January 29, 2011
A season in review.
Ubiquitous No. 1 rankings notwithstanding, there was no doubt in August (no reasonable doubt, anyway) that Alabama's revamped defense was bound to regress from its dominant turn in 2009: You can't lose nine starters, three All-Americans and six draft picks from a unit that spearheaded a 14-0 run to the BCS championship and not take at least some small step back. What we weren't certain about was a) How bad the suffering would be in the face of such massive attrition, and b) Whether it would be enough to derail the bid for a repeat opposite a veteran offense that stood to improve at roughly the same rate as the defense regressed.
The answer to the first question, it turns out, was "not very bad." If the '09 D was a Category Five hurricane, finishing atop the SEC and second nationally in every major category, its successor was a strong Category Four threatening to move up. The new class held the line at the top of the SEC in total and scoring defense, as well as pass efficiency D, despite starting a true freshman and two green sophomores in the secondary. With five new faces in the front seven, the Tide came in a mere yard per game behind Auburn for the league's best effort against the run, and yielded fewer touchdowns on the ground (six) than anyone else nationally except West Virginia. They were back in the top 10 across the board. Individually, the slots filled by Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas on the 2009 All-SEC team were filled at the same positions by Marcell Dareus, Dont'a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick on the 2010 edition, with junior Mark Barron reprising his role as an all-conference safety. (Barron's counterpart, sophomore Robert Lester, led the SEC in interceptions and was voted to the second team, for good measure.) From afar, the two storms look nearly identical.
The fundamental difference in the '09 and '10 defenses – and ultimately the fundamental difference in the outcomes of both seasons – was the younger group's sporadic, short-lived lapses: Specifically, in the first half at Arkansas, in the first half at South Carolina, in the second half at LSU and, of course, in the second half against Auburn. The meltdown were brief, but on all four occasions inflicted roughly an entire game's worth of damage:
1st half at Arkansas: 302 yards, 17 points, five plays of 20+ yards.
1st half at South Carolina: 160 yards, 21 points, TDs on first three possessions.
2nd half at LSU: 334 yards, 21 points, seven plays of 15+ yards.
2nd half vs. Auburn: 242 yards, 21 points, TD drives of 69, 75, 67 yards.
Here we see the consequences of the young secondary against the most talented, seasoned quarterbacks in the conference. In Fayetteville, Ryan Mallett struck for back-to-back big plays on the first two snaps of the game for a quick, 7-0 Razorback lead, eventually finishing with more yards through the air (357) than any quarterback against 'Bama since Nick Saban's arrival in 2007. The flurries by South Carolina and Auburn both included three touchdown passes apiece by Stephen Garcia and Cam Newton.
Even Jordan Jefferson, fighting to hold on to his job with one of the worst stat lines in the league, turned in one of the most efficient efforts of his career (10 of 13, 141 yards, one touchdown, no picks, 193.4 passer rating) in one of the most validating wins of Les Miles' six-year tenure at LSU. That was in large part thanks to Tigers' 225 yards rushing – by far the best effort on the ground against a Saban defense since the Tide struggled to handle Arkansas' star tandem, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, in early 2007. (The only other attacks the Tide allowed to hit their season average on the ground were two of the worst running offenses in the country, Duke and Tennessee, in lopsided blowouts.)
The '09 defense suffered one comparable lapse, falling behind Auburn 14-0 in the first quarter of the Iron Bowl, maybe two if you're willing to count Texas' desperation rally for a pair of late, ultimately futile touchdowns in the BCS Championship Game. Otherwise, that group had it on lockdown. It held Virginia Tech to a 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 TD – and only then when Tennessee took over with a short field following an untimely fumble by Mark Ingram. With an interception return against the Gamecocks and a pair of picks to set up several automatic field goals at Ole Miss, the '09 defense was often responsible for putting as many points on the board when the offense was struggling as it allowed.
The 2010 group flashed that kind of resilience early on, forcing Mallett into a pair of late interceptions that sparked and then sealed the Tide's comeback from a 20-7 deficit. But that was it for moxie: 'Bama blew second half leads in the only other games that were still in doubt into the fourth quarter, LSU and Auburn, and blew its chance to rally at South Carolina when the 'Bama offense answered a momentum-turning interception by the defense early in the fourth quarter – Carolina's only turnover of the game – by turning the ball over on downs. Carolina subsequently drove 74 yards in four-and-a-half minutes for the clinching touchdown.
Now, for the really terrifying part where the rest of the SEC is concerned: With Barron's decision to skip the draft for his senior season, the 2011 defense will reprise the veteran template of the '09 group with a whopping ten returning starters – all but Marcell Dareus – every single one of them a former four or five-star prospect from the succession of chart-topping recruiting classes that have beaten a path to Tuscaloosa since 2008. (To say nothing of the chart-topping class preparing to sign letters of intent next week.) If it can add just a little opportunism to its standard appetite for destruction, the reservations about the new quarterback may matter even less than they did with Greg McElroy two years ago.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.