Sugar Bowl 2014: Alabama's Defense Is Who We Thought They Were

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02:  Jalen Saunders #8 of the Oklahoma Sooners scores a touchdown over Ha Ha Clinton-Dix #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 2, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Many are calling Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma a shocker, and rightfully so. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma's quarterback, played great football, hitting his spots down the field in a way that he has not shown in game action all season.

However, what should not have surprised people was that a quarterback capable of hitting his spots would decimate this season's Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide defense that showed up for the Sugar Bowl was the exact same unit that showed up all season.

In the battle of the numbers versus the game film, two wildly different pictures of the Alabama defense were revealed. The numbers showed an efficient, suffocating defense that, entering the Oklahoma game, had only one poor effort to its credit, against college football's biggest star: Johnny Manziel. For the numbers side of things, Manziel was merely an anomaly, something that no one would duplicate, and that said more about Johnny Football than Alabama's defense.

Jackson was one of many guys tried at corner
Jackson was one of many guys tried at cornerStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

For the film folks, the Texas A&M game was simply the start of the revealing process, as the Crimson Tide cycled through players at the cornerback spot opposite Deion Belue. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve all got a go at the spot, and no one truly stuck at the position.

It was a very real area of vulnerability for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. The coaches looked for an answer, and through 12 games, there was no clear resolution. That uncertainty showed itself again in game 13.

Although it is just one player, at one position, the entire defensive system of the Crimson Tide suffers from missing a part. Saban's approach is predicated on each piece playing its own role, and when pieces have to start compensating for a missing, or unreliable, spot, the system breaks down.


And that's what this entire season was about for the Alabama defense.

A lack of faith in the cornerback position led to safeties needing to help compensate. When Vinnie Sunseri went down with a knee injury, the brains of the secondary went down with him, and as Landon Collins physically filled his shoes, the traffic direction in the back end was lost. Sub-par corner play with youthful inexperience at safety working to cover that hole yielded a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, for Alabama, very few teams on the schedule were capable of cooking up that recipe to truly serve trouble up for the Crimson Tide. That, largely, was a function of the schedule. Bo Wallace at Ole Miss was not a good enough quarterback to make it happen. LSU's Zach Mettenberger hit some spots, but the LSU defense could not keep them in the game for 60 minutes. Auburn noticed the weakness, and as Alabama was forced to protect it's corners with safety help, the Tigers gashed the under-manned run defense.

The rest of the schedule was simply a non-threat through the air. Thus, the numbers looked good, but the reality is Alabama only played two quarterbacks capable of exploiting its glaring weakness. At least until the Sugar Bowl happened, where Knight picked apart the struggling Alabama pass defense and reminded the nation that the Crimson Tide was far from invincible.

For Nick Saban and Co., this offseason will be about finding some answers on defense. Jackson played well in spots but has to stay healthy, and stay on the field, to be the next quality Alabama corner. Saban has to find his Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie type players out of the group he has, and the kids he's looking to bring to campus for 2014.

Knight was the surprise of the Sugar Bowl, not Alabama's vulnerable pass defense
Knight was the surprise of the Sugar Bowl, not Alabama's vulnerable pass defenseSean Gardner/Getty Images

Trevor Knight and Oklahoma deserve every manner of praise for executing at a level the Sooners had not reached for the entire 2013 regular season. They saw the weaknesses in Alabama that showed all season, and Bob Stoops' team took advantage of them.