College Football
With Alabama's defense playing better than ever, will Michigan be 'D.O.A.'?
College Football

With Alabama's defense playing better than ever, will Michigan be 'D.O.A.'?

Updated Dec. 29, 2023 5:44 p.m. ET

LOS ANGELES — Rallying calls are common in college football programs across the country.

Teams often go well beyond whatever long-term phrase is associated with the program and develop something unique for each group. In the case of this season's College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl, there has been no shortage of sayings originating from either side of this historic meeting between the two winningest programs in the sport. 

At Alabama, the LANK motto — short for "Let All Naysayers Know" — has blossomed from an internal saying embraced by players, from quarterback Jalen Milroe on down, to a full-on merchandising and NIL opportunity.

Big Ten champion Michigan has certainly gone well beyond the typical refrain of "Go Blue" to lean into their "Michigan vs. Everybody" battle cry, something that has popped up everywhere from warm-up shirts to postgame press conference comments.


Yet for the Crimson Tide's defense in particular, there is another slogan that has been omnipresent this year.


"Dead on Arrival when we get to the ball. That's been something that's stuck with us," said junior linebacker Dallas Turner on Friday. "When we break it down, every 30-minute meeting, (we say) D.O.A. It kind of brings our defense together."

For as much as head coach Nick Saban has built his reputation as the greatest ever on the back of a stellar defense, this is not quite the vintage, domineering unit that we've seen from the past out of Tuscaloosa. 

Can Alabama knock off Michigan?

Sure, there are plenty of future top-100 NFL Draft picks like Turner roaming around in the starting 11, but the 2023 numbers indicate a reduced ability to truly suffocate opponents. The Tide are just 17th in FBS in scoring defense (18.4 points per game) and have given up at least 20 in their last seven games against Power 5 opponents. They also rank outside the top 20 in both rushing defense and passing defense.

Yet what the overall season-long stats fail to indicate is how, much like Alabama's offense, this group has evolved as the year has progressed.

"After Week 2, I kind of had to do some self-evaluating, too. With my play on the field, with how I approached the game of football, with my work habits, and how to lead the guys in the right direction," remarked Turner, who was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier this month. "It was a pivotal moment in the season that I don't regret, actually.

"We've most improved by being on the same page, understanding our assignment, knowing where our help is on defense. When guys come together as a defense, especially after a tough loss like that, you got to build it through chemistry."

As much as the group has internally built up their confidence each week, it's also been notable how externally positive Saban has been when discussing the team. In both comments to the media and during talks with players, the 72-year-old has embraced the journey this group has taken — most notably on defense, where he is most hands-on.

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It's paid dividends on the field to be sure, especially when it comes to reemphasizing that often just a little patience is needed at times. The home loss to Texas was still the only time Bama has given up more than 30 points, and they've managed to rack up multiple sacks in 10 games this season.

After September's wobbles, the Tide have coalesced into the SEC's second-best defense by most metrics, and they played a key role in limiting back-to-back national champion Georgia to just 2.5 yards per rush in that thrilling victory in the SEC championship game.

"They're extremely physical, quick twitch. Chris Braswell plays with a finesse. Dallas is one of the best players I've ever seen, just in combination with the speed, the size, the technique. He's a tremendous football player and the motor doesn't stop for those guys," noted Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. "It's going to be a tough challenge for our tackles, but they're excited for it. They wouldn't come to Michigan to not expect those matchups, and they thrive on it."

McCarthy's ability to escape pressure with his mobility, especially since declaring himself injury-free and at 100% for the Rose Bowl, will come in handy when it comes to both helping out his teammates up front and avoiding the likes of Turner & Co. 

It can be a bit of an oversimplification to say that games are won or lost in the trenches, but it's also hard not to focus on that particular battle ahead of this semifinal.

It doesn't help Michigan that All-American guard Zak Zinter won't be around after suffering a season-ending injury against Ohio State, forcing a bit of a reshuffle up front.

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Veteran Karsen Barnhart has ably slid inside to replace Zinter, which has led to fifth-year senior Trente Jones ascending to the starting right tackle role for the Big Ten championship game. The latter performed well in the 26-0 win over Iowa, but everyone knows Alabama's athletes present a step up in competition.

That, in turn, puts added pressure on McCarthy for every dropback. 

"It's that clock — the passing game is all about the clock in the quarterback's head," said Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. "If that clock's not ticking, you can't cover anybody. The best players in the world can't cover if the clock's not ticking. So Dallas has the ability, and Braswell, as well as our front, to make the clock tick. That makes it easier to play on the back end."

Turner, Braswell and defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe have combined for 24 sacks (at least seven apiece) and a whopping 134 pressures on opposing quarterbacks this season so far. While the former pair are likely destined to follow in the footsteps of ex-teammate Will Anderson Jr. as a likely first-round selection, it is the latter who might be the rarer player for Michigan to face.

The 6-foot-5, 292-pounder is a rare fifth-year senior for Alabama, possessing a ring from the last national title run back in 2020. A series of injuries hampered his overall development, but he's turned into a force as a regular starter this year and earned the label of "grown man" from coaches and teammates alike.

In addition to naturally commanding double teams, it also helps that Eboigbe can move across the front and play multiple spots along the line. When combined with the versatility of Turner and others to come from just about any spot on the field, Saban and Steele have no shortage of options to create havoc against opposing offenses.

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"Moving parts are always good," the veteran coordinator said with a smile. "In the passing game, protections are different, so you're always trying to say, where can we create the one-on-ones? Where can we get our best big pass rushers against your worst pass protector?"

The interconnected play between Bama's pass rushers and defensive backs remains a rarity at the college level. Cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry will likely be another early pick in next spring's draft after allowing just one score all season long, while fellow starter Terrion Arnold has hauled in five interceptions and leads the SEC in pass breakups. Former five-star Caleb Downs has also thrived, looking nothing like a true freshman while earning all-conference honors.

"It's real beneficial," added Steele of the work the rushers do for his secondary. "It makes the ball come out quicker. And sometimes it makes it come out to the wrong folks."

That has increasingly become the case as the season has worn on, too, helping an imperfect defense play a key role in the Tide's eighth trip to the College Football Playoff in 10 seasons.

It won't be until Monday afternoon that we know for sure if Michigan winds up being "D.O.A."

But given the weapons that Saban and the rest of the Tide have to work with, it wouldn't surprise if the motto plays a central role in determining the outcome in the Granddaddy of them all and helping book a ticket to the national title game.

Should that come to pass, the defense may need to ultimately retire its go-to moniker for this campaign in favor of a much more understandable one.

Perhaps the far simpler label of "Champions" will suffice.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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