TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Nick Saban goes through an exhausting checklist when discussing what it takes to have the nation’s best defense.
The Alabama coach starts with some of the basics: being physical, playing with toughness, good tackling. He moves on to having a secondary that knows how to attack the ball. Then, his voice rising and really getting on a roll, he rips off stopping the run, avoiding big plays, limiting third-down conversions and playing well in the red zone. Finally, he talks about forcing a lot of turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback.
“If you do those things, you become hard to score on, and that’s the number one goal when you play defense,” Saban said. “How many points did you give up?”
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Top-ranked Alabama (14-0) comes into the national championship game against Clemson having allowed fewer points (11.4 per game) and total yards (244.0) than any team in the country.
Of course, that’s nothing new in Tuscaloosa. Defense is unquestionably the hallmark of what’s shaping up as the greatest dynasty in college football history, a run that puts Saban and the Crimson Tide on the brink of their fifth national title in eight years.
Going back to the 2008 season, which is when this run of dominance really began, Alabama has led the nation in total defense three times and ranked lower than fifth only once (back in 2014, when they plummeted all the way to 12th). When it comes to points, the category that really matters, the Tide has been the nation’s stingiest team three times and never dipped below sixth.
Maybe that’s why Saban acted like it was no big deal to bring in a new offensive coordinator a week before the biggest game of the season.
Hard to imagine any other coach feeling confident enough to make such a bold move.
“Defense, man,” said former Alabama star Julio Jones, now an All-Pro receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. “He just puts the offense out there to kind of maintain the game.”
Alabama’s defensive dominance starts on recruiting day, of course.
Saban usually has better players than everyone else, an advantage he readily acknowledges.
“I never remember coaching a bad player to play good,” he said. “It’s just trying to take the good players that you have and trying to develop them to be the best players that they can be and understand the scheme and understand the system, understand the importance of playing with togetherness and everybody doing their job.”
Among the defensive players signed by Saban, nine have gone on to be first-round picks in the NFL draft, seven were selected in the second round, and nine more went in the later rounds.
That is an astonishing amount of talent at one school, much less on one side of the line.
The 2017 draft figures to keep the theme going, with defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and linebackers Reuben Foster and Tim Williams all projected as possible first-round draft picks.
Saban, of course, knows what to do with all that talent.
“What you notice as an offensive coach is they make you earn every yard that you get,” said Jeff Scott, the co-offensive coordinator at Clemson. “Every single catch is contested with a guy on their back. It’s just the receiver ended up making a great play over that defensive back. There’s no easy layups.”
But the thing that really makes this defense stand out, even more than the ones that came before at Alabama, is its knack for scoring off turnovers . The Tide defenders have gotten to the end zone 11 times, which in addition to four more TDs from the special teams has created a whole new term in the football lexicon.
NOTs, a.k.a. Non-Offensive Touchdowns.
“First and foremost, we can’t let them score on defense or special teams,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “If they do that, you’re probably getting beat.”
Former Texas coach Mack Brown, who lost to Alabama in the BCS championship game during the 2009 season, chuckled at the seemingly ludicrous idea of being most concerned about not giving up points to the other team’s defense.
But he knows where Swinney is coming from.
“They are so conscious of the ball,” said Brown, now an analyst for ESPN. “They strip the ball, they punch the ball out, they hit the ball with their helmets. They’re so excited about tipped balls because they know that becomes turnovers. I’ve never seen a defense in my 42 years of coaching that was so opportunistic.”
Saban also knows how to adapt with the times. While much has been made of him opening up the Alabama offense, he also crafted a defense that is better able to handle the spreads and run-pass options in today’s game.
This group is a bit leaner, a bit quicker, a lot more suited to play the game in space.
“When we played them in ’09, they had (350-pound Terrence) Cody, they had some guys who couldn’t misdirect, couldn’t handle the quick screens. They were built to handle SEC power football,” Brown recalled. “They’re still big, but they’re faster.”
If there’s any team that can move the ball on these guys, it’s Clemson.
Led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers have plenty of offensive weapons and no shortage of confidence after putting up 40 points on the Tide in last year’s championship game.
Then again, Alabama’s defense feels like it has something to prove after that performance.
“We’re still writing our legacy,” Allen said.
What do they want that legacy to be?
“To be the best ever.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
For more AP college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org