I'm not the betting type, but if it was possible to buy shares in any single unit in college football this fall, I'd put everything into the Alabama defense. With All-SEC safety Mark Barron's decision to skip the draft for his senior season, 'Bama returns a whopping ten starters from the group that led the SEC last year in every major defensive category, all of them former four and five-star prospects from the succession of chart-topping recruiting classes that have beaten a path to Tuscaloosa over the last three years. (To say nothing of the latest chart-topping class that signed on in February.) By any significant measure — against the run, against the pass, yards allowed, points allowed — the Crimson Tide have finished among the top 10 nationally three years running, and barring catastrophe, the 2011 edition will inevitably make it four.
The only place that their scorched-earth campaign hasn't quite reach: The pass rush. Since Nick Saban's arrival in 2007, 'Bama has remained firmly in the middle of the pack when it comes to getting to the quarterback, finishing 73rd, 71st, 40th and 54th nationally in sacks over the last four years, and is still waiting on the emergence of a consistent threat off the edge.
That's in stark contrast to Saban's equally rocking defenses at LSU from 2000-05, which prided itself on harassing quarterbacks on a regular basis and sent a half-dozen defensive linemen on to the NFL in one three-year span. The front four of the Tigers' 2003 BCS championship team featured bookend rushers (Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill) who later went in the first and second rounds, respectively, and a consensus All-American (Chad Lavalais) who led the team in sacks up the middle. At Alabama, Saban has favored bigger ends who can double as tackles in his hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme, and their rendezvous with quarterbacks have been fewer and further between. Since Wallace Gilberry racked up 10 sacks in Saban's first year, only other 'Bama players — Marcell Dareus with 6.5 sacks in 2009 and Courtney Upshaw with seven last year — have delivered more than five QB takedowns in a single season.
In fact, after a 24-21 loss at LSU last November, Alabama ranked dead last in the SEC with a grand total of 11 sacks in nine games — which seems to be the moment the Tide began to get a whiff of blood in the water, because the last four games were a frenzy. The following week, Mississippi State's Chris Relf went down five times in a 34-10 'Bama rout; two weeks after that, Auburn's epic comeback in Tuscaloosa came in spite of a season-high four takedowns of übermensch quarterback Cam Newton. In the bowl game, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins barely made it out of the stadium alive after enduring four sacks (backup Andrew Maxwell took a fifth) and a pair of fumbles in a gruesome, 49-7 massacre.
It took that late surge just to lift the rush to "mediocre" on the stat sheet. But with the lingering taste of blood, the emphasis in the spring seemed to be on developing a mindset to hunt down more:
"We went into [the bowl game] just wanting to get that bad taste out of our mouths," Upshaw said. "We were real confident. I know coming into this season, as a defensive whole, I know as a team that we're just ready step up our game and get back to the top."
"We had it in us," Alabama nose guard Josh Chapman said of the pass rush. "It's just something we didn't practice hard at. That's one thing we're doing now. We want to stop the run. Nobody was gonna run the ball. Now we want nobody to pass the ball or run the ball."
The 2011 edition's most obvious advantage compared to other 'Bama defenses under Saban is the presence of a truly promising threat off the edge: Courtney Upshaw. Once he was unleashed at the end of the season, Upshaw emerged from a relatively anonymous cog in Saban's death machine into an individual force in his own right, dragging down Newton three times and Cousins twice with three forced fumbles. (Earlier in the season he also notched four tackles for loss without a sack in the October obliteration of Florida.) But if the Iron and Capital One bowls signaled Upshaw's arrival as an All-SEC disruptor in opposing backfields, the rest of the front seven remains more adept at forming an impenetrable wall than bringing the heat: The leading returning sack master behind Upshaw is 285-pound end/tackle Damion Square, who had three.
Not that there's anything wrong with stacking gaps — again, the Crimson Tide are going to roll defensively regardless of any increased pressure, or lack thereof. If they add the final piece of the nightmare, though, you can turn out the light on the SEC race right now.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.