Defense was supposed to be dead in college football. Killed by the likes of these new-fangled, up-tempo, no-huddle, spread-em-out, pass-happy offenses that pile up the yardage. And the points. Touch football with helmets and shoulder pads. It seemed to originate with the Big 12 Conference a few years ago and over time infiltrated into all of college football.
Defense wins championships. Yeah, that was the old saying. Today championships come to those who can outscore others. So they say. Then the 2015 Alabama defense arrived on the scene.
Um, maybe defense isn't dead after all. And, maybe, just maybe, defense can still deliver championships. Hey, if anybody in college football is gonna resurrect the idea of swarming, suffocating, sock-you-in-the-mouth, relentless defense, who better to do it than Alabama, right?
One of the hallmarks of Nick Saban's Alabama teams during this eight-year dynasty run — a run that's been punctuated by three national titles — has been stingy defense. Alabama finished in the top five in total defense in the nation from 2008-13, finishing No. 1 in both 2011 and '12. The Crimson Tide slipped to No. 12 last season.
This season? After a bit of a slow start — exhibit A being the Ole Miss loss in mid-September when the Bama D yielded 433 yards to Chad Kelly & Co. — Alabama has rounded into form reminiscent of past Alabama defenses. The Tide currently ranks fourth in the nation in total defense (278.1 ypg). Back in familiar territory rankings-wise.
The run defense (77.1 ypg) is right on par with the Alabama run defenses of 2012 (76.4 ypg), '11 (72.2 ypg), '09 (79.4 ypg) and '08 (74.1 ypg). Oh, and, yeah, Alabama won national titles in three of those four seasons and came within a Tim Tebow eyelash of playing for a national title in '08.
Saban said this week he really hasn't been surprised by the success this season of Alabama's defense, particularly the front seven.
"I thought that was gonna be the strength of our team going in," he said. "Every one of those guys has gotten better which I think is a tribute to their work ethic, but also (DL) coach Bo Davis has done a nice job with them. Some of the guys have gotten lighter and are quicker and some of the guys have developed and been able to play more significant roles. And I think the diversity that we have in players is very helpful, and the fact that we have really good depth is really a luxury to be able to roll in as many players as we roll in and not really lose a lot."
But there's a facet to this year's defense that sets it apart from the championship-caliber units of the past. A facet that makes it even more imposing, more intimidating, more fear-invoking.
This Alabama defense can flat-out harass and punish opposing quarterbacks, unlike any other Bama D in the Saban era. Alabama ranks second in the country in sacks with 38. Yeah, second. In all of college football. Alabama. Go figure.
Only Penn State with 42 has more. Under Saban, Alabama has never finished in the top 15 in sacks nationally. Its best season prior to this year came in 2012 when it finished tied for 16th in the country with 35 sacks. Alabama has never had a double-digit sack leader under Saban (Xzavier Dickson finished with nine in 2014 and Courtney Upshaw finished with 9.5 in '11) and with one more sack this season defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will have 10.
"Each year he's been here he's gotten a little bigger and a little stronger," Saban said this week of the 6-foot-3, 283-pound junior. "He's always been very athletic and had great first-step quickness. He does a great job of using his hands and moving his feet which is really critical in being a good pass rusher. He's got enough pop now to turn speed to power on people as well as enough quickness to get by them. That usually is the combination that makes a really good pass rusher."
Three of Allen's and nine of the Tide's 38 sacks this season came last Saturday when Alabama made arguably the conference's best quarterback, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, probably wish he was the Bulldogs' kicker or punter or water boy for those three hours at Davis Wade Stadium.
The grass-planting of Prescott came one week after Alabama shut down another of the SEC's big-name offensive stars — LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Pretty sure everyone remembers what the Alabama defense did to the then-Heisman front-runner, bottling him up for a measly 31 yards rushing.
"I'm pleased with way the guys have played — and they've played pretty well against whatever we've faced, whether it was a running team like LSU or Arkansas or passing teams like (Texas) A&M and what we saw last week," Saban said of his defense.
Yes, Alabama has been really, really good on defense before. But this time Alabama is doing it with the added weapon of a pass rush with some bite to it. And, perhaps more significantly, it's doing it in an age now where points, passing, pace and giant posterboard cards with cartoon pictures are supposed to rule the day.
Yeah, it's taken Nick Saban & Co. a season or two to figure out how to combat these new style offenses. It's involved some tweaks in recruiting, tweaks in substitution methods, tweaks in formation alignments and tweaks in game-planning and in-game calls.
So far, at least to this point in the season, it's mission accomplished. More tests remain however. And the question as to whether this defense will deliver a national crown like the defenses in 2012, '11 and '09 did has yet to be answered.
For now, though, it's clear defense is not dead in college football. It just took the guy viewed today as the best coach in the game a little while to figure out how bring it back.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.