A proud product of the state that now wishes to beat him silly, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joked last week about how Alabama obviously is the smartest place on the map.
“Four A’s and a B,” he noted, giving it a report card second to none.
One problem, though. The fact that there is no “D” in Alabama represents a gross miscarriage in the grading.
Defense has been the signature of Alabama in the Nick Saban Era, the might behind his dynastic run of three national titles in six years. When it failed — as in last year’s 42-35 semifinal loss to Ohio State — he failed epically. When it was at its best, he was untouchable.
And Alabama defense figures to be at the fore in Monday night’s national championship game against Clemson. When carving up the key match-ups to that one, the nation’s best scoring and rushing defense vs. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson-led attack would seem to be a most choice morsel.
This is a defense entering its final game with long-time coordinator Kirby Smart a day away from departing for another assignment in Athens. Various heady accolades swirl above it, all in need of being verified. This unit would seem to have more than the usual amount of incentive behind it.
Certainly, the reviews have been boffo.
“One of the best defenses I’ve ever seen…I’d take this defense against any offense that has ever played college football.” — SEC Network analyst and former All American defensive lineman Marcus Spears.
“As good a defense as I’ve ever seen.” — fellow network analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy.
“Really a tough, tough group.” — Swinney.
When attempting to provide this group some all-time perspective, the Clemson coach has a useful background. Swinney was a receiver on the 1992 championship Crimson Tide team that provided three defenders to the first round of the ’93 NFL draft (linemen John Copeland and Eric Curry and safety George Teague).
“I mean, statistically, that ‘92 team was about No. 1 in everything. This group here, I think they’re No. 2 in total defense, but about No. 1 in everything else. They’re a dominant group just like that group was.”
A few numbers to weigh in support of any and all outlandish claims for the 2015 edition: Alabama leads the college world in points allowed (13.4 per game) and sacks (50) and rushing yards per game (74). It’s second in total defense and 31st in pass defense. Almost criminal has been its performance lately — it shut out an out-classed Michigan State a week ago and has allowed but 40 points in its last five games.
Clemson presents the challenge of a highly elusive/multi-dimensional quarterback (Watson) along with a quick-tempo offense capable of giving the Crimson Tide some nasty flashbacks. (See Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Cardele Jones).
“They’re explosive at every position,” Alabama defensive back Cyrus Jones said of Clemson. “Good running back, good receivers and a Heisman candidate for a quarterback. They’ve got players all over the field and they use that to their advantage.”
Alabama counters with such a profusion of large and angry talent — especially along the front — that it gives coaches the ability to continually run players in and out of the game, deploying them like interchangeable Legos without fear of a drop-off. The group that was gassed and then gashed by Ohio State a year ago now has layers of players who all seem built like dump trucks and run like Ferraris.
What separates this defense from any of the seven others Smart coordinated at ‘Bama is that, “We’ve never had one this deep,” he said.
In his last Crimson Tide hurrah, Smart has been gifted with a roster that may include as many as four first-round picks in the next NFL draft: linemen A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen along with linebacker Reggie Ragland. If that has given him any second thoughts about leaving for the Georgia head coaching job, he has yet to express them.
What Smart seems to like most about his group of roughnecks is an attitude that can turn any given practice into another “Diehard” sequel.
“They want to go live, they want to hit people. You got to almost hold them back; you don’t want them to injure a scout team player or injure themselves. But they’re not worried about that,” Smart said.
Rather than creating cracks within the locker room, the competition for playing time has spawned an unusual closeness, the coordinator said. And Smart’s fondness for the unit has only grown as the opposing offenses have vanished into insignificance this last month.
“I’m not saying it’s the most talented or most productive (of his defenses at Alabama) — it’s certainly close,” Smart said.
“This group is unique because they love each other so much. They’re so competitive, they get along so well, there’s really no bad apples in the bunch and they’re fun to coach.”
It follows that they are all driven to part on good terms Monday night.
Proven, however, is that there are no guarantees in this situation. Georgia’s last head coach also was a coordinator (offensive) for a high-power program involved in one last championship game before leaving for Athens. In Mark Richt’s final game with Florida State at the start of 2001, his offense was non-existent in a 13-2 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Given the tools at his command, Smart has some reason to hope for better — perhaps even one ultimate drop-the-mike moment before moving on to some very pressing business at Georgia.