With Alabama's dominating defensive performance Saturday in a 35-7 win over phenom quarterback Ryan Mallet and his Arkansas team, the whispered comparisons between the 2009 Alabama defense and the legendary 1992 unit have become a popular topic of conversation around these parts.
Not only do I find the comparison very premature, I consider the idea unfair to this year's defense.
Alabama's defensive statistics from the 1992 National Championship year are gaudy, to say the least. The defense led the nation in the following: scoring defense, rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and total yards allowed. These statistics were accumulated while carrying an offense that, at best, was average, and at worst, inept.
They won many games with points scored from the defensive side of the ball, and capped the season with a suffocating performance against Miami and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta.
I will be the first to admit that this year's defense has exceeded even the highest of expectations, at least so far. In an opening game against a very solid Virginia Tech team, the defense kept Alabama in the game while the offense worked out the early kinks.
In the second half of that game, notwithstanding the lone drive managed by Tech for a late touchdown, the defense was dominating. In the end, the scoreboard read 34-24 in favor of Alabama.
In case you were wondering, the most points given up by the '92 team in a single game? 22.
This year's unit was solid against two mediocre opponents before matching up with Arkansas in a game that was billed to be a shootout. The offensive fireworks were not to be, however, as Alabama held the heralded Mallet to just 12 completions on 35 attempts.
The game Saturday has brought Alabama's defense to the forefront of national conversation, and reminded the Crimson Tide faithful of the Gene Stallings/Bill Oliver-directed championship defense of 1992.
Here is why I think the idea, while flattering, borders on being ridiculous.
*At defensive end, the '92 defense possessed two of Alabama's all-time best pass-rushing defensive ends in Eric Curry and John Copeland. Dubbed "the bookends" by the media, Curry and Copeland harrassed quarterbacks throughout the year, allowing Alabama to play nickel and dime coverages without sacrificing quarterback pressure.
The defensive scheme has certainly changed, and Alabama employs a 3-4 defensive setup now. Terrence Cody anchors the middle and provides at least one spot in which the '09 defense holds a slight advantage. Lorenzo Washington, Marcell Dareus, and Brandon Deaderick are, without question, servicable ends. There is a huge gap, at least for now, between that group and Curry and Copeland.
*At linebacker, the 1992 National Champs rotated an incredibly talented group including Lemanski Hall, Michael Rogers, Antonio London, and Derrick Oden. What this unit lacked in "standouts", it made up for in depth. The rotation relied heavily on speed, and while they were not the best tacklers the school had ever seen, the group ran to the football as well as any and were above-average in coverage.
This year, the linebacking corps is the heart and soul of the defense. While Dont'e Hightower will be incredibly difficult to replace, Alabama still has the advantage of having arguably the best linebacker in the nation in Rolando McLain. Eryk Anders, Cory Reamer, and Courtney Upshaw are very skilled complimentary contributors. Alabama will need help from a handful of prized newcomers to fill the hole left by Hightower.
Time will tell, but at full strenth I consider this year's linebackers to have the potential to compare with the '92 group.
*The Grand Canyon-sized divide between the '09 defense and the '92 defense comes in the secondary. In 1992, Alabama employed what is arguably the greatest defensive backfield in college football history. The four starters alone would eventually account for almost 30 years of service in the NFL.
At cornerback, all Alabama had to offer back then was the All-American tandem of George Teague and Antonio Langham. Most teams are fortunate to possess just one "lockdown" corner. Alabama had two, and I'm not sure "lockdown" is a strong enough word to describe Teague and Langham.
While Teague will always hold a place in Alabama football lore with the nail-in-the-coffin "pick-six" off of Gino Torretta to seal the championship and the jaw-dropping rundown and strip of Lamar Thomas to save a touchdown, Antonio Langham was the hero among heroes during the championship run.
-Against Mississippi State in Starkville in late November, Alabama was losing a tight game in the second half. The offense had provided almost nothing, and with the defense forcing yet another three and out, Langham tore through the line, blocked a punt, recovered the ball, and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
-At Legion Field against Auburn, the teams had battled to a scorless tie at halftime. With Auburn driving near midfield in the third quarter, Langham stepped in front of a Stan White pass, and returned it for the go-ahead touchdown.
-Against Florida in the first SEC Championship Game, again the score was tied, with time winding down in the fourth quarter. Langham correctly read a slant pass from Shane Matthews, intercepted it, and took it in for his third go-ahead touchdown in as many games.
-Against Miami, I can only recall one ball thrown Langham's way (he batted it down).
Along with Teague and Langham, Alabama had safety help in the form of Sam Shade. Shade possessed arguably the best ball skills of any safety to play at Alabama, and systematically elimated any deep threat from opposing teams. Chris Donnelly didn't draw the headlines of the others, but was as dependable as they came.
Now, with all of that being said, I am beyond impressed with this year's secondary. Javier Arenas has grown into a very dependable corner, and Kareem Jackson seems to be his equal. Mark Barron is developing into a head-hunting safety and Justin Woodall has handled the duties vacated by All-American Rashad Johnson quietly, but very well.
I believe the secondary as it stands is among the best in the SEC. I'm not ready to rank them with the nation's elite on the strength of their performance against Arkansas alone, but I am considering it more and more after every game.
Recently, a certain sports-talk radio host in Birmingham asked former Alabama coach Gene Stallings how he thought this year's defense compared with his masterpiece of 1992. Stallings answered with a chuckle. "If they can finish the year and lead the nation in four major statistical categories, then we can start to talk about it", Stallings said.
In other words, let the '09 defense write its own history.
But, if you like comparisons that favor this year's team, try stacking up the offense from 1992 against this year's offense. I don't believe you will find an argument from anyone on that subject. And that may well be the fact that has this team playing for Alabama's first big ring in 17 years.