Back in October, Alabama coach Nick Saban finally waved the white flag.
The longtime defensive connoisseur had seen enough. The idea that “defense wins championships,” much to Saban’s dismay, is a relic of college football’s past.
“It used to be that good defense beats good offense,” Saban said before a win over Tennessee. “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore.”
And though the six-time national champion begrudgingly accepted that reality — and has tailored his team into an offensive juggernaut — the Crimson Tide still
And on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, the Alabama defense will take its toughest test of the season from high-powered Ohio State.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. “This is [not] a game [where] you go in and say, ‘Hey, I just stopped this guy, we’re going to win the game.’ That’s not the case.”
How well Alabama slows down the Buckeyes will play a key role in Monday’s outcome.
This is not a signature Nick Saban defense.
College football’s dramatic offensive shift has swept up Alabama too. Take Saban’s 2011 BCS national championship team as an example.
That season — which included a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in the “Game of the Century” — Alabama’s top-ranked defense was stifling. The Crimson Tide allowed a minuscule 178.7 yards per game to Power 5 conference opponents, 3.3 yards per play and 7.8 points per game.
This season, Alabama has given up nearly double the yardage (353.2 yards per game), five yards per play and 19 points per game. In eight of their 12 games this season, the Crimson Tide gave up more yards than their 2011 average in
That’s less of an indictment of Bama’s defensive performance and more indicative of how the game has changed — for everyone.
“It really isn’t about how many yards you give up,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Thursday.
“It’s all about getting stops. … You can let them drive the entire length of the field, but if they kick field goals or you get turnovers along the way, good things are going to happen.”
The numbers illustrate the sport’s offensive uptick. Since 2011, the national average for yards per game against Power 5 conference teams went from 376.3 yards to 403.5 in 2020. Yards per play is up from 5.4 to 5.7 and scoring is up more than two points — from 26 points per game to 28.9.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that college football has changed dramatically in the last 10, 12 years,” Saban said this week.
“I think the advent of the spread, RPOs, blocking downfield when passes are caught behind the line of scrimmage, all those things have dramatically changed the style of play offensively, and that affects every part of the game.
“You have to defend how you pick players to play certain positions because the game is so much more a perimeter game now than it used to be, and what your scheme is to defend those kinds of changes has been pretty dramatic.”
Though the Tide’s defense is more forgiving now than it was then, it still is in the upper tier of the sport. It’s fifth nationally in points allowed (19) and yards allowed per play (5) and 17th nationally in yards allowed per game (353.2).
In other words, despite the yardage totals, it usually get the stops it needs.
While good, Alabama’s defense has been frustrated at times this season. Two games stand out: Oct. 10 vs. Ole Miss and the SEC championship game vs. Florida.
The 48 points the Rebels scored is tied with Auburn for the most any team has scored against Alabama in the Saban era. Ole Miss’ 647 yards were the most the Crimson Tide has ever allowed. Saban and linebacker Dylan Moses opined that night whether Rebels coach and former Saban assistant Lane Kiffin knew their signals, something Kiffin later denied.
This week, Saban and Golding attributed the struggles to myriad factors.
“They had 250 yards after contact,” Golding said. “That’s tough to win at any level when you do that. … I think we had 28 mental errors in that game, as well.”
Said Saban, citing four of five new starters in the secondary and three freshmen on defense: “The knowledge and experience that we had was probably not what we needed to be able to make the adaptations and adjustments in game and also in preparation.”
Florida’s 46-point outburst in the SEC title game was the second most a Saban-coached Alabama defense has allowed. Golding lamented Alabama’s third-down performance (the Gators converted 8 of 11 opportunities) there, and emphasized that the Tide must be better against Ohio State — an offense that is more explosive than both teams against which Alabama struggled.
Mental errors must be “small in number,” run fits must be sound and the Tide must “tackle in space,” Golding said.
“You can’t give these guys those plays,” Golding said of the Buckeyes. “They’re going to make enough contested plays because they’ve got a lot of really good players.”
For all the hand-wringing about those performances, Alabama’s defense the past two months has been good. The Tide has allowed 17 points or fewer, below 300 passing yards and less than five yards per play in seven of their past eight games. In the College Football Playoff semifinal against Notre Dame, Alabama allowed only 14 points and 4.7 yards per play, though it was not as good as Golding would like on third downs (8-of-16).
The team attributes added game experience to the improvement.
“We learned from experience what we need to do,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “We’ve gotten better each and every week flying around to the ball, making adjustments and learning from past games where we struggled.”
Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson agreed.
“The Ole Miss game was early, and … I think Alabama has gotten better because they’ve been able to play [more games],” he said. “They’re a great defense with talent, length. They’re going to make it unbelievably challenging.”
Ohio State will be Alabama’s stiffest challenge to date.
The Buckeyes are the highest-scoring team Alabama will have faced (43.4 points per game), and they’ve rushed for more than 200 yards in each of their seven games this season, tied for the longest active FBS streak.
Sermon has powered the running game recently, averaging 212 yards and 9.1 yards per carry in the Buckeyes’ past three contests.
Fields, a true dual-threat quarterback — the type of which has given Saban’s defenses issues in the past — is among the nation’s best. And Olave and Wilson provide him an uber-talented receiving duo. Olave has five touchdown catches on throws of 25 or more air yards this season, tied for the most in the Power 5. Surtain said Olave’s speed is a challenge: “He creates separation fast at the top of his routes. … He also is very patient and fluid with his route-running.”
Because of the Buckeyes’ firepower, Golding feels turnovers will be key.
“Ohio State’s averaging 43 [points] — and when they don’t, that’s because they’ve turned the ball over,” Golding said. “It’s not because people stopped them, it’s because they made a mistake. … So I think that’s a critical piece to this game.”
Clemson, which is in a similar talent stratosphere to Alabama, was dominated by the Buckeyes. Ohio State averaged a whopping 8.9 yards per play and finished with 639 total in their 49-28 win. Ohio State turned the ball over only once.
But the Buckeyes said this Alabama defense looks the part on video.
“They’re the type of group that never makes a mistake in terms of what gap they’re supposed to be in,” Ohio State center Josh Myers said. “If they’re on a blitz, no one messes up. … I’ve been watching a bunch of film on them, and I don’t think I’ve seen it one time.”
Said Kevin Wilson: “[Our offensive line is] going to get their strongest test Monday night with Alabama’s front because they’re the best we’ve seen.”
Saban and Golding lauded Day’s play-calling acumen, and Golding said the mix of formations and tempos makes the Buckeyes a challenge.
“He does a really nice job of manipulating things by formation,” Golding said. “They do a lot of different things out of the same personnel grouping.”
As Alabama’s defense changed with college football, so did its offense. The Tide is the nation’s second-highest-scoring team (48.2 points per game), and its transformation into an explosive unit has made it such that Saban’s defense no longer is asked to shut teams down. Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith will likely do their part Monday.
Still, the Tide defense has a stiff challenge ahead. If it’s to slow down Ohio State on Monday, it will come down to several key factors, Golding said: tackling well in space, forcing the Buckeyes into obvious passing downs, executing on third downs and creating turnovers.
Regardless of the yardage, Alabama must simply get stops.
“The key thing is the great teams do what it takes to win every week, and that’s what their defense does,” Kevin Wilson said. “And that’s what Coach Saban has done as well as anyone that’s ever coached the game of football.”