The comparisons are starting now, the way they always do when we recognize greatness in our midst. These days, it is not good enough to look at something in the context of its own era. When we see something extraordinary in sports, the temptation to measure it against the fuzzy memory of time is inexorably strong.
It is especially so at the University of Alabama, where the standard for defense was set 50 years ago by a team that allowed just 25 points in 11 games. That 1961 team led by Lee Roy Jordan and Bill Oliver is the stuff of legends not just here, but throughout the annals of college football, hailed almost unanimously as the best defense of all time.
Now here comes a modern challenger to that legacy, making its case in a different way and in a different era. Football is not the same sport as it was a half-century ago. The fast-paced spread offenses, the dual-threat quarterbacks, the impact of skilled receivers have made it impossible to do what Alabama did in 1961, allowing just three touchdowns all season and recording six shutouts.
But if that level of supremacy could be adapted to today, it might look like the Crimson Tide in 2011: Two shutouts. A paltry 6.9 points, 180.5 yards and 44.9 rushing yards allowed per game — all tops in the nation. At least eight players off this defense could be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft next spring.
“One thing we do here is try to play to our standards,” senior nose guard Josh Chapman said. “And our standard is to go out and dominate.”
There is, of course, a temptation to look at that swagger and crunch those numbers and throw this version of Alabama’s defense into the conversation as the greatest of all time. But first, it will have to prove it’s the best in the SEC.
Even in a league that plays a brand of defense unlike any other across college football, No. 1 ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama are on an entirely different level. And thus, when these teams play each other Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the biggest game of the season, these great defenses will have a chance to add on to their legacies.
“It’s definitely going to be a real good game, definitely going to be a game of defenses,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “It’s going to come down to who’s going to break whose will.”
For Alabama, though, a game like this and a defense like this have been years in the making, a convergence of recruiting and philosophy that only Nick Saban is capable of pulling off.
Consider: Such is the faith in Saban, his complex 3-4 scheme and his ability to cultivate talent that Alabama was ranked No. 1 in the preseason last year despite losing nine defensive starters — including three consensus All-Americans and three more NFL draft picks — following its national championship in 2009.
And also consider this: Even though the reality didn’t match the expectations for that group, it finished in the top six in points and yards allowed. Even in a down year, with a young roster, Alabama’s defense was among the best in the country.
“The talent was always there,” safety Robert Lester said. “Coming in last year, a lot of guys weren’t sure what our defense was. Now they’re comfortable to go out there and make calls and not have mental errors.”
In almost every way, Alabama’s defense fell short of its standard last year. It didn’t dominate games. It gave up 35 points to South Carolina in a shocker. It watched helplessly as LSU converted a fourth-and-1 reverse for 23 yards, all but assuring a 24-21 loss. It was embarrassed by Cam Newton as rival Auburn came from 24 points back to win in Tuscaloosa on the way to a national championship.
For a long time, Alabama’s coaches believed the ceiling for this defense would be higher than even the national championship team. Players such as Hightower, a monstrous 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker with NFL speed, free safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had more upside as a group than even the national championship team that featured stars like Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody.
But it simply didn’t happen right away, which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising since Alabama’s success is based on a scheme more complex than any in college football. Saban’s defense, passed down now to hyper-energetic, 35-year-old coordinator Kirby Smart, is based on a simple principle.
Recruit size, speed and strength — Alabama’s linebackers could be linemen at many Div. I schools — and stop the run by dominating the line of scrimmage. Then once the opponent has given up trying, it’s time to start blitzing, bringing pressure from all angles and usually never from the same place. And here’s the kicker: Alabama’s secondary is so good, with its disguised coverage and unmatched athleticism, it very rarely is made to pay for being so aggressive.
“Just the terminology and knowing what coverage goes with what motion and leverage and knowing how to play it, it’s very complex,” Lester said.
Maybe too complex last year for a group with so little experience. But now, those disappointments have fallen into the backstory, as sophomores have become juniors and juniors have become seniors. After losing nine starters in 2010, the Crimson Tide brought nearly everyone back for 2011, and the results have been devastating.
“I think that knowledge and experience, the confidence that comes with that, are all things that have got them to play with a little more consistency, make less mistakes and have better awareness of what they need to do for their unit to be more successful,” Saban said. “Unfortunately, some of the best lessons you learn are the mistakes you make.”
Did those mistakes set the stage for the greatest defense in the modern era, if not ever? Shutting down LSU would be a huge step toward fulfilling that destiny.