TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a comment that didn’t just get the attention of fans but his teammates as well, which was why University of Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said it during the Southeastern Conference’s media days last July.
“Guys aren’t scared to play us anymore,” he said. “Guys come in very happy, excited to play us. I used to see teams break down in the first half and just give up playing, so we've got to get that back.
“We have to get that back.”
For the most part, Alabama did that during the 2015 season, although the numbers may not have been what Ragland and head coach Nick Saban had wanted. The Crimson Tide led the nation in rushing defense and sacks, which is an extremely difficult and impressive tandem to pull off, but the other numbers fell off a little bit at the end.
Specifically, after pulling off the 38-0 shutout against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, it struggled somewhat against Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
A lot of that obviously had to do with Deshaun Watson, who was outstanding, but with two late touchdowns, the Tigers finished with 550 yards of total offense (405 in the air).
“We thought, to be honest with you, that we could do a better job against their quarterback than what we did,” Saban said. “He did a fantastic job in the game. We didn't cover as well as we're capable of, and we weren't able to handle him up front with our rushers, and I think they had 80-some plays, and we got tired probably in the second quarter. Once that happened, it was even worse.
“You know, we like to play more man-to-man [coverage], but when you play against such an athletic quarterback and you're playing man-to-man, nobody is looking at the quarterback so that makes it tough, and when we did play zone we didn't do a very good job, we didn't tackle very well, break on the ball like we needed to. He extended some plays and made some big plays, but the guy is a fantastic player.”
While that performance muddles the waters a bit on trying to define how good the 2015 Alabama defense was, consider a couple of important factors. The Crimson Tide had to play 15 games, nine of which were against ranked teams—the most of any national champion in history.
Alabama was definitely successful in improving at least two of the three areas it especially targeted during the offseason: third downs and turnovers.
After opponents converted 38 percent of their third-down plays in 2014, they only managed 29 percent this past season, which ranked seventh in the nation. Additionally, the Crimson Tide created seven more turnovers.
The third area, giving up big plays, became more of a question mark after the title game when Clemson attacked Alabama’s young secondary.
However, freshman safety Ronnie Harrison knocking away a pass in the end zone and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey catching the onside kick were arguably the difference in the 45-40 outcome.
Moreover, and we obviously won’t know the full extent of this for years, but Alabama had unparalleled depth among the front seven of players who will someday appear on National Football League rosters. Three are already poised to be first-round selections this spring: Ragland, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson.
“This one’s the most unique [group] I’ve had,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said before leaving to be the head coach at Georgia. “I’m not saying it’s the most talented or the most productive, it’s certainly close, but this group is unique because they love each other so much, they’re so competitive, they get along so well. There’s really no bad apples in the bunch and they’re fun to coach.”
Smart had said on more than one occasion that Alabama doesn’t measure its defensive success against that of other teams but other Alabama defenses, which brings us back to Ragland’s preseason declaration. He was referring to how Alabama was fourth nationally in rushing defense, sixth in scoring defense, No. 12 in total defense and 30th in pass-efficiency defense in 2014.
|Year||Rushing D||Pass Eff. D||Scoring D||Total D|
On face value, that’s pretty good, but not by the Crimson Tide’s high standards—especially since Alabama was minus-two in turnover ratio and 41st in third-down defense, its worst showing in that statistical category since Saban’s first season at the Capstone in 2007.
“Third down is all about will and want-to,” Ragland said. “It's all about effort. You just can't get to the quarterback just by going through somebody like that. You have to want to get to the quarterback. You have to do the necessary things.”
Actually, Alabama’s defensive dip wasn’t just limited to 2014 but had been ongoing since the 2011 season, when it led the nation in all four major statistical categories: rushing defense, pass-efficiency defense, scoring defense and total defense.
Only one other time since the NCAA started keeping track in 1937 has a team finished No. 1 in all four key defensive categories (Oklahoma in 1986).
Here's how the defense has performed in recent years:
- 2011: Alabama allowed just three running touchdowns—one by triple-option vs. Georgia Southern, the other two just one yard in length—and six in the air. It allowed an average of 8.15 points per game.
- 2012: The Crimson Tide yielded 10 rushing touchdowns and eight in the air. The longest rushing touchdown allowed went for 32 yards, and the longest pass play went for 71 yards (which led to a Michigan touchdown in the opener). It gave up an average of 10.9 points per game.
- 2013: Opponents scored eight rushing touchdowns compared to 13 passing. The longest rushing touchdown went for 77 yards, compared to 95 in the air. It yielded an average of 13.9 points.
- 2014: The opposition was limited to just five rushing touchdowns but passed for 19. The longest plays it yielded were for 85 yards on the ground and 68 yards on a throw. It allowed 18.4 points per game.
However, with spread no-huddle attacks, college football saw a significant spike in offensive yards and scoring during that same time period, and even Alabama’s offense started playing at a higher tempo. Not surprisingly, the defense has had to make a lot more tackles.
Even though the 2015 Crimson Tide ended up third in scoring defense, they yielded seven rushing touchdowns, 17 passing touchdowns and 15.1 points per game. Wisconsin, which Alabama ran over in its season opener, was first at 13.7.
The bottom line is that when comparing Alabama’s 2015 defense to its predecessors during the Saban era, the ones that won a national championship clearly stand out. The only unit to be in the top three nationally in run defense and total defense and not win the national title was the 2008 team, and it was close.
Will Alabama's defense be better in 2016?
So the 2015 team is clearly on the top tier of Alabama defenses—probably third in the Saban era—allowing the Crimson Tide to regain their swagger. With that said, 2011 is still in a class of its own.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.