At 9:21 p.m. last Saturday in Gainesville, Fla., the most fearsome unit in college football huddled at Florida's 30-yard line. The starting Alabama defense stood in a circle around its coordinator, Kirby Smart, who yelled last-second instructions to his players during a timeout. The Gators had the ball, first down on their own 14, trailing 17--10 with 8:44 remaining in the second quarter. At this moment on a cool and breezy evening there was still a thread of hope for the home team.
This is an article from the Oct. 10, 2011 issue
The Crimson Tide defenders jogged to the line of scrimmage, taking their positions in coach Nick Saban's complex 3--4 scheme—one that is spelled out in a playbook that's thicker than the Tuscaloosa phone directory. As the Gators broke the huddle, the 59-year-old Saban glowered and paced. Coaching defense is his life's calling, and now another test lay before him.
First down: Nosetackle Josh Chapman hammered quarterback John Brantley's arm as he released the ball, forcing an errant throw. Second down: Defensive lineman Damion Square steamrolled running back Chris Rainey for a one-yard loss as he tried to burst up the middle. Third down: Brantley fired a 25-yard strike to receiver Andre Debose, but the ball fell to the grass when safety Will Lowery delivered a rattling hit. Fourth down: punt.
Ten plays later Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron dived into the end zone from a yard out for a 24--10 lead. And at this moment, 9:47 p.m., the game was essentially over, because there doesn't appear to be an offense in the land that can rally from a two-touchdown deficit against No. 2 Alabama (5--0), whose defense could end the season as—and, no, we're not afraid to say it—one of the best in college football history.
The 2011 Tide D made an arresting case in the second half of its 38--10 drubbing of No. 12 Florida, which entered the game leading the SEC in total offense (461.8 yards per game). After senior inside linebacker Courtney Upshaw knocked Brantley out of the game with a lower right-leg injury on a brutal sack late in the second quarter, 'Bama made a few critical halftime adjustments—a Saban signature—such as switching to more zone coverage to counteract the Gators' crossing pick routes. Florida's production after intermission: zero points, two first downs, 32 rushing yards and 46 total yards. Combine that sort of unmerciful defensive performance with a potent power-rushing game (junior Trent Richardson ran for a career-high 181 yards), and it's easy to understand the national-title buzz in Tuscaloosa.
"We thought we could run the ball efficiently, but Alabama tackles really well," said Gators running back Jeff Demps, who was held to four yards on three carries a week after rushing for 157 yards against Kentucky. Added Rainey, who entered the game averaging 102.8 yards and 6.5 a carry but finished with a mere four yards on 11 attempts, "Just call it a punch in the mouth."
How spectacularly good has this Tide D—with 10 starters back from last year's unit, which finished fifth nationally—been through five games? Alabama leads the country in scoring defense (8.4 points) and rushing defense (39.6 yards), and also ranks third in total defense (191.6 yards). "We come to punish people," says Upshaw, who had four tackles and an interception, which he returned for a 45-yard touchdown. "But everything we do starts with Coach Saban. Everything."
Even in the dim light of Nick Saban's office—where the shades are usually drawn, as if to conceal secrets—the ring gleams on a coffee table. Propped up in a black case, it's the diamond-studded reward for Alabama's 2009 national championship, and the memento is the first thing prospective recruits notice when they enter Saban's spacious inner sanctum. This is where he puts the hard sell on blue-chip players, and his pitches have been wildly successful: Over the last four years, according to Rivals.com, the Tide has earned the No. 1--recruiting ranking three times and signed more four- and five-star players (73) than any other team. Many of these acclaimed recruits have now matured into starters, and on the defense alone there are seven players who are projected to be either first- or second-round picks in next April's draft. No D has ever yielded that many choices over the first three rounds in at least 35 years.
"It's like you're playing a defense from the NFC South when you go against Alabama," says an offensive coordinator on a team that has played the Tide this season. "After studying them and seeing them up close, I can honestly say they have no weak spots. Their linemen are monsters. Their linebackers look like linemen. Their safeties look like linebackers. Their corners are big. And all of them are incredibly fast—NFL fast. On top of that, they are the most disciplined, gap-sound team I've ever faced, which means they're never out of position. Saban is as good of a defensive mind as I've ever come across."
Shortly after Saban left the Dolphins for Alabama in January 2007, one of the first high school players to walk into his office was Chapman. The story of how Chapman, now a 6'1", 310-pound senior, became a member of the Tide is instructive in understanding how Saban has built a defense that is already drawing comparisons with the Lee Roy Jordan--led 1961 Alabama squad, which allowed just 25 points in 11 games and is regarded by many as the best unit of all time.
