By Ryan Aber
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Defense has been the cornerstone of Alabama’s dynasty in college football under Nick Saban.
Players like Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Mark Barron, Landon Collins, Reggie Ragland and Minkah Fitzpatrick have made the Crimson Tide’s defense the stingiest in the SEC over the last decade-plus.
This year, though, with the way Saban has revamped the offense — with the help of Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback — the defense has become almost an afterthought coming into Saturday’s Orange Bowl against Oklahoma (7 p.m., ESPN).
But Alabama’s defense still has plenty of teeth — a unanimous All-American at defensive tackle in Quinnen Williams, a consensus All-American at safety in Deionte Thompson, an overall unit that had two shutouts and two more games where the opponent scored just a single touchdown.
“They haven’t been very vulnerable. Every game you turn on is about 50-10,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said before running down each level of the Crimson Tide’s defense. “They’re strong up front as they’ve traditionally been. The D-tackle, 92 (Williams), he’s phenomenal — an elite player who’s had an elite year. As good as we’ve played without a doubt.”
He went on to praise Alabama’s linebackers as being experienced and able to make plays all over the field, and the secondary as being a young group full of size and skill.
Receiver CeeDee Lamb said the secondary popped out to him on film as the Sooners have prepared.
“They’re more aggressive and they trust each other’s going to get the job done, which is a sign of a good DB corps,” Lamb said. “They’re going to be up to the task. They trust each other and hope everyone can win one-on-one battles.”
Oklahoma has played plenty of high-caliber defenses recently — Georgia and Ohio State last year, the Buckeyes in 2016, Clemson the year before that.
“They’re as good as any defense we’ve played in the four years we’ve been here,” Riley said.
Each of the three previous seasons, the Crimson Tide have finished in the top three in both scoring defense and total defense. Since Saban’s second season at Alabama in 2008, the Crimson Tide have been in the top eight in scoring defense and the top 12 in total defense each year — and only the 2014 defense was lower than fifth in that metric.
This season so far, Alabama is No. 4 in scoring defense and No. 10 in total defense.
But advanced metrics favor the Crimson Tide even more. Alabama is No. 3 in defensive efficiency according to FootballOutsiders.com and No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which accounts for strength of schedule in its formula.
“They play as a whole unit — one unit at once,” Lamb said. “They do a lot of things right, honestly. You can tell they’ve been coached to do a lot of things fundamentally and do a lot of small things right. They can make a play on the ball.”