August 28, 2010
The last word on the coming season's most pressing topics.
I'm sure exactly zero of Alabama's nine departed defensive starters has given the subject this much thought, but if I was in any of their shoes, I can imagine feeling slightly more insulted by the unanimous decision for my old team at the top of almost every preseason poll this summer than proud. After all, Heisman hero Mark Ingram may have stolen the headlines, but it was the defense that staked its claim as the most dominating unit in the country, on either side of the ball, on a weekly basis.
Right out of the gate, the Tide held Virginia Tech to measly 155 yards total offense in the season opener, and later limited the SEC's highest-scoring offenses, Florida and Arkansas, to a grand total of two touchdowns between them. When the foundering 'Bama offense managed just two TDs itself over the course of a three-game October funk, the defense obliged by holding Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee to just one – and only then when Tennessee took over with a short field following an untimely Ingram fumble. With an interception return against the Gamecocks and a pair of picks to set up short-field field goals at Ole Miss, the 'Bama D was responsible for putting as many points on the board in those games as it allowed. They closed the year ranked No. 1 in the SEC and No. 2 nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring defense, and among the top 10 in the country in pass defense and takeaways.
So what, just anybody can do that? Those heights were engineered by a unit that returned eight starters from the chart-topping 2008 defense, produced consensus All-Americans on all three levels (defensive tackle Terrence Cody, linebacker Rolando McClain, cornerback Javier Arenas) and sent three other starters to the draft. Not including late-breaking eligibility risk Marcell Dareus, who may or may not see the field this fall on the defensive line, the depth chart lost ten regular cast members from a smash hit.
With their No. 1 votes, then, pollsters have placed the burden of an encore on one full-time starter (safety Mark Barron), two part-time starters (Dareus and linebacker Don'ta Hightower, a midseason injury casualty) and a handful of stellar recruiting rankings under Nick Saban that assure them that, really, seven brand new faces are going to be just fine. Really.
Of course, there's Saban himself, and the apparent assumption that his defensive genius will instantly sculpt top talents like Dré Kirkpatrick and Nico Johnson – ace 2009 recruits who got a little work in as true freshmen – into pillars of a brand new yet frighteningly familiar house of pain. This year, other pillars could also include a true freshman and/or incoming JUCO transfer at cornerback and a front line rotation of five or six guys who so far have served mainly as names and weights on the lower reaches of the depth chart.
The handiest precedent for the horrors of attrition is Florida's year in the desert in 2007, when the Gators had to replace nine starters from a nasty, veteran defense that finished in the top 10 nationally in every major category in 2006, devoured Heisman winner Troy Smith alive in the BCS title game and subsequently had seven players snapped up in the '07 NFL Draft. The fledglings who replaced them that fall finished dead last in the SEC in pass defense and allowed at least 28 points six times, including losses at the hands of LSU, Georgia and Michigan. That same group went on to form the backbone of the Gator teams that ran up a 26-2 record with another BCS championship over the last two years, over which time they yielded 28 points just twice (not coincidentally, the only losses in that span: 31-30 to Ole Miss in 2008 and 32-13 to Alabama in last year's SEC Championship). Five '07 starters were drafted in April, all in the first three rounds. But initially, they were torched.
In the same vein, see also USC's decline from an über-talented, veteran group that allowed fewer points than any defense of the last decade in 2008 to a crop of talented but overwhelmed noobs that completely collapsed last year by midseason. Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll didn't forget how to coach defense over the course of an offseason, just as Nick Saban obviously didn't forget when his dominant 2003 defense at LSU – another outfit loaded with future pros that led the nation in yards and points allowed en route to Saban's first BCS championship – was followed by a group in 2004 that gave up 45 points in an ugly loss to Georgia and 30 to Iowa in a wild bowl loss that dropped the Tigers to 9-3 for the year. That's more or less how these circumstances tend to go.
That's not to suggest an impending collapse, or even pessimism, in general, since the talent level alone should keep the Tide near the top of the SEC and among the top 20 defenses nationally, at worst. But even a minimal reckoning is in the national rankings and other big-picture stat categories won't necessarily prevent critical erosion on the margins – specifically, when called on to bail out the struggling offense. Last year, the two games Alabama could have reasonably lost were last-second decisions over Tennessee and Auburn. In the former, the Tide were held to a season-low 256 yards and didn't score a touchdown in a 12-10 nail-biter; in the latter, Ingram was legitimately stuffed for the only time all season and McElroy was forced to engineer an unlikely 15-play, 79-yard touchdown drive to snatch a 26-21 victory from defeat in the final minute.
If it had been this fall's noob-laden defense on the field instead of one of the most dominant units in recent memory, 'Bama probably loses both games, and the defensively-driven wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina get much dicier. And if the offense repeats those performances opposite the noob-filled defense this fall, it will likely lose at least once, maybe more, submarining hopes of a repeat.
There's something of a role reversal on this team, with the offense assuming the yoke of experience and leadership, and there may come a moment or two when Greg McElroy and Co. are forced to bail the defense out for a change. In their case, though, success will be defined much less by the offense evolving into some explosive blitzkrieg squadron that mirrors last year's defensive dominance than by its ability to stay out of situations – i.e. two offensive touchdowns in a three-game span – that basically require the best defense in the country to engineer an escape. This edition of the defense may turn out to be very good in the long run, but if it has to be as good as the 2009 edition to finish another perfect season, you may as well be asking them to walk on water.