When I profiled Alabama's chances of making another championship run back in May, I alluded openly to the legendary 1992 defense that sent everyone on the schedule -- most notably Miami and its Heisman-winning quarterback in an anticlimactic Sugar Bowl rout -- limping home covered in bruises and tears. There are a lot of reasons to think the forthcoming 'Bama defense can approximate that dominant, championship-winning outfit, so many that the Tiders at Bama Online are risking blasphemy and hubris by launching a position-by-position comparison of the 1992 and 2009 defenses. You will shocked to find that the '09 group is holding its own so far.
Given the nature of offenses today compared to 1992, it's not realistic to expect any defense to match the '92 team's raw numbers, which are (to use a technical term) ridiculous. In relative terms, though, I don't think it's unrealistic at all to project the Tide defense on that kind of level relative to its peers in '09 -- 'Bama returns 10 regulars and adds two five-star/instant impact types, Nico Johnson and Dre Kirkpatrick, to a defense that already finished second nationally against the run (in both yards per game and yards per carry), third in total defense and seventh in scoring D and held seven teams to single digits. It has a couple of possible All-Americans in the middle, Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, and All-SEC candidates practically everywhere. Based on returning talent and production going into the year, the only other defense even in 'Bama's ballpark is across the conference, at Florida.
The Gators remain the giant looming over the Tide's title hopes, then, and not only because the crystal ball seems so certain to go through Florida in the SEC Championship. If not for UF's fourth quarter rally from 20-17 down to win 31-20 in last year's title game, this defense would probably already be the thing of venerated legend; the flat-footed start against Utah en route to the 31-17 downer in the Sugar Bowl. Those were the Tide's worst two games defensively, and exploited their worst tendencies, a) A lack of pass rush, and b) A lack of takeaways. Alabama sacked Tim Tebow only once and forced zero turnovers; it sacked Brian Johnson only once and forced one turnover, a fumble, while the offense (uncharacteristically) gave up three. For the year, 'Bama was 71st nationally in sacks with less than two per game and decidedly middle of the pack in takeaways.
Those are the biggest gaps between last year's defense and the '92 model (which forced three turnovers per game, better than any team in the nation in '08), as well as Nick Saban's best defenses in the past -- LSU's national championship team in 2003 was ferocious in the pass rush (ask Jason White), tied for the SEC lead in takeaways and led the nation in both total and scoring defense. Those Tigers -- like the '92 Tide, and unlike last year's edition in the postseason -- also didn't allow anyone in the vicinity of 31 points in any game. The only team that approached that number against Florida during last year's title run was the only team that beat the Gators, Ole Miss. The best defense anyone's put on the field since the '92 Tide, last year's amazingly stacked unit at USC, had one significant lapse -- and lost, at Oregon State, permanently sinking its shot at No. 1. For a team that's probably not going to light up the scoreboard, especially, the first priority on the path to that elusive destiny is always consistency.