The preseason talk was Alabama’s defense was going to be better.
It was hard to argue against that claim. Nine starters returned off a 2020 unit that wasn’t bad. Sure, the defense didn’t live up to its high standard of excellence, but it got the job done.
So, there was no reason to expect the Crimson Tide to slip in 2021.
Yet here it is just past the midway point of the season, and Alabama is struggling to find consistency and an identity. The unit is still delivering with turnovers and limiting opponents to 300 yards a game, but Alabama is not taking over games the way it’s used to doing.
There are circumstances to point to as the root cause of the situation Alabama finds itself in -- injuries at the top of the list. You don’t lose a starting linebacker (Christopher Allen) and his backup (Trey Sanders), along with a constant stream of weekly casualties and expect everything to run smoothly.
Last week’s effort against Mississippi State was promising, though. Alabama didn’t allow a touchdown, the first time that’s happened this season.
The statement against the Bulldogs could be just what the Crimson Tide needs to turn the corner.
When it’s all said and done, Alabama could finish as a solid defensive unit.
But Alabama isn’t used to being solid. Dominant, relentless, and elite are adjectives reserved for Crimson Tide defenses of the recent past. That was true for the 2009 defense. The 2016 unit was on another level. And the 2011 unit is regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
Most of Nick Saban’s Alabama defenses were elite. Except for last season. And certainly not this season.
Most of that has to do with offense and a new philosophy. Saban summed it up a few months ago when he spoke to the Louisiana High School Coaches Association.
“The game is different now. People score fast,” Saban said in March to the Association via Zoom. “I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re going to win. You ain’t gonna win anything now doing that.”
"So I changed my philosophy. We have to outscore them.”
That’s what Alabama has tried to do the past few seasons with elite quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, and now Bryce Young at the helm, and receivers like Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle to make explosive plays.
There is no emphasis on having an elite defense.
If you look over to the SEC East, however, that’s not the case. Georgia’s got the most elite defense in the country. It’s built like those Alabama defenses of the past – big, strong front line; fast and athletic linebackers; a ball hawking secondary that forces quarterbacks to make bad decisions.
Georgia resembles Alabama because it’s coached by Kirby Smart, the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator from 2008-15.
The Bulldogs are No. 1 in just about every category – pass defense, total defense, scoring defense. Georgia is No. 2 in run defense.
Georgia isn’t just elite. There is talk that this Bulldogs defense could be the best ever. So how can Georgia have such a powerful defense in this day of up-tempo, fast-scoring offense?
The same way Alabama did it – recruiting. Since 2018, Georgia signed 10 defensive players with a five-star ranking. Two are not with the team anymore and most of the rest are starters this season.
Alabama’s signed nine five-star defensive players since 2018. Patrick Surtain is in the NFL, Antonio Alfano transferred, Eyabi Anoma was dismissed from the team, and three are true freshman with limited or no playing time (Kool-Aid McKinstry, Damon Payne, Dallas Turner).
That leaves Will Anderson (starter at linebacker), Sanders (out with injury), and Chris Braswell (backup to Anderson) as the five-star defensive players.
Anderson has lived up to his five-star billing. He leads Alabama with 15 tackles for a loss, including seven sacks.
Alabama is still getting elite athletes on defense, just like Georgia. The difference is Georgia’s are on the field contributing this season. Alabama’s had a few bad breaks with a couple of players, but there are more waiting on the sidelines, developing and waiting their turn; and there's more top recruits ready to sign.
Alabama may not be elite this season, but the Crimson Tide still has the high-caliber athletes to play at an elite level.