Last year’s Alabama Crimson Tide defense was historic. The Tide’s D in 2011 was historically dominant and historically consistent, leading the nation in every major defensive category in college football. They shut out three opponents (with one of those coming in the national championship game) and held five more opponents under ten points. But that won’t be the defense that walks into Cowboys Stadium to face the Michigan Wolverines Saturday night.
To be straightforward, this year’s Alabama defense won’t even resemble last year’s, no matter how good their play and productivity turns out to be. Gone to the NFL from last year’s defense are Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, Jerrell Harris, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, William Vlachos, DeQuan Menzie, Josh Chapman. Recognize a lot of those names? You should, because guys like Upshaw and Barron and Kirkpatrick and Hightower were the guys that helped fuel the machine that last year’s defense became. Almost all who left were the dominant forces of a dominant defensive unit that seemed to barely need coaching as the season wore on; they simply knew what to do better than everyone else and executed in the same way.
But there is a reason that the Tide is a two-touchdown favorite against Michigan, and that reason is that even though they lost plenty on the defensive side of the ball, they still have enough in reserve to be more than simply competent. Plus, it’s not as though the Crimson Tide will start the 2012 season with a brand new defense. There will be senior leadership with Nico Johnson at linebacker, Jesse Williams at nose tackle, and Robert Lester at safety. The trade-off of losing such a great group like the Tide had last season is that the majority of their defense is very young and very inexperienced.
Enter Denard Robinson. The man known as “Shoelace” is dual threat at quarterback for Michigan, possessing great rushing & scrambling ability to go along with his passing that has been gradually getting better each season. Call it a potential baptism by fire for this new Tide defense to have to start the season going against a quarterback like Robinson. In a game where experience does matter and early lessons are learned hard, Robinson is the kind of quarterback that could give the inexperienced portions of the Alabama defense more than a couple of headaches Saturday night.
An obvious advantage for the Tide defense will be the missing Wolverine running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, suspended for a DUI arrest earlier in the summer.
However, that doesn’t mean containing Robinson is going to be any easier. Remember Notre Dame/Michigan last year? Not the best example of a great defense against Michigan, but the point is that the Irish contained Robinson for three quarters, couldn’t in the fourth, and ended up losing in dramatic fashion. It’s another in a long line of examples that football is a sixty minute game, and giving a talented quarterback as much as a whole quarter to go buck wild on a defense may be enough to turn a win into a loss.
Nick Saban‘s ability to recruit or ability to produce a team (on either side of the ball) that is deep in talent year after year is not being called into question here as his record in that department speaks for itself. What is being questioned, something the coach himself made mention of earlier in the week, is how close this year’s unit can come to last year’s. Note, that’s not if they will be able to match last year’s defense (that doesn’t seem possible), but if they can come close to it.
Saturday night in Dallas will provide the country with a first glimpse of if the Tide has what it takes to repeat as national champions.