yet another underclassman with enormous potential but just needs in-game seasoning to take his development to the next level.
The secondary is very talented, this much we know. With that said, it’s very inexperienced, so there is the element of the unknown with this group. How quickly they can gel will be the biggest question for this group heading into the season. Fortunately, they will have the benefit of a ferocious pass rush in front of them that will take some pressure off of them, but they’ll need to work out the kinks early on.
Auburn: The Tigers are in a bit better shape in terms of experience returning to the defensive backfield as they return numerous key players from a unit that was 18th nationally in passing yards allowed per game with 182.4 and just 5.9 yards per attempt.
The headliner of the group is CB Jamel Dean, considered one of the top draft prospects at his position nationally. The 6-2, 210-pound Dean is a size/speed guy with ideal length to match up with some of the bigger and more physical receivers he’ll face but also the quickness and deep speed to stay step for step with track stars on the outside. After a bad string of injuries the past few years, he was able to stay healthy all of last year and got better and better as the season went on.
Noah Igbinoghene has made the transition over from WR, where he’s in his more natural position at CB. He’s one of the best athletes on the team and has elite deep speed, and while he doesn’t have a plethora of experience yet, shows huge upside. Javaris Davis slid inside to NB, where he should be a good fit with his ability to cover slot receivers but also step up and stop the outside run and blitz off the edge.
Jeremiah Dinson is expected to get the nod at FS and he’s a heady and instinctive player with experience at CB and NB as well. He’s got a nose and can click and close on the ball in a hurry. Daniel Thomas is the front runner at SS and he’s another physical and aggressive ballhawk who is always around the play. Both safeties have a sea of experience and have played other positions in the secondary, giving them a strong foundation of the scheme.
There’s also intriguing depth in the secondary led by a trio of true freshman who are wasting little time making an impression and will undoubtedly see time this fall. 4-star CB Christian Tutt could be the first CB off the bench and both 4-star safety prospects Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood are working with the two’s. They’re a highly talented group of guys with bright futures who will slowly carve out bigger roles with the defense as the season goes on.
As a whole, this is a strong secondary and just like the front seven, there’s a lot of experience to draw on here. This is a deep and talented group with a lot of playmaking ability, and there will be plenty of opportunities to capitalize on mistakes made by QBs pressured into getting rid of the ball too quickly by the ferocious front seven.
Better defense overall?
I’m going to say Auburn, just because of the amount of experience they have. Alabama probably has a bit better depth and can better afford some injuries and keep trucking, but the Tigers’ starting defense is just as talented (if not more so) but far more experienced, particularly in the secondary.
Auburn also has the benefit of DC Kevin Steele returning, while Alabama is replacing Jeremy Pruitt with Tosh Lupoi after the former took the top job at Tennessee. Both defenses are championship quality, however, and I expect both to finish the year in the top-10 nationally of points allowed per game.