Alabama has had the stingiest defense in the country during the past five years, but it didn’t play up to its standard in a 34-28 loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale.
The Crimson Tide defense has allowed just 86 touchdowns in the past 66 games, by far the fewest in the country. (LSU is second with 122.)
This year, Alabama ranks second in the country in scoring defense, third in total defense, fourth in pass defense and 11th in rushing defense.
But against Auburn, the Tide allowed a season-high 296 rushing yards. And the 34 points and 393 total yards were surpassed only by the 42 points and 628 yards accumulated by Texas A&M in a shootout in the second week of the season.
So the Bama defense is determined to redeem itself against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We didn’t play our best that game,” Tide cornerback Deion Belue said Monday. “We’re just ready to get back out there and prove ourselves all over again to show that we’re still the best defense.”
Several Bama defenders said they’re looking forward to the challenge of the Sooners’ attack, which features a read-option similar to that of the Tigers.
“Auburn was just a bad game for us,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “It’s a similar offense, so we have a chance to go out and show that we can actually play against that offense.”
The Tigers’ success on the ground was particularly bothersome to the Tide because, as DePriest put it, “We’re built on stopping the run first.”
The Bama defense is built around senior C.J. Mosley, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Mosley is fourth on Bama’s career tackles list with 313 and needs 15 Thursday to break Wayne Davis’ school record.
“A lot of people say that the linebackers find the ball, but it seems like with C.J., the ball finds him because he’s always there, makes a lot of plays,” said Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who talked about the versatility of Mosley, who’s also a coverage teams stalwart.
“I may not ever coach another guy quite like him, because he’s so athletic,” Smart said. “He allows you to do more things defensively. And you can put him in tough situations, and he seems to play himself out of them.”
Mosley said doing a better job defending the run than the Tide did against Auburn will be paramount Thursday.
“Whoever wins that battle in the trenches is pretty much going to win the game,” he said.
Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said this defense is no different than any of the six previous ones under Saban.
“We pride ourselves in stopping the run and being the most physical team,” he said. “Those are a couple of things that will never change.”
Change, though, has been all too frequent at cornerback for the Tide this season. Belue has been steady despite missing two games and being slowed in several others by nagging injuries.
But, “opposite him,” Smart said, “it’s been musical chairs.”
John Fulton, Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve (who’s from Port Sulphur) and Cyrus Jones have all started multiple games; Jones is listed atop the depth chart.
“We’re not used to that,” Smart said of the lack of stability. “We’ve kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we’ve had, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner.
“It hasn’t been that way this year. Some of that has been because of injury. We’ve not gotten the consistency we want out of that position, and we don’t have the depth that we’ve had in the past. So it’s been a struggle.”
But Pagan said he expects the defense to look like its customary self against the Sooners.
“We feel like we have something to prove because we didn’t play our best game our last game,” he said. “So we’re really coming out with the mindset that we have something to prove and show people that that’s not how Alabama is going to finish.”