"I really had no interest in coming to Alabama," Chapman says, "and then one day everything changed."
As a senior at Hoover (Ala.) High, Chapman was one of the most coveted players in the South. Scholarship offers from around the country filled Chapman's mailbox. In July 2006 he made a decision that he called ironclad: He committed to Auburn.
But then Saban took over the Tide and persuaded Chapman to visit the Alabama campus with his family. Once Chapman was seated on a couch in Saban's office, the new coach described how vital the nosetackle position was in his version of the 3--4, which he honed as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Browns from 1991 through '94. Saban explained to Chapman concepts similar to what he articulated last week. "Everything we try to do starts right there in the middle of the line," Saban said. "The nose needs to hold the point and demand double teams. That makes this whole thing go."
Saban often comes off as distant and uninterested in public settings, but inside his office, when he's chatting about the X's and O's of his defense, his brown eyes light up and he beams like an English professor increasingly animated by a discussion of Chaucer. This passion struck a deep chord with Chapman. "Just listening to Coach Saban talk defense, I was like, Wow, he really, really knows his stuff and really loves what he's doing," says Chapman, who against Florida had three tackles and—more significant—drew double teams on nearly all the snaps he played. "My word is important to me, but playing for Coach Saban was something I couldn't pass up. So I changed my mind."
Another player over whom Saban cast a spell while he was planted on that same couch was Mark Barron, one of those former five-star gems. Like many starters on the Tide D, Barron, now a senior safety, picked Alabama largely because he believed that Saban was the best coach to prepare him for the pro game. It's a sentiment that's hard to dispute: Seven Tide defenders have been selected in the last two NFL drafts. "I talk to guys in the league who were my teammates, and they say what we do on defense [at Alabama] is harder to learn than the NFL schemes," says Barron, who had two tackles against the Gators. "I'm still learning new things."
So how best to describe Saban's scheme? "It's an aggressive, attacking defense that overloads sides and brings pressure from all sides," says a pro coach familiar with the Tide. "They change coverages and blitzes based on motions and formations. Most defensive coaches don't want to run that defense due to its exposure of potential big plays. But it punishes QBs and creates turnovers. It also allows defensive players to play with a chip on their shoulder. They can bring the heat on every play."
Yet Saban and Smart are judicious with their blitzes. In Alabama's 38--14 win over No. 14 Arkansas on Sept. 24, the Tide blitzed only once. As Bill Oliver, the architect of the Tide's national-title-winning 1992 defense, watched that game from his lake house in Alexander City, Ala., he felt as if he were gazing at a work of art. "Alabama doesn't need to do anything tricky to dominate other than line up and play," says Oliver, who coached defense for more than 30 years. "I personally haven't seen a defense with this much talent in a long, looooong time. It's a pretty bunch."
If there's one key player to 'Bama's improvement on D, it's inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a 6'4", 260-pound force of nature. During Alabama's fourth game of the 2009 season, an Arkansas lineman cut-block Hightower on a running play, driving his helmet into Hightower's left knee. It was a gruesome-looking injury; Hightower tore his ACL and missed the rest of the year. He returned last season but often looked slow and tentative. Then in late December, days before Alabama's Capital One Bowl victory over Michigan State, Hightower decided to play without the knee brace he'd been wearing. Suddenly the old Hightower, who had been a freshman All-America in 2008, was back. Last Saturday night he had only four tackles, but he constantly disrupted plays and forced Florida backs and receivers into the arms of other defenders. Stat sheet aside, in no way was this a quiet night for Hightower.
"I feel two steps faster this year than last," said Hightower, who recently ran a 4.68 40, three days before the Florida game. "The biggest difference in our defense this year from last is that we have experience. All of us know where we need to be. Last year we gave up big plays when we got out of position. We also didn't play well in big games. But we're definitely ready for Florida."
Indeed they were. After the game clock expired in Gainesville, Hightower was one of the last players to leave the field, high-fiving dozens of Alabama fans leaning out of the stands before disappearing into the locker room. Saban was close behind. As the coach jogged into the southwest tunnel, he spotted his wife, Terry, wearing a crimson-colored scarf and leaning against a concrete wall. Saban gave her a quick kiss, then continued toward the locker room. Through it all his expression never changed: It was still stuck on 9:21 p.m.