Time for Alabama defense to regroup after shaky outings

When discussions turn toward dominating defense in college football, it usually heads in the direction of the Southeastern Conference.

And no one in the SEC has had a better defense than Alabama during the past five seasons.

Since 2008, the Crimson Tide has been ranked among the top five in total defense among all NCAA schools.

For the second year in a row, Alabama’s defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense as the Tide is giving up an average of 246 yards per game and 4.09 yards per play.

Alabama ended the regular season ranked second in scoring defense, giving up 10.69 points per game. Notre Dame, the Tide’s opponent in Monday’s BCS title game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, ranked No. 1 at 10.33 points.

The Crimson Tide ended up having the top-ranked rushing defense; its passing defense was ranked fourth.

And this was after having six players — including first-round picks Mark Barron (seventh, Tampa Bay), corner Dre Fitzpatrick (17th, Cincinnati) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (25th, New England) — taken in the 2012 NFL Draft.

“This group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I’ve been at Alabama because of the expectations,” said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who was the Miami Dolphins safeties coach in 2006 under Nick Saban.

“I never was worried about their competitive character. Sure, we lost some good players. Coming over here I guess it was four or five draft picks, whatever it was, last year we lost off that team. But we had a lot of good players behind those guys, and this group to me had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people didn’t think they’d be good.”

The Crimson Tide’s dominating defensive play drew howls for “boring football” when then-No. 1 LSU beat the Tide 9-6 during last season. Alabama then shut out the Tigers 21-0 in the rematch at the Superdome for the national title.

Alabama hasn’t given up a 30-point game in 32 consecutive games — a streak dating to a loss to South Carolina in 2009. Since then, the Tide has given up 20-plus points in just five games.

Two of those games have come recently.

In its previous two big games — not counting Alabama’s shellacking of Iron Bowl rival Auburn — Alabama fell behind by double-digits in a loss to Texas A&M and a close shave against Georgia in the SEC title game.

The Aggies handed then-No. 1 Alabama its first loss 29-24 on Nov. 10 when Johnny Manziel jumped onto the Heisman stage by accounting for 345 yards and tossing two touchdowns in the upset victory.

“They had it 21-0 in the first quarter, got a couple short fields,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said of the Aggies.

“The other thing that they did is in key third-down situations, they had more success against Alabama than probably anyone else. They made some huge catches right at the sticks and found some ways to get first downs. And then they made some plays in the fourth quarter.

“I don’t anticipate being up 21-0 the first quarter. But that would be absolutely nice if that would ever happen.”

Alabama’s defense responded by pitching shutouts in wins against Western Carolina and Auburn in successive weeks, but Georgia scored 28 and came within a few yards of pulling the upset and heading to Miami itself.

“We haven’t played great all the time, but we’ve played with great competitive character,” Smart said.

“They have competed hard. We’ve been behind at LSU. We’ve been behind against Georgia. We lost to Texas A&M, but we were behind in that game and fought back. So every time these defensive guys have been challenged, they’ve responded.”

Related stories from Miami Herald