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BamaCentral 22 for '22: Will Alabama replicate its 2016 defense?

This season's Crimson Tide defense could be one of the best in the Nick Saban era.

After falling one win short of adding a 19th national title last season, Alabama will look to rebound and take the next step this year. The Crimson Tide returns a loaded roster, including reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young and a rebuilt offense as well as one of the most talented defenses in the Nick Saban era.

Alabama will open its season on Sept. 3 when it hosts Utah State inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. To help pass the time, BamaCentral’s Joey Blackwell, Tony Tsoukalas and Katie Windham will discuss 22 topics and questions concerning the 2022 season.

Today we continue our series asking if Alabama can replicate its defensive success from 2016 with this year’s unit.

Before we get started, here’s a look at the Crimson Tide’s stats from that season and where they ranked nationally.

— Scoring defense: 13.0 points per game (No. 1)

— Total defense: 261.8 yards allowed per game (Tied No. 1)

— Rushing defense: 63.93 yapg (No. 1)

— Passing defense: 197.9 yapg (No. 24)

— Sacks: 54 (No. 1)

— Turnovers: 29 (Tied No. 5)

— Defensive touchdowns: 11 (No. 1)

Tsoukalas' take

This might be classified as rat poison, but hey, Will Anderson Jr. started it this spring.

"I think this year is gonna be something special," Anderson following the A-Day game. "You guys talk about the 2016 defense's pass rush, I feel like you guys are definitely getting ready to see that again because we have a lot of talented young guys on the edge and the D-line room."

That’s a bold statement, but not a totally unreasonable one. As talented as Alabama’s 2016 defense was, it didn’t have a pass-rusher quite as deadly as Anderson. If Dallas Turner continues to build off his stellar debut season, he and Anderson are arguably the top two pass-rushers from both units combined.

The 2016 team clearly holds the edge on the defensive line as this year’s unit doesn’t have a proven star like Jonathan Allen. I’m taking the inside linebacking combination of Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton over this season’s projected duo of Henry To’o To’o and Jaylen Moody, but I could certainly be proven wrong by the end of the year.

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For me, the biggest gap between the two units comes in the secondary. The 2016 unit had three future All-Pro defensive backs in Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson. While this year’s secondary has plenty of talent, I’m not sure it will reach that level.

For that reason, I think this year’s defense will fall short of the 2016 unit. Fortunately for Alabama, that shouldn’t stop the Crimson Tide from snuffing out its opponents on a regular basis.

Blackwell's take

Can Alabama’s 2022 defense replicate its 2016 success?

Replicate? No. Emulate? Possibly.

The Crimson Tide’s 2016 defense was composed of six first-round picks along with two second-round picks. In total, 13 players on that defense were drafted into the NFL, with 10 of those players finding homes in the third round or better.

That’s a lot of success to live up to.

In 2016, the Crimson Tide gave up an average of 13 points per game to opponents. Since defensive coordinator Pete Golding arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2018, Alabama’s defense hasn’t even come close to replicating that statistic. In his first year, the Crimson Tide averaged 18.1 points given up per game. Most recently in 2021, Alabama surrendered 20.6 points per game.

While points per game certainly isn’t everything, it’s a common metric used to determine the overall success of a defense. Another is that of total yards allowed per game.

2016 saw Alabama give up 261.8 yards per game. The lowest number that the Crimson Tide has given up since Golding took control was 309 yards per game in 2021.

The obvious primary argument in favor of this year’s team is that it likely has the best defensive roster since 2016. However, when considering all factors, I still find it unlikely that Alabama’s 2022 defense can be as successful. That being said, this Crimson Tide team is the best-equipped since 2016 to prove me wrong. 

Windham's take

The media normally gets to speak with Alabama's coordinators twice a year, before the season and during the playoffs. Last year before the season began, Crimson Tide defensive coordinator said the Alabama standard is to give up 13 or less points per game. 

Alabama did not accomplish that feat in 2021, instead allowing 20.2 points per game. The lass time the defense averaged at or less than 13 points was in both 2016 and 2017. The Crimson Tide led the nation in scoring defense both seasons. 

With the way offenses have evolved and grown, it's going to be really challenging for any time to allow that few points. Last season, Georgia won the national championship and led the nation in scoring defense at just 9.5 points per game. Not only were the Bulldogs the only team in the country under 13 points, but the next closest was Clemson at 15. 

So from that aspect, I don't think the Alabama defense will be able to replicate that level of dominance for several of the reasons, but I do think this defense can reach that same level of overall team success. I agree with Tony that the secondary is probably the biggest difference between the two defenses, but it's also hard to account for how much of a difference a single player like Will Anderson Jr. can make on a defense and a team as a whole. 

And Anderson is determined to lead this defense to great heights. Ultimately, do I think this defense will be as good as 2016's? No, but I'm also not counting them out just yet. Plus, "the Alabama standard" or the 2016 defense isn't Alabama's ultimate goal this season— winning a national title is. And I think Anderson and Co. are already determined to reach that goal. 

Jahmyr Gibbs
Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) throws the ball during the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Alabama Crimson Tide defeated Auburn Tigers
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Auburn Tigers safety Smoke Monday (21) sacks Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) during the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
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Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Dallas Turner (15) celebrates after a sack against the LSU Tigers during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
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Alabama linebacker Henry To'o To'o (10) celebrates after helping on tackle against Mercer Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
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