STARKVILLE, Miss. — The final indelible image of Alabama’s 2014 season was of Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott bursting through a sliver of a hole and rocketing 85 yards to score a fourth-quarter touchdown that ended the Crimson Tide’s season. It provided the final piece of empirical evidence for the narrative that accompanied the Buckeyes’ 2014 national title—Urban Meyer built Ohio State in the mold of an SEC team and overpowered the Tide in the trenches on the way to the national championship.
In No. 2 Alabama’s 31–6 shellacking of No. 17 Mississippi State in Starkville on Saturday afternoon, the Tide put forth one of the most dominating performances by a defensive line in recent memory. Alabama sacked Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott nine times Saturday, with each takedown coming from a defensive line position. This performance came one week after the season’s signature defensive performance when Alabama put a speedbump in Leonard Fournette’s Heisman Trophy joyride by holding him to 31 yards on 19 carries. In other words, this Crimson Tide team is shaping up to have the salty defensive fronts that defined Saban’s title runs in 2009, ’11 and ’12.
“They’re as good as the front four we had at Florida in 2006,” Mississippi State co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy told SI.com after the game. He later added the indelible impression of most who’ve seen Alabama the last two weeks: “I don’t know who is going to beat them.”
With No. 1 Clemson sputtering Saturday in the Carrier Dome in with an apathetic 37–27 win at Syracuse, Alabama put up a second-consecutive performance that made many wonder who will beat them. If you are wondering if Alabama is No. 1 right now, answer this question: Who would Ohio State or Oklahoma State or Notre Dame rather play right now? Slip any of their coaches truth serum, and they surely won’t answer Alabama over Clemson.
The root of that comes from Alabama’s menacing, suffocating and harassing defensive front. “I think our defensive front is the strength of our team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Hevesy’s background makes him uniquely qualified to quantify the strength of this Alabama defense. He worked as Florida’s offensive line coach back in 2006, which allowed him to see the likes of Jarvis Moss, Ray McDonald and Derrick Harvey everyday in practice. That group may not have become dominant in the NFL, but they would later be remembered for the rise of a near-decade of SEC dominance. Florida completely shut down Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the 2006 BCS national title game, which began the SEC’s run of seven consecutive national titles. The common thread woven through those titles was the dominant lines of the SEC teams. (Remember Auburn’s Nick Fairley living in Oregon’s backfield during the Tigers’ 22–19 victory?)
Hevesy made it clear this Alabama defensive line is among the best he’s seen in his 11 seasons coaching in the SEC. What distinguishes Bama’s line is its depth. “The problem is that they have eight of them,” he said. “He has a conga line.”
Prescott got introduced to nearly that entire conga line while on the ground Saturday. Jonathan Allen led the charge, racking up three sacks and playing so aggressive that he accidentally ran into Saban running on the field and gave the coach a small, bloody cut on his cheek that looked like a shaving accident. “He didn’t seem too mad about it,” Allen said. “It’s football.” Saban would sacrifice an injury every time for his line to play this well.
Allen was joined in harassing Prescott by A’Shawn Robinson (2.5 sacks), Ryan Anderson (two) and Tim Williams (1.5). The most impressive part is that Allen, Anderson and Williams are listed as reserves. (Williams isn’t even on Alabama’s two-deep. He’s a pass rush specialist listed as a linebacker who lines up on the defensive line).
“We have eight or nine of them that can play, which in games like this is really important,” Saban said. “When big guys get tired, when their tank is empty, it usually stays that way. When little guys get tired, five minutes later they’re ready to go again.”
Granted, this performance comes with somewhat of a caveat. Mississippi State’s patchwork offensive line hasn’t adequately replaced the three starters it lost after last season. That’s been the team’s biggest weakness all year, but on Saturday Alabama’s waves of 300-pound freaks made the Mississippi State front five look like they couldn’t win a game of Red Rover against a team of Starkville middle schoolers. “My guys got punched in the face,” Hevesy said. “We didn’t respond one bit.”
While Alabama’s defensive front delivered the type of performance that gets the twinkle of a crystal football in fans’ eyes, it wasn’t the steadiest day for the Crimson Tide. On offense, Alabama was more opportunistic than overwhelming as the shortest touchdown they scored all game was a 60-yard strike. (Alabama got outgained 393-379, which is hard to do with nine sacks). The Tide also lost valuable reserve tailback Kenyan Drake to what Saban called a fractured arm. (He said postgame that Drake would miss about three weeks and admitted he’d be criticized for having Drake on special teams, where the injury occurred).
But overall this Alabama team further brandished its bruising identity, as the combination of the defensive front and soul-crushing tailback Derrick Henry (204 yards on 22 carries) could well be enough to carry the Tide to the title. Quarterback Jake Coker completed 15 of 25 passes for 144 yards, showing he’s unlikely to be anything more than a caretaker. If Alabama is going to continue marching toward the national title, it will do so by dominating opposing teams’ linemen, flummoxing their quarterbacks and eventually sapping their will. And the Tide can do all of that without blitzing. “I’d say physicality is the identity of this team,” Allen said.
In a new execution of a familiar SEC script, Alabama’s defensive front should push the Tide into the playoff. Don’t be surprised if this season they re-write the ending.