Questions for 2012: How Far Will the Tide Defense Drop?

It’s bound to happen.

Last season the Alabama Crimson Tide defense  led the nation in scoring defense (8.2 ppg), rushing defense (72.15 ypg), passing defense (111.50 ypg) and total defense (183.60 ypg).  And there’s more:

  • The team allowed 12 touchdowns in 2011, but only nine were allowed by the defense.  The other three scores came from a fumble recovered in the end zone (Auburn) and two kickoff returns (Auburn and Georgia Southern);
  • Of the nine, one came after an interception was returned to the three yard line (Kent State);
  • Another came late against Penn State when most of the first-teamers were resting;
  • Florida’s lone score came on a a first-play 65 yard touchdown catch and run by Andre Dubose;
  • Ole Miss’ lone score also came early in the game after a 59 yard pass play to the two yard line.  After the score Bama didn’t give up another yard in the half; and
  • Two of the touchdowns came against option oriented FCS school Georgia Southern.

I don’t care what league your team plays football in, that’s an incredible display of defensive football.  Of course it was powered by Nick Saban’s mind and a stable of players that included five All-Americans:

  • Dont’a Hightower (consensus)
  • Courtney Upshaw
  • Dre Kirkpatrick
  • Dequan Menzie
  • Mark Barron (unanimous)

Yes, it’s inevitable.  There’s no way the 2012 Tide defense can compare to this bunch.  So the question is how much of a drop off will occur?

Most would try to answer the question by simply looking back at the 2010 unit.  That makes decent sense, after all, both groups were defending championships and returned just a few starters (’10 – 2, ’12 – 4).  Both units lost a bunch of All-Americans, but both also returned a ton of young talent.

And that 2010 defense that returned just two starters, went on to have the fifth best defense in the country in terms of yards per game (286.40) and third best in terms of points allowed (13.50).  Dang, that’s with only two starters returning.  The 2012 group has four coming back, so we should be lots better, right?

Not so fast, my friend.

Despite having one of the top ranked defenses in the country and despite the whole team being just a few plays and several minor injuries away from playing for a second straight national title, the 2010 is not thought of very highly.  Coach Saban has made subtle comments about that team.  Players have made comments.  And to be honest with you, I never quite understood all the poor mouthing.  Yes, I was not happy with the way the three 2010 games were lost, but the season finished on a high note and the program was clearly not broken.  But yesterday I picked up a clue while reading SI.com’s article on the Sabanization of College Football:

In the 2010 Iron Bowl the Tide gagged away a 24-point lead in a 28-27 loss to eventual national champion Auburn. As the game slipped away, Moawad tried to get linebacker Dont’a Hightower to rally the defense, but Hightower didn’t feel he was the right man for the job. The following off-season Moawad and Hightower revisited the situation, and Hightower realized he should have done more. In 2011, Hightower and his fellow veterans accepted their leadership roles. The defense allowed only nine touchdowns all season and pitched a shutout against LSU in the BCS title game.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a more sickening statement about Alabama football.  (I guess the last time was probably in 2006.)  First off, I’m not going to lay all of the blame at the feet of Hightower.  Andy Staples condensed a lot into one paragraph and it’s not fair to just go after Hightower.  After all, there were plenty of other studs on that defense that could have and should have stepped up if Hightower wouldn’t.  What the paragraph points out, though, is the importance of leadership.

The 2012 team most likely won’t lead the nation in total defense or points allowed, but I would bet they’ll be a top 10 unit.  In most of the games, Bama will be the favorite and has enough talent to manhandle the opponent and win.  But like 2010, there will be a couple of games where more than talent and good coaching are required.  Games such as a September visit to Arkansas and a November visit to Baton Rouge.  In those games, the difference will be leadership.

Soon after fall practice began this year senior linebacker Nico Johnson had this to say:

“That’s probably the best summer we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said the senior from Andalusia. “That’s something that we wanted to pride ourselves on was this summer, if we wanted to create a new identity now, we had to start this summer. That’s what we did, and that’s our identity: We’re going to work hard — to the the best at whatever we’re doing.”

Johnson was asked if every player bought in right away.

“They bought it,” he said. “We had some letdowns here and there, but everybody respects everybody, and the leadership holds everyone to a standard.”

Now, those are the kinds of things that most every player says at the beginning of each season.  “Yeah, we worked like cray.”  “This was the best off season since I’ve been here.”  Sports fans have heard all of this before.  But if what Johnson says is true, if leaders have emerged and if the team is responding to that leadership, then I believe this defense, and this team, can be very, very good.

If, on the other hand, the team has handled the second championship in three years like me, well, then we’re in for a long ride.

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  1. Pingback: The Final Question for 2012: Motivation « Tide Bits

